Hazel Miller in the Press

August 14, 2005
It's Hazel Miller's time
The r&b singer turns the page on her struggles with a little help from her friends

Denver Post

By Elana Ashanti Jefferson
Dusk cooled the Lowry Town Center plaza recently as the Hazel Miller Band set up between Qdoba Mexican Grill, Salty Rita's and Serioz.

Toddlers splashed in the fountain, one in the buff. Hands twisted balloons into bright, puffy animals. Dog tails wagged. Friends walked past to say hello.

"This is a family crowd," Miller said to one of them, her cheeks flush with color from a recent week in Mexico. "I'm not going to blow their hair back."

Playing a low-key gig in a virtual strip mall would not suit every entertainer. But for Hazel Miller, a Kentucky native who learned to sing by emulating TV variety show performers - the only shows where she and her siblings could watch black people when they were kids - an outdoor venue on a breezy summer evening is just fine.

Miller speaks with the same gravelly voice she has had since childhood. She rarely plays clubs these days because of asthma brought on by cigarette smoke. (Miller makes an exception tonight: She and her band will record a CD during an 8 p.m. gig at The Little Bear in Evergreen.)

More often the band kicks up the funk at weddings and corporate parties, a

business move that has cost Miller some contacts. Still, at 52, she says making it in music in Colorado means standing by tough choices and running her band like a well-oiled machine.

"She legitimizes" Big Head

Onstage at Lowry Town Center, this Catholic School-reared local celebrity cracks tequila jokes with her fans. "Oh yeah, tequila and I go way back."

The truth is that alcoholism in the family, paired with a recent lifestyle change aimed at losing weight and getting a handle on her diabetes, means Miller rarely drinks.

Unless, that is, the singer is on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, which she was in July after her close friend Lydia Kerr gave Miller a trip for her birthday. Kerr had learned that her other favorite band, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, would play Cabo San Lucas during the recent True Experience music festival there. She promptly bought two tickets.

When the Monsters heard Miller was coming, they insisted she sing with them, as she has on select tours and albums.

Once Colorado's best-known band, the Monsters - Todd Park Mohr, Rob Squires, Brian Nevin and recent addition Jeremy Lawton - arrived at a Q&A session during True Experience with sunburned noses after a morning of Jet-Skiing. Mohr wore his swim trunks.

Their audience sipped margaritas so strong that jowls puckered as BHTM sat onstage under a grass roof near wraparound windows that faced a private beach. Fans asked them questions about how songs are written, what inspires them, and why there were long stints between albums. But it took only minutes for this query to surface: "Is Hazel here?"

"Yeah, she is," Mohr said, pausing for clapping and "yahoos!"

"How did you meet Hazel?" another asked.

"She has been a constant in my life and my musical thinking," Mohr said, adding that as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, he regularly caught her Boulder shows.

"I watched her before I was even in a band," Mohr said. "She really inspired me. So when we started getting big, it was a pleasure to be able to invite her to sit in with us."

Nevin was even more gracious. "She legitimizes us," the drummer said.

Later that night, Miller held court at a table in Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina, surrounded by friends who had traveled with her from Denver. A parade of people stopped by, many delivering shots of tequila, as the Monsters launched into a live set.

When the band got to "It's Alright," one of their hits, Mohr called Miller to the stage. She belted out that chorus, and the room was on its feet.

In romance, a solo act

Considering all of that crowd love, one might think Hazel Miller is a man magnet, with or without the 30-plus pounds she has shed over the past few years. But seated at La Oficina, a cafe on the beach in Cabo that serves a mean steak-and-eggs with refritos and chiles on the side, Miller said men tend to stay away.

"Black men don't approach me," said Miller, who has two adult children, one from a marriage that ended badly. "And white guys are very polite and very friendly - because they see me with Todd."

Onstage, she is generally an easygoing storyteller. Offstage, she reveals an inquisitive streak: She wants to know about you and your life.

Miller sometimes wonders whether years as an independent businesswoman have doused her romantic prospects. "If there is a guy out there who is looking for a woman who is self-employed, and a hard worker, and doesn't want to own you, and has her own life, please go to my website," she said, chuckling.

The same independence that might intimidate some men has been vital to Miller's survival.

"When you're a woman in this business and want something done, you have to be the bitch queen," she said. "There are a lot of guys that I've fired or stopped working with for whatever reason who think I am the bitch queen. But it doesn't matter what they said because I had to feed my (two) kids and pay my bills out of the same pay they were getting."

Miller's large "family of artists"

The singer burned some bridges since coming to Colorado in 1984 after achieving small-time celebrity at home for singing in a city-sponsored commercial. But she also accumulated a circle of friends without whom she says she would have never succeeded.

Some are her creative kin.

"I have a family of artists, and we all respect each other," she said. "At the top of that list is Todd (Park Mohr), Chris Daniels, Sheryl Rene, Wendy Woo, Jake Schroeder. These people have come to my rescue so many times."

One thing they all have in common is that they treat music like a business.

"Feast is May through September, and the month of December," Miller said. "The people who are making it have found a way to make the feast last through the famine."

Local bluesman Chris Daniels refused to accept any money from Miller for producing her jazz CD "Icons." He wanted to do the project because he said that while many people sing jazz beautifully, she is one of the few who sing jazz soulfully.

"One of my early memories of Hazel was her calling me up because she had a flat tire on her van," Daniels said. "I had to change that tire to help her get to her gig."

Then there are the women in Miller's life. She calls them her "rocks," a term she uses with respect and gratitude. These were the friends who rallied to her side when Miller underwent emergency vocal node surgery a decade ago, cooking for her youngest son and cleaning her house while Miller recovered.

"It's because of what she gives to us," said Kerr, who will take extra pleasure in watching Miller record her live CD tonight at The Little Bear because years ago, when the two first met, Kerr hawked "Hazel Head" pins at that same bar to help the singer pay her bills.

"She's a smart lady, and much more than an entertainer," Kerr said. "She's someone that you can always count on."

This summer Miller is helping care for her four grandchildren, the "little monsters" she keeps during the week while their parents are at work.

"My boys made the ultimate sacrifice," Miller said seated in front of a freshly painted purple wall as the "munchkins" ate ice cream at her kitchen table.

"I missed games. I missed parent-teacher meetings. I missed birthdays. I missed a lot of things," she said. "So now that they're grown up - Robert is 33 and Kenneth is 27 - if they need me, I'm there."