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CURT MILLER

This page is updated:
March 6, 2020 6:12 PM


It was during his time at UNLV in the music department that Curt became serious about the trombone. Curt was at UNLV studying under trombone master Bill Booth, now one of the most sought after trombonists in the LA recording scene. The turning point was at the Orange Coast Jazz Festival where the UNLV Jazz Ensemble was competing. The "pro" band that was playing at night was the Maynard Ferguson band, and during that concert the excitement of the band was all Curt needed to become hopelessly addicted to the instrument and genre.

During the last few years of Curt’s college, Jimmy Trimble (former lead trombonist with Buddy Rich) started using Curt as a sub at the Dunes "Casino de Paris" show. Jimmy was also playing in many of the late night bands at the old musician’s union on Duke Ellington way and started using Curt on 2nd trombone on nearly all of them. This "break" along with an internship program being run by UNLV at the time helped introduce Curt to the pro players in town and the work started increasing.

In 1977 Curt was hired to go on a 13 state tour with Elvis Presley. Elvis’ plane came from LA with about half the band and stopped in Vegas to pick up the Vegas band members. The party started before the wheels even left the ground. Three hours later we were over Colorado and the pilots received an emergency call to land immediately. We landed in Pueblo Colorado and Marty Harrel (bass trombonist and contractor) went inside to make the call. Marty came out of the building with watery eyes – Elvis was found dead in his bathroom. So it was not to be, the plane returned home that same day. But within days of that happening Jimmy called and told Curt to move to Lake Tahoe to take over the trombone chair in the “Viva le Girls” show at Harrahs – then renamed to “Bedazzle”. Curt stayed on the Bedazzle show until late 1978 when the call came in to move back to Vegas to take over for Bill Booth on the lead chair on the Lewis Elias Relief Orchestra. In late 1978 Bill Booth had decided to leave Vegas and pursue the recording industry in Los Angeles. The two relief orchestras in Las Vegas were the most sought after jobs, they played the night off of the house orchestras, so they played a different hotel/show every night. A typical weekly schedule for the Elias relief orchestra was the Riviera Hotel on Friday, The Sands Hotel on Saturday, The MGM Grand star room on Monday, the Frontier Hotel on Tuesday, the MGM Grand production show (Jubilee) on Wednesday, the Desert Inn Hotel on Thursday and so on…

That led to a 5 year stint on the Lew Elias relief orchestra for Curt, which provided a lifetime of experience playing for many, many artists; Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Roy Clark, Juliet Prowse, Anthony Newley, and a ton of others. “Having to sight read a new show nearly every night is something few players ever get to do and the experience and confidence it provided is immeasurable” Curt says.

When the hotels began going “dark” one night a week and moving to a 6 night per week policy in 1983, Curt saw the writing on the wall for relief bands and put the word out he was “looking”. The Desert Inn Hotel offered him the lead trombone chair and Curt would spend another 4 years there playing such shows as “A Chorus Line”, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies” and a multitude of stars including Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme and Jerry Lewis under musical director Jack Eglash.

During this same period of time the UNLV Dept of Music called Curt (in 1984) to help build a brand new recording studio and department at UNLV. Curt had always had an interest in recording, having recorded the UNLV Jazz Ensemble on some of the tours during the early years by lugging around a reel to reel recorder. Curt would spend the next 11 years in a full time lectureship position at UNLV while simultaneously working at night in the showrooms. The recording studio became known as a great place to record for jazz and classical, and Curt would record and produce over 200 CDs for various artists over the next 11 years.

In 1986 while playing Rich Little at the Desert Inn, Rich’s conductor introduced Curt to Artie Butler of Los Angeles who was in town conducting for Suzanne Sommers at another hotel. Artie was famous as a producer and arranger, having produced and arranged most all of Barry Manilow’s hits as well as countless others. Artie had spent all of his life writing for live orchestras, but Los Angeles and the world were moving into the new realm of computers, sequencing, synthesizers and MIDI. Artie told Curt he had purchased a bunch of equipment at his home and wanted some help learning how to use it. Curt spent the next six years making monthly trips with wife Eliane to Artie’s house in Beverly Hills, which also led to recording engagements (as both player and engineer) for numerous Disney projects including the movie “Oliver and Company”. This would lead to a lifetime friendship between them that still exists today.

In 1987 Jack Eglash and the Desert Inn Orchestra was terminated so Curt jumped across the street and took the lead trombone chair at the Frontier Hotel. That show lasted for one more year until they closed, so Curt jumped on the Caesar’s Palace band with John Haig playing second trombone under Jim Huntzinger, widely known as the best lead trombonist in Las Vegas and equally respected in Los Angeles. “Sitting next to Jim and learning his lead playing style was like attending a master class every night” says Curt. “Even after all the years of playing lead trombone in the showrooms, that experience dramatically changed the way I approached playing lead trombone.”

