Drummer Sammy Miller’s joyful jazz and globally conscious music

Grammy-nominated drummer Sammy Miller began celebrating his passion for music when he was 5 years old. He and his four siblings grew up in Palos Verdes in a close-knit musical family.

“When I was in kindergarten my brother, Nate, my two older sisters, Molly and Elana, and I started a band called Underage. I was the drummer, and I also sang. Nate (the oldest) was the taskmaster. He was always yelling at someone!” says Sammy with a smile. The aspiring young artists practiced every day after school and performed throughout the South Bay. “We played songs from the ‘60s, which was a cool way to learn about music—everything from The Rolling Stones to Chuck Berry and doo-wop.”

By the time Sammy was 10, his musical focus was jazz and he was also obsessed with standup comedy. “I listened to Ray Charles records and Chris Rock tapes at night,” he says. “Though I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, I was studying some of the greatest American art forms solely because I liked how it made me feel.”

He continued to hone his artistic talent and spent two years at Peninsula High School before his musical calling led to him transferring to Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. “I woke up at 6:00 in the morning to carpool to LA and listened to jazz each way in the car,” he recalls. “I was in school with kids from all over the county. It was a great experience. We even got to play at the White House.”

After high school he was lured to the historically rich jazz mecca of the world: New York. He completed his undergraduate degree at The New School before earning his master’s degree at Juilliard.

“I learned a lot, but I wanted to do more to engage audiences,” Sammy shares.

“Jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington had a warm and inviting feeling in their art. I wanted to bring
that quality of warmth to whatever I created, because I believe that art should be medicinal and it should make people feel good. When I was a kid, no one showed me that art could do that.”

Today Sammy is living his dream with his band Sammy Miller and the Congregation, a culmination of his multifaceted heart connection with his art, education and comedy. Education is so essential to the band that they wrote a musical to teach kids about the history of jazz. They also spend time at schools so students can play along with them. “I believe you should use everything unique to yourself when creating art. A big part of what the band does is to help educate people around the world through the joy of our music. When we perform, even when we don’t speak a country’s language, we still have a beautiful connection with the audience. A congregation is about people coming together to be uplifted and empowered, and that is what we do.”

Sammy and his fellow band members—Alphonso Horne, Ben Flocks, Sam Crittenden, John Snow and David Linard—recently recorded their first full-length album. They have also created a theatre version of their music called The Great Awakening, which they will perform in late March in Los Angeles. According to Sammy, it is a comedic fictional story about a band getting banned from jazz and rebranding as a jazz theatre troupe to try to save their careers.

“Art, at the highest level, should be highly entertaining while still having sophistication and integrity,” he says. “We are reaching for that.”

Sammy Miller and the Congregation will perform at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles March 18–19 and March 24–26. They will also perform at a concert fundraiser at Peninsula High School on March 21. For tickets and more information, visit sammymillercongregation.com.