Summer is the best time to be in Colorado if you enjoy live music. There are festivals everywhere. Many gatherings and celebrations are well known, Juneteenth, Capitol Hill People’s Fair, and Cherry Creek Arts Festival just to name a few. Hazel Miller in her longstanding career has played them all and many more throughout Colorado. Miller is the hardest working musician in the state. Her website boasts a schedule where she has a gig at least every other week throughout the summer, sometimes having two or more in the week.
After over 40 years of performing, Miller has been singing professionally since she was 17 and has become the most sought after singer in Colorado. She and her band have received Westword’s Best of Denver Blues Band several times and the Northern Colorado Press Association has named the Hazel Miller Band the Best Band in Colorado. Northern Colorado? People everywhere appreciate great music, and Miller’s band plays dates in Erie, Loveland, Holyoke, Longmont as well as Denver’s Jazz at Jack’s and Herman’s Hideaway.
Just like one of her idols, Stevie Wonder, Miller believes music is the universal language. Singing is in her DNA. “It’s all that I ever wanted to do. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s just always been that way,” says Miller. Her success with a wide range of audiences is due to her appreciation of all types of singers and artists. “I kind of like everybody. Everything from Lainie Kazan, Julie Andrews, Aretha Franklin, you name it – I listen. If it hits my ear right, I am going to listen – country, gospel, and jazz. I love Marion Anderson, the first Black woman to sing at the White House, she was an opera singer…one of the first Black women to sing at Carnegie Hall. I like everything. I don’t try to close off the learning experience, because it is the only thing that keeps me motivated, keeps me honest, it keeps you rolling and keep you looking for something new.”
Miller has always been up to the challenge. You’re just as likely to hear her on KBCO and KUVO, where she has recorded special studio sets. Locally she has been known for her band and singing with Big Head Todd in the 90s. But she has also performed with Michael McDonald and Herbie Hancock among others. She met Patti Labelle, but did not sing with her, and her dream performance would be with Stevie Wonder. But Miller’s memorable musical experiences are not steeped in her being star struck. “I think the first time I ever sang at Red Rocks was for Film on the Rocks, and that will always be in my memory. The first time I ever sang in the Hollywood Bowl we were trying to get in and they didn’t believe that we were actually performing. The first time we played Vegas was memorable because you always hear things about Vegas. The performance in Vegas was at the “brand spanking new” Hard Rock Café.”
Miller has built a career on leveraging her opportunities. Twenty years ago she and her manager and best friend, Lori Cohen, decided the path should be outside of clubs. You may hear Miller this summer at an outdoor venue but other times you are just as likely to see her at a corporate or non-profit event. In May she played the St. Anthony/Centura Health Country Fair Celebration and sang with the choir at Mile Hi Church. In October 2014, she headlined at the Cable Center for the Jazzed benefit for the Inner City Health Center. In October of this year she will headline the same event with Todd Park Mohr (Big Head Todd) and Freddy Gowdy (Freddi-Henchi Band).
Miller’s success has come from smart business decisions and dynamic performance acumen. She speaks to her audiences through the music. “I think every singer does. Isn’t that the purpose? I mean you can’t just sit there and expect people to listen if you don’t have something personal to say,” said Miller. “It depends on the message. It depends on the song. I guess it just depends on the situation that you are singing for. You don’t want to go to a corporate party and give them a social message. You want to make sure that everybody is having a good time. And you might sort of slip in some ideas. If you do a concert you want to make sure people are having a great time and you might give a personal idea in song, because there might be a person out there that feels the way you do or there is someone out there that needs to hear it.”
Miller has a historical perspective on singing, and says like many of the greats she is a song interpreter. She commented that Frank Sinatra never wrote a song, and Otis Redding wrote and recorded Respect before Aretha Franklin took the song and made it her signature. “Ninety percent of her fans don’t know that it is an Otis Redding song,” she said. Singers like Bonnie Raitt have made a career singing other people’s songs and making them their own. Less than 50 percent of her material is original, but Miller is not concerned about performing or recording original works. “It wasn’t until the ‘60s that singer songwriters were a big deal. Frank Sinatra never wrote a song in his life. He just didn’t. There were songwriters and there were singers or musicians and they would collaborate and come up with great songs. It’s not one of my great worries. There is always great material out there.”
