Profiles in Pan: Tom Miller
By Ruth Parsons
When Tom Miller was 15 years old, he heard a recording by the band Chicago called Rainy Day in New York City. An instrument in it caught his ear. A trained percussionist since he was 12, he investigated the sound and found it was a steel drum. The sound remained in his head.
As a sophomore percussion student at the University of Akron, he was surprised and delighted to hear Dr. Larry Snider in the music department was starting a steel drum band. Acquiring pans from Cliff Alexis, the group developed and began to play in the university and community. Tom’s first instrument was the triple cello.
In search of music from Trinidad, he found an album produced by National Geographic with two steel drum tunes on it Play Mas and Queen of the Bands. Trinidad’s Starlift Steel Orchestra played both. He transcribed the tunes for his steel band. Ray Holman, an internationally known steel drum artist, was the arranger. As fate would have it, Holman would become one of Tom’s great friends, influences, and colleagues throughout his music career.
Tommy, “the Persistent”
After college, he moved from Ohio to Los Angeles where there was more ethnic and world music. LA proved to be a time of major development and accomplishment for Tom. He met Brian Paris, a Trinidadian who introduced him to the LA steel band community, which included Robbie Greenidge, Vince Charles and Desperados’ pan side.
Tom was hooked by the music. He followed Greenidge around to his performances, hanging out and talking with him at breaks and edging his way into Greenidge’s music world. He went wherever Greenidge was playing including East LA’s Compton, a questionable site for a young boy from Ohio. He won the battle. His extraordinary talent won him entry and he was invited to play with Greenidge in various venues including Desperados.
Tom met Andy and Jeff Narell in Ohio and met up with them again in LA. He formed relationships with them and persisted in getting into their music world as well. He was greatly influenced by the Narell brothers and eventually became a collaborator and partner with them. He played and taught with them in many venues over time, becoming close friends with the whole family.
Trinidad Traditions and American Style
It was Andy Narell who kept pushing Tom to go and explore the music in Trinidad. That trip seemed like a big challenge to Tom both financially and musically at the time. Narell still encouraged him to come with him to Trinidad in 1987. It was on this trip where he met Ray Holman.
He was astounded to learn Holman had arranged those two tunes on the National Geographic record. Holman likes to tell the story of the beginning of their long-time friendship. He came across “Tommy” alone on the street in Port of Spain. After questioning him about his business, Holman took Tom home with him.
He brought Tom to the Exodus Steel Drum Orchestra, a group Holman was arranging at the time. Visiting players from the US were not a common occurrence there. He eventually persisted and demonstrated his fine talent by playing his first Panorama competition. The band’s song was Holman’s Pan Woman.
Tom coaxed Holman to write down his extraordinary music. Holman did not see the value until Tom was able to help him market and sell his music in the US. Their working partnership and close friendship has grown over the years and still flourishes. Holman is an annual guest artist in the Pan Ramajay Festival at the University of Denver held each summer. “I was very fortunate to have the Trinidad music exposure as well as the American jazz influence in steel pan,” says Tom. He believes it gave him a unique perspective and fostered his development in a significant way.
Hurdles and Joy
Tom’s greatest challenge in his career, besides supporting himself while doing what he loves, has been getting steel drum music moved from simply “party music” to concert music. It has been tough at times. He remembers convincing various venues to give steel drum concerts resulting in limited audiences, producing various CD’s that did not sell well, and in general trying to spread the appreciation of steel drum music in a place where it is common for people to have never heard or seen a steel drum.
Regarding the joy of his work he said, “The greatest joy is the community which steel drum music creates. It is truly a community activity.” He quotes one of his friends who says, “All my best friends and all my worst enemies I met through steel drums.” He is gratified by the enormous growth of steel pan in the US, especially with the increase in community bands. Those bands are made up of people who truly play for the love of the music. Tom Miller’s story in steel drum is one of initially being drawn purely by the sound, and then nourished by passion, perseverance and success. The steel drum community is most fortunate to have him.
Tom Miller is not a stranger to the steel drum community. As a performer, composer, arranger and educator, he is a well-respected and sought after artist and leader in steel drum music. He is the founder and president of Pan Ramajay Productions, which features compositions and recordings of prominent steel drum composers worldwide. He has performed worldwide with his own group Pan Ramajay as well as with masters in the field like Andy Narell, Ray Holman, Robert Greenidge, Liam Teague and Our Boys Steel Orchestra. His work is featured in many recordings and performances with Grammy award winning artists, film scores, TV commercials and computer games. He enjoys working with various University Steel Drum groups in CD production and performances. Tom has been an Adjunct Professor with the Lamont School of Music for the past eight years is the founder of the University of Denver Lamont Steel Drum Ensemble, a student group performing three concerts per year.