Sam Miltich Q&A

April 20, 2020
Sam Miltich on the restorative art of gypsy jazz.

“Sometimes when I’m really in the groove I feel like I am levitating in my chair, which can be fun but also a little disorienting. It feels like an electric blue current of electricity is running through me. You get hooked on it.”

You’re a self-taught gypsy jazz guitarist. What inspired you to learn how to play?

My first exposure to the Hot Club style of music was the film “Sweet and Lowdown” by Woody Allen. In the film a fictional character named Emmet Ray was the world’s “second best jazz guitarist” or as he would put it “people say I’m the best jazz guitar player in the world … except for this gypsy in France.” Django’s music was used throughout the film. What really struck me was in the opening credits they played Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s version of “When Day is Done.” It felt like a combination of a lot of music I loved. My grandad was a swing upright bassist so as a kid my parents would play a lot of swing and jazz in the house. I really loved it. My dad’s side of the family is Croatian so I aware of the traditional tamburitza music from there, which was played by both Croats, Serbs, and Roamani (gypsy people). I began playing acoustic guitar with my uncles, and I gravitated towards acoustic bluegrass flat picking because of its virtuoso approach. But bluegrass never felt quite like it was “my music.” When I heard Django it had all of those elements, and I really gravitated towards it. In fact, became quite obsessed with it. This was about 21 years ago.

What does it feel like when you hit a rhythm while performing?

Sometimes when I’m really in the groove I feel like I am levitating in my chair, which can be fun but also a little disorienting.  I call it “being in the zone” or “playing out of your head.” Sometimes it feels like an electric blue current of electricity is running through me. You get kind of hooked on it … like a drug but way more positive results.

You were raised and continue to live in Grand Rapids. Have you ever felt compelled to head to New York or New Orleans and be around a larger community of players?

There was a time when I spent a lot of time sleeping on couches between San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Duluth, along with a pretty busy national touring circuit, so I wasn’t really in Grand Rapids much, though that was my official address. I really love family connection, as well as being an avid outdoorsman. I love to hunt deer, ducks, grouse, fish, garden and canoe. I always felt like I needed to, and wanted to maintain an identity outside of music. I knew that the outdoors was such a huge part of who I was that I couldn’t ignore that. I like the elements of art and culture in urban areas, but I would say I dislike urban areas.  They hold things I value, but on a whole they don’t appeal to me. I need a lot of wild countryside around me to feel good about life. By the time I was 22 or so I had seen enough of the world to know that where I grew up was a wonderful place and where I wanted to be. All that said, my wife and her family are from up here as well. After we met I moved to St. Paul for a brief period, about a year, but after that we moved back home to be close to family and to start our own family. I have schizophrenia, and having familial support has been a huge part of my recovery.

You speak about your mental health and use your music to advocate for awareness. Why is this important to you?

I see it as an issue of social justice and civil rights. People with mental illness have been and continue to be discriminated against. I include myself in this. After living with that sting of stigma and discrimination I essentially had enough and decided I was going to do something to try and change that. So my work has had a large element of mental health advocacy in the past number of years.

Do you feel that music is therapeutic to you? Do you feel healthier when you play? 

Absolutely, yes. It’s been a huge part of my recovery and an antidote to many of the ills that have plagued me. Playing music is recovery in action.

You talk about the improvised life in your advocacy work. What does that phrase mean to you?

Honestly, if you don’t bend you break. Recovery is not a linear path. It requires different approaches at different times and a level of improvisation. As a jazz musician you take a lot of elements from different places and all of those elements help drive the improvisation. You could say the mental illness was one of those elements that drives the improvisation that is our lives. It’s a terrible thing to have a mental illness, but you can take that struggle and turn it into something beautiful. It’s the old cliché of our limitations sometimes defining the art we create.

You must get a lot of questions about Django Reinhardt since he’s the pre-eminent gypsy guitarist. But you also talk of loving Thelonious Monk. What is it about Monk’s music that fascinates you?

I love Monk. In recent years I haven’t really focused all that much on Django’s work. I still love it, but it’s no longer my primary focus. In recent years Monk’s music has been a very influential piece of the musical puzzle. I really related to Monk’s story as he struggled with mental health issues his entire life. I was really inspired that in spite of his struggles Monk created some of the world’s greatest art. I find his music to be both traditional and modern at once. It seems both angular and melodic. It is lush, but it also swings like crazy. I love the juxtaposition and contrast that is all contained within his music.

How important is structure to your life and your creativity?

I need a structure … but one that is flexible. Sort of a contradiction, but not really. Two things that simultaneously exist.

What’s next for you?

I hope to be doing more writing. I have been performing more of my original music lately. I had a very scary thing occur; I lost basically all the hearing in my left ear last winter, overnight. A virus caused inflammation and I lost most of my hearing. So crazy to say as a musician but I am now unilaterally deaf. It was really horrible and it’s been a year-long struggle to get back into music. Thankfully I am finding my way back into it. But honestly I have had to relearn how to hear. Nothing made sense at first. When it first happened I thought I had had a stroke. I haven’t been able to thrive creatively because I have had to focus on the neuroplasticity piece and adapt to life as a musician with one ear. Occupational therapy has really helped this. I bring this up because I have been influenced by both Chris Potter and David Torn who are both unilaterally deaf in one ear. Torn’s music knocks me out, and this is quite a departure from what I have done, but I am exploring the use of pedals, something which Torn is a master of. All I have used is some distortion and delay, and I am a total novice. But it’s been fun to experiment with it. I’m not quite ready to use this in public yet but I hope to get there. I want to find an integrated approach of how to use those elements to influence my current style and influences. I guess my music has slowed down a bit as I am approaching my mid-thirties. Partly by choice, partly by just the aging affect, which I think for someone on anti-psychotics comes quicker. This might sound sad or morbid but I don’t see it that way. I’m embracing where I am at in life, and just allowing that to drive the art. I used to be all about flash bang boom, fast guitar playing, but I really don’t play that way anymore, or desire to. I am more concerned with groove than tempo, and ideas and concepts over notes. So that’s where things are at, and in a weird way, I’m happy about it. It’s natural.

— Photo by Jeff Peabody