Checking in with Jamal Millner


What are you working on right now?
Well, I have a project with Hillary Fox, who is a local singer. We play soul and rock and country-type things, and we’ve been working on getting a repertoire with that. Otherwise, I’m always working on my own music. I have a strange project coming up with Mike Taylor and Mark Graham. It’ll be jazzy—we’ll play the occasional chord that has more than three notes in it—but it’s not jazz.

Local guitarist Jamal Millner has played or played with a long list of noted musicians: R.L. Burnside, Vusi Mahlasela, Buddy Guy, Ali Farka Toure and the Dave Matthews Band.

Tell us about your day job.
My day job is teaching at Piedmont. I teach guitar and I’ve got other classes there as well. I’m also doing mastering and mixing for individuals and shows. I’ve been working with a radio show called “BackStory with the American History Guys,” which is at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. I have a few other things that aren’t music, but most of my other clients are musicians.

What is your first artistic memory from childhood?
My first gig. I had a little kid guitar and my parents used to go to lots of shows. Even if they didn’t want a musician, they would have gotten one. I saw Taj Mahal when I was about 4 and I went up and got on stage with him and played my plastic guitar. Many years later, I had some sort of rapport with these Appalachian musicians who were around where we lived at that time, some of the last African American people there who played Appalachian music, so I played banjo as a kid. I played in a film with Taj Mahal called Banjo Ben, but it’s out of print now.

Tell us about a piece of art that you wish were in your private collection.
I went to the Picasso museum in Paris and they had all kinds of really cool things, but I’d like any of his guitars. He had hundreds of them. Well, maybe they’re not ones you could actually play. I mean, the only other thing he painted or sculpted more of than chicks and guitars were bulls.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’d like to meet Johann Sebastian Bach. He has to be one of the greatest musicians and artists of the whole of human expression, but he was also a regular guy who had to watch his kids and play crappy gigs and work at churches where people didn’t appreciate his work. He seemed to have a happy life, though. His music is Baroque, which is supposed to be old fashioned, but to me it sounds so modern. Timeless, I guess. To me it doesn’t sound like any particular period. Like disco.

Have you been inspired by any recent concert or exhibit?
At the Virginia Film Festival they had this documentary about the Freedom Riders, and I took my kids to see it, who are from the end of the 20th century. Even knowing about what went on, I wasn’t familiar with the amount of brutality that those people had to deal with. It didn’t make it grotesque, but it really conveyed the level of danger, and the courage those people had. Maybe we should take better advantage of the things they battled to get.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
There are so many super-talented people around. I would like to collaborate with a number of other different artists who aren’t musicians, like visual artists or animators, people who could make installations. I could easily work with Rob Tarbell, because I walk by him every day. He makes art with smoke.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Given the current situation, discover some very easy, clean way to generate lots of power, or a way to stop using a whole bunch of it. There’s no way for my art form to be green right now, so if I could figure out a way of doing that I’d like to. We can’t all be in U2, making enough to afford thousands of solar panels. It’d be hard to do that as an acoustic musician.