So you want to get to know Hazel Miller?
You had better invest some time in the process because this lady is busy –booking shows, her own and other artists’; and on her way to shows, either in town, the mountains or across state lines. You better be good at running after her, and when you catch her, someone else (maybe a musician) is going to be butting in wanting to get to her, too, if not to share a gig with her, then to engage her for their gig or their show, or to talk about someone they know who knows Hazel and said to say “Hello,” which is often just a ploy to get to her.
She is popular – just ask someone; they will say they know her. She would need an encyclopedia-sized book to record everyone who “knows” her. But that’s alright because everyone should want to know this diva.
She has been around the world performing and being a jazz and American ambassador. Her tremendous style and personable approach both to people and her music lead all to believe they know her, even when they really do not. When you do know her, you want her to be your sister, your mom, your girlfriend, your lov... I’ll leave that alone.
It’s just that her gravelly-sweet voice just takes you over and you want to just talk to her or, really, do anything she wants or needs. The voice is captivating. As you listen to her talk, you try to imagine her singing some jazz or pop favorite, and you cannot necessarily hear it in your head.
Her talent is so huge and so diverse and so intricate that you cannot tell what she is going to do with the material until she starts delivering. And when she does, all you can say is, “Wow, I hadn’t figured it that way!”
Kentucky girl done good. Yes, she is from Louisville, and she won’t even talk bad about you if you pronounce it like it is spelled rather than how it is pronounced – “Luuville,” or something like that. I can’t pronounce it “correctly” and my mother is from Kentucky, too.
When Hazel was growing up with three brothers and three sisters (she is fifth of seven), she said, “At home, everyone was aware of Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), although we didn’t really know him. We were all proud of him. He was an inspiration to young Black people and others.”
She was a good student with plenty of demonstrable musical talent. Though she never had lessons, she came by her talent honestly. Her family was Catholic and she attended Catholic schools. So, even as a young girl, she sang the High Mass and was singing other complicated Masses of all categories in Latin, along with other songs in the Catholic calendar. She was strengthening her vocal acuity and proficiency throughout all of her young life, often learning and singing all four parts, and needless to say, still knows the Masses and Christmas carols in Latin.
Her mother and father both worked, so often by herself, she would sing just to pass the time, sometimes solo and sometimes in little groups with friends. She loved watching the variety shows on television, and remembers the Nat King Cole Show and other shows presenting Black singers. She and her siblings would often stage their own variety shows: singing, dancing, and carrying on monologues. She “became addicted to” Black singers and actors such as Sidney Poitier.
“Black men in the movies gave added substance to the Black men in my life, like my father – a forklift operator who constantly had to train his new bosses,” Miller said.
Like many of us, the movies were a medium that allowed her to dream and accomplish in her head what she was bound to achieve in real life.
After excelling in her high school studies, Hazel got married at 18 and had her first son in March 1972. She soon divorced her husband; a fact not appreciated by her Catholic family and community, and continued to raise her son.
At age 20, she enrolled in the University of Louisville with a major in English. However, she became very frustrated and disillusioned during her college career about the fact that the professors presented no Black authors or Black plays in class. She saw that phenomenon as a social tool, the means by which to exclude Black students from their dreams of accomplishment, and deny them any heroes or role models. Her response was to change her major to anthropology. Hazel achieved a 4.0 grade point average into her senior year.
While riding her bike through campus one day, she heard voices singing Gospel music. She and her 3-year-old son rode throughout the campus trying to find the voices. After finding the U of L Gospel Choir, she joined immediately. She would rehearse herself while riding her bike to and from school.
After the staid classicism of Catholic Church music, Gospel was like a liberating tonic to Hazel. She immersed herself in the music, learning all the parts and performing all around the campus. She persuaded her Catholic church to invite her choir, renamed the Black Diamond Gospel Choir, to sing there.
“They started a Gospel choir at the church and it is still going strong to this day,” Miller said proudly.
Then it happened. Around 1978, she met a guy who was the man of her dreams, someone she had sung with in a band. She married him and had her second son, leaving school in the process. She never returned to complete her senior year, and did not graduate from college.
Hazel loved to listen to several sisters of song who helped her along the way, singers such as Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, and Nina Simone, to name a few. Hazel saw Etta James sing without a microphone, when James “was blonde, weighed 100 pounds, and was sexy in her fine clothes.” Hazel said then, “I am going to be like that.”
She admired the singers’ voices and styles, and the versatility with which they presented.
“I stole everything I needed from (watching and listening to) them,” she said.
She has adapted that versatility to affect the sultriness of Vaughn, the power of Aretha, and other attributes of the others. Hazel learned from those divas to “just let go; sing with power.” And while she says that she still gets stage fright, the listener would never know it.
Her talent grew when she got a job for five dollars an hour in a Kentucky radio station on Joe’s Palm Room. Famous musicians and singers performed on the radio, which gave her access to many different styles and voices. Thereafter, she got a job at Club Louisville, located in the city. She was paid $65 a night to sing and open for the performers who were booked for the evening. She remembers Richard Grove Holmes – who could play the organ like a dream, but wasn’t much of a singer. And, she once opened for James Brown.
In 1995, Hazel came to Denver to sing back up with Big Head Todd and the Monsters. She may have been the first or one of the first Black backup singers to a white band in the country; that just was not being done. She traveled with the band, and saw much of the country. She remembers singing at Fillmore West, and “being aware of standing where many great singers had sung.” She explains, “It was like holding all these angels that were out of my reach, releasing me to sing my heart out. People were screaming my name out. We would do three shows in the afternoon, and the buzz was out about this singer. Todd allowed me to shine.”
That was her, and it was wonderful. She was a member of Todd’s band from 1995 until 2001. Hazel credits him with treating her with the greatest respect, and caring about her and the development of her craft. She also worked with Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, and Patty LaBelle.
Early in the new century, she was approached by the Department of Defense concerning their desire for her to present shows to American troops around the world. In 2001, she accepted the offer and began touring in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Iwo Jima. She ultimately played Korea, Japan, Greece, Spain, and Okinawa as well. She remembers her fear of flying as they would transport to the different bases in the huge C-130 and C-5 planes. Her nice paydays put an end to “fear of flying.” The act was billed as Hazel Miller and Rich Relations. She enjoyed entertaining troops, who were so grateful for her work. She performed on beaches, gyms, large buildings where the troops sat on the floor, and just about everywhere that people could sit and listen.
Hazel is grateful for the experiences and the opportunities the tours gave her. When she returned for the last time to the United States, she realized that she had undergone a transformation in her professional life that Los Angeles, New York or no other city could have given her. She had become a polished, versatile and multitalented singer, with stage presence and fans. People knew her and wanted her.
Then, on her way to Los Angeles, where she thought she had to be to have a career, she stopped in Denver. For all intents and purposes, she never left Denver.
She tours across the country, but Denver is her home, and she loves the city. She believes that her coming to Denver was “God’s way of saying, ‘I’ll let it happen!’”
When you hear and see this diva perform, you will know that God did let IT happen. Hazel performs throughout the Denver metropolitan area in jazz clubs, theaters and other venues.
We know you “know” her, but go catch her performances anyway.