Ron Miles — Denver jazz legend, teacher and Blue Note artist — dies at 58

Ron Miles — the legendary Denver-based jazz musician, educator and prolific recording and stage artist — has died at 58.

His death was confirmed by his label, New York-based Blue Note Records. According to a publicist there, Miles’ manager and producer Hans Wendl said that Miles died shortly before midnight on Tuesday, March 8 at his home in Denver in the presence of family. The cause was complications from Polycythemia Vera, a rare blood disorder, Miles’ manager said.

“Ron was such a gifted artist!” wrote Blue Note president and musician Don Was, who has recorded and played with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Ringo Starr, in an email to The Denver Post. “He was a sweet, soulful man whose character was reflected in every exquisite note he played. We are heartbroken to lose him so soon, but he will live forever through the music he’s left behind for us.”

Miles, a Grammy-nominated trumpeter and composer, had recently canceled a public performance at Knoxville, Tenn.’s Big Ears Festival, which he played regularly in the past. He also said he was having health problems in recent weeks, though he wasn’t specific about them, said Bret Saunders, a friend, 97.3 KCBO DJ and Denver Post jazz columnist.

“He was a really warm, gentle, caring presence to be around,” Saunders said Wednesday. “And like all great artists, his persona was reflected through his music, which sounded like Colorado when you’re outside. Wide-open, lonely and vulnerable.”

Miles’ expansive career and singular voice extended to coordinating the jazz program at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he taught for 34 years, along with office-mate Fred Hess, a jazz tenor-saxophonist and frequent musical collaborator who died in 2018.

Metropolitan State University officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“So much great art came out of that office over the years,” Saunders said of Miles’ MSU home base. “It’s unreal.”

The news also brought an instant outpouring of social media love for Miles, whose influence and reach were arguably unparalleled in Denver’s jazz scene. Students and faculty from Metropolitan State, in particular, wrote on Twitter that they lost “an incredible teacher, a brilliant friend and colleague,” according to Charles C. Lee, principal cellist for the Boulder Philharmonic.

“He was a wonderful man,” wrote Denver comic Jeff Albright, a former Twist & Shout record store employee. “He was a regular at Twist & Shout and I always looked forward to him coming in.”

Miles was born in Indianapolis, Ind., on May 9, 1963, eventually moving to Denver in 1974 at the age of 11, according to his Blue Note biography. He went to East High School before attending the University of Denver and the Manhattan School of Music in the 1980s, according to Denver Post articles.

His 35-year recording career included music for the Prolific, Capri, Gramavision, and Sterling Circle labels, Blue Note said, and his brilliantly melodic clarinet has graced the work of Bill Frisell (a jazz legend and Denver native), Joshua Redman, Mercer Ellington, Madeleine Peyroux, Jason Moran, the Bad Plus and rock/jazz legend Ginger Baker.

On Oct. 9, 2020, Miles debuted on the iconic Blue Note label with “Rainbow Sign,” following a Grammy nomination for his album with Redman, 2018’s “Still Dreaming.”

In a feature interview for The Denver Post, Saunders described “Rainbow Sign” as “a sprawling, magisterial 70 minutes of music that captures numerous complex moods, illuminated by Miles’ lonesome, singular tone.”

Miles was joined on that album by a group that “represents the finest in jazz,” Saunders wrote. That included internationally known names such as guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Brian Blade.

Despite so many releases and praise over the years, it was one of Miles’ highest career points.

“It was pretty surprising,” Miles told Saunders about the Blue Note signing. “We just made the album (without a label in mind) and Bill (Frisell) asked me if he could play it for Don Was (Blue Note president.) A couple of days later, Don asked Bill for my number. It’s not like they were looking to sign some old guy from the middle of the country! Don is a fan of music.”

The Blue Note album was motivated by the 2018 death of Miles’ father, Fay Dooney, Miles said at the time.

“I was looking back on the journey of dealing with his journey; letting him know how much he was loved by us, and to take care of him in a respectful, loving way. Even when he passed, I was happy to get there on time.”

The record reached No. 8 on NPR’s national jazz critics’ poll, but Miles could have had a bigger career if he hadn’t chosen to stay in Denver, Saunders said.

Miles is survived by his wife, Kari Miles; daughter Justice Miles; son Honor Miles; mother Jane Miles; brother Johnathan Miles; sisters Shari Miles-Cohen and Kelly West; and half-sister Vicki M. Brown.

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