Miller’s sets are as varied as her audiences and after so many years in the business she has honed her professionalism onstage always with the goal in mind of making sure the audience is having a good time. She still visits a vocal coach once a week and doesn’t smoke cigarettes or weed. Even though Miller is a seasoned performer, she still has little anxieties when she goes onstage. “Yeah you warm up. For me I try to get my nerves under control. I use a set list, but if the audience is not responding to the set list, then you get off your butt and you look at your audience and you figure out what is going on. And you start calling songs until you reach them and then you go on from there.”
In this modern age live performance remains a large part of her income. The biggest challenge is getting a gig. That aspect about the business has not changed. It’s one of the reasons she has stayed in Colorado. “Because there is work here, are you kidding me? It’s one of the few places where you can actually make a living singing. You can’t say that about L.A., you can’t say that about New York, it’s too crowded. It’s perfect. I got here at just the right time. “
Miller has always made the best of her opportunities and been in charge of her success. “Twenty years ago, Lori and I, we made a decision to get out of clubs. And Lori Cohen got on the phones and I put together whatever musicians I could find and like I said, you just have to jump out there and do it. A lot of people said we couldn’t do it, but we proved them wrong. It is one of those things.”
Like many artists, Miller has taken charge of her own distribution. Her music can be found on iTunes and CD Baby, which she says she prefers. She said she gets a check every month from the service. But for sheer promotion she has an affinity for YouTube. “YouTube is probably the most reliable where you can be seen and heard now. They do an excellent job… an excellent job! Whatever you find on YouTube about me, someone else has put it out there. I am not technical, and I was going to try and figure it out this summer, and I probably will; I’ll get my granddaughter to help me. I got a couple of guys in the bands that are techie guys; they will figure it out, and I will be along for the ride.”
The ride has been great for Hazel Miller, but her success has not come without a lot of hard work. She is driven by her goals to be a successful performer. Away from the bandstand she has also been recognized for her work. In 2011 she performed in the play “Letters” with former Denver Broncos Reggie Rivers to benefit the Spotlight Theater. Miller also received a Westword Best of Award for her performance by a Denverite in the Vagina Monologues (2002) in Boulder. Later she was part of an ensemble cast in the short-run musical theatre production “Sisters and Storytellers.”
Hazel Miller is not afraid to remake herself and she says she feels that at this point in her career she is sort of entering into Act 3. Her advice to others and her formula for success has not wavered. “I am ready to start a new chapter and do something different so to speak. I am not sure what it is yet. I thought it was being an agent, because I think I would be a great agent, especially for young women. They wouldn’t have to worry about getting ripped off. But I don’t know if that is in the cards. I have to sit down and figure it out. I have to do just like when I was 18. I have to figure out what to do, how to get there and come up with a plan and then work the plan.”
“If it’s important to you, find a way to get it done. Find a way to make your dream come true. Get close as you can get. A friend of mine once told me, don’t take it personally. Rejection is a given. Don’t take it personally. You just have to get back up and do what you were doing.”
Hazel Miller is performing throughout the summer. Fabulous, Joyful, Vibrant, MarvFanJoyFabMazing, Motivating …we saw her at the Gateway resort in western Colorado last year, everyone was dancing. These are the responses I received with an informal request on social media to describe Hazel Miller with one word. She belongs to Colorado, and was named one of the state’s 150 Unsung Heroes who makes Colorado a better state to live in in 2008. Take time to experience her infectious song styling and you will have your own. In the metro area she will appear at Southlands, and the Bonfils Stanton Amphitheater in Lakewood, Stapleton, and Southglenn. If you are more adventurous she will appear in Longmont, Loveland, Evergreen, Beaver Creek and Niwot.
But you don’t have to go that far. Miller will be performing at Denver Urban Spectrum’s Up Close and Personal cabaret-style event on Sunday, June 14 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Jazz @ Jacks. If you want to see a great performance and learn more about her, make plans to meet and greet Denver’s-own Hazel Miller up close and personal.
Editor’s note: For more information and upcoming performances, visit www.hazelmiller.biz. Charles Emmons is a freelance writer based in Aurora. Contact Charles at email@example.com or on Twitter @cwewrites2