Both Curt and Artie Butler were huge fans of Joe Williams, and during this time Artie was composing a song for his father called “Here’s to Life”. “Often when Eliane and I would head down to LA to stay with Artie for a few days, Artie would play little bits of what he was writing, none of us knew at the time he would be writing a song that would be recorded by Streisand, Shirley Horn, Joe Williams and others. One of the most memorable moments of my life was when Artie finished the song ‘Here’s to Life’ and wanted Joe Williams to be the first to record it. We spent the day adding strings, french horns and woodwinds to the track to get it ready. Joe just happened to be staying at the Beverly Hilton hotel nearby so we went and picked him up at about 11PM and went back to Artie’s house. We spent all night with Joe laying down the first ever vocal recording of ‘Here’s to Life’, and it was simply a magical evening” remembers Curt.

By 1990 Caesar’s didn’t have much work for musicians, the big musician’s strike of 1989 had taken a severe toll on hundreds of local players, and Curt had jumped over to the Union Plaza playing in a smaller band for a show called “Nudes on Ice”. “I had always wanted to have my own band, so I finished putting together my big band dance orchestra book and sure enough the stars aligned and I was introduced to Joe Guercio who had just become musical director for the Steve Wynn properties (Golden Nugget, Mirage and Treasure Island). Joe asked me to be his contractor and assistant musical director for the properties, and we used my big band book for all the casuals and parties at the hotels.” This partnership would last 5 years, and the two of them would contract nearly every industrial show that would come to Vegas over those 5 years. “But even with that success it was tough to make a really good living at it, and the only way I survived was due to the combination of the full time lectureship position at UNLV, combined with the contractor position at Wynn, combined with part time training for a leadership training company” Curt says.

For Curt, the music and recording worlds ended in July 1995. He was offered a full-time position as director of training for Rapport Leadership and he walked away from the trombone and recording world for nearly 7 years to cut his teeth in the world of business. “It was an incredible 7 years, learning a new world and being awakened to the different income levels outside of the music world. I had to learn how to run a business.” Curt ultimately founded Anexeon in 2002, an IT Services company which Curt still owns today. “During the years between 2000 and 2007 I loved what I was doing at Anexeon, but when music is in your blood it is hard to stay away from. I tried to play the occasional easy gig, but I hated the way I was playing since I wasn’t practicing every day. You simply can’t be a part time brass player; it requires full time practice to sound halfway decent.” Curt did manage to stay lightly involved in music and recording and was co-producer and engineer for two albums featuring Carl Fontana and Jiggs Whigham – “Nice n Easy” and “Keeping up with the Bones’es” during those years.

By 2010 Anexeon was going pretty well, and Curt decided to attempt to become a trombone player again which would require a daily practice ritual. A few years later he decided to give rebirth to an old group called the “Boneheads”, a group consisting of 6 trombones and a rhythm section playing jazz charts. “We found about 20 of the old Boneheads charts that we used to play at the union hall in the late 70s and early 80s with Trimble, Fontana, Huntzinger and the guys which got us started, and since then local writers and arrangers including myself have written about 40 more arrangements for the group. It is as fun as it gets for trombone players!” In 2016 the Las Vegas Boneheads created their first ever CD “Attack of the Wind Driven Pitch Approximators” which received a great review in the ITA Journal.

Word got around Curt was playing again and he started getting the calls for the shows around town – “but only if it’s fun” says Curt. “Owning a business is time consuming so I can only take the ones that are challenging and fun and I leave the others alone.” When Michael Grimm won the “America’s Got Talent” show, Curt was hired to do the tour, which included the Kodak theater in LA and a trip back to Mississippi where Michael is from to play for his home town. “That was an incredibly fun tour!” says Curt.

In 2015 when Bob Anderson created “Frank, The Man and his Music” show at the Venetian with conductor Vincent Falcone, Curt was asked to play the lead bone chair along with good friend Dick McGee, another great trombonist in Vegas. “Both of us were too busy with day jobs to do the entire week, so we split it up, I did three nights and Dick did two. Getting to play the lead trombone book on the original Sinatra charts night after night is as good as it gets in a big band show” says Curt.

When Lady Gaga announced her residency in Las Vegas, auditions were held and Curt showed up with his horn. “I walked in to the room and Brian Newman instantly recognized me as I had done some of the Gaga/Bennett Cheek to Cheek shows with them.” He said “don’t bother taking your horn out, everyone I have met with so far told me to make sure you are on lead trombone” – so that was my audition!

The Boneheads are now in the middle of recording a second CD with new originals as well as some really unique arrangements of some classic jazz tunes. We are hoping to have it done by Summer 2020.

https://www.curtmillermusic.com/


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