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Interview: Marcus Miller

We speak with the music & math whizz on how blending numbers and notes Marcus Miller isn't just hitting high notes in music; he's also blending beats with brains. From lighting up the stage at the Obama White House to Madison Square Garden and the World Economic Forum in Davos, he’s jammed with jazz legends ELEW and Jazzmeia Horn, and icons like The Fugees and Madonna. Plus, he's been a key player in the Daybreaker series and joined Oprah’s 2020 vision tour. New Jersey called him an Artist of Distinction in 2015, and he took the lead on the jazz-centric play "Playing Hot.", and played the flute on Jon Batiste’s Grammy winning album "We Are." But Marcus is also a math and physics whiz, giving talks and performances that show how numbers and notes can jam together. He's made waves at the Grace Farms Foundation, Falling Walls 2020, TEDSummit, had a two-year gig at the National Museum of Mathematics in NYC and teamed up with Brown University's Physics Department. In 2023, he's keeping his role as Musical Advisor at the Grace Farms Foundation, mixing music with architecture and sustainability. Marcus ultimately believes in the power of creativity—whether it's through music, math, or any creative act—to bring out our best: courage, kindness and innovation. In our interview we took a deeper dive into combining his 2 passions of maths and music and what advice he has for us. Q: Can you describe how you intertwine mathematics and music in your life? "Music and mathematics have always been intertwined for me. From a young age, I saw patterns in music that mirrored those in math, and this duality has shaped my career." Q: What were some challenges you faced in pursuing both music and mathematics? "The biggest challenge was time management. Balancing rigorous academic work with practicing and performing was tough, but it taught me discipline." Q: Who influenced your musical journey? "My father was a great influence. He introduced me to different musical genres and always encouraged me to explore my musical interests alongside my academic pursuits." Q: Why did you choose Harvard over a music school? "Attending Harvard was a decision to not put all my eggs in one basket. It gave me the opportunity to pursue mathematics while still engaging with music." Q: How do you approach artistic direction and composition? "My approach is heavily influenced by design thinking. I like to experiment, iterate, and blend different elements, much like solving a complex mathematical problem." On combining music and math: "I've always seen a natural connection between music and mathematics. The patterns, the structures... it's like they speak the same language." Regarding his father's influence: "My father was instrumental in my musical journey. He exposed me to a world of sounds, nurturing my passion from a very young age." Choosing Harvard: "Harvard represented a world of possibilities. It was about not confining myself to just one path but exploring the breadth of my interests." Artistic process: "Composing music, to me, is akin to solving a complex puzzle. It requires creativity, logic, and a bit of experimentation." Balancing disciplines: "Juggling music and math has been a challenge of time and focus. It taught me the value of discipline and the art of prioritization." Getting into music  "I got into music when I was nine years old because they were passing out instruments in fourth grade. And because my father played the saxophone in college, we had a saxophone kind of sitting in the attic. And he pulled it out, and we got it repaired. And he taught me how to play, taught me some basic fingerings and then how to play 'Tequila' for the first day of school. The band director, upon hearing that, decided that I was gifted and asked me to come after school and just kind of play around and jam with him. And that turned into private lessons. And away we went. I was playing. I played my first public gig when I was about 13 years old. And I was playing, you know, shows around New Jersey and a little bit in New York City, you know, through my teenage years" His decision to choose Harvard over a music school: "In college, I ended up going to Harvard and not music school because all of my music mentors said, you know, you can play well enough, you will be in debt forever with a jazz degree, don't do that. And whatever gap needs to be filled, you'll learn that by being out on the scene and being around the music. If your grades are really good, you have all these opportunities, your test scores are really high, go someplace and learn something else about the world" Getting into music  "I got into music when I was nine years old because they were passing out instruments in fourth grade. And because my father played the saxophone in college, we had a saxophone kind of sitting in the attic. And he pulled it out, and we got it repaired. And he taught me how to play, taught me some basic fingerings and then how to play 'Tequila' for the first day of school. The band director, upon hearing that, decided that I was gifted and asked me to come after school and just kind of play around and jam with him. And that turned into private lessons. And away we went. I was playing. I played my first public gig when I was about 13 years old. And I was playing, you know, shows around New Jersey and a little bit in New York City, you know, through my teenage years" His decision to choose Harvard over a music school: "In college, I ended up going to Harvard and not music school because all of my music mentors said, you know, you can play well enough, you will be in debt forever with a jazz degree, don't do that. And whatever gap needs to be filled, you'll learn that by being out on the scene and being around the music. If your grades are really good, you have all these opportunities, your test scores are really high, go someplace and learn something else about the world" Marcus discussed creating a brand that mixes music and mathematics: "So what that looked like was I reached out to the National Museum of Mathematics, which is based in New York and said, 'Hey, I want a gig at your place. I really love math and musician.' And the woman who was the director is like, 'Yeah, whatever.' But she agreed to come out and see me. Right? And she came with one of the board members, and like five minutes in, they're like, 'No, this guy's a thing, we should have him at the math museum.' And what that turned into was a two-year residency there, well, where every two months, I would put on a programme. I bring a great mathematician and a great musician together, and we'd have great conversations. And so I kind of took over that spot. Like Pete, there's existing branding, people already say math and music are the same thing. Yes. And so like because that niche already kind of exists in people's minds, I just kind of stepped in and filled" When asked about the tools he wished he had at the age of 17 or 18: "I think what was interesting is because I then use the same process even for development of formats for TV shows, and we were running through the process in literally a day. Like everybody in the group was just amazed because like usually it will take them at least three, four weeks. Because they you go through this process like really, really quickly. Right like so and and the kind of the ideation and conceptualization and building and testing thing is so much more interesting. And you get so much feedback when you do it quickly. And you can always start again in the beginning right like so. But so I wish I would have like had that tool when I was when I was younger..." In response to the question about what tools he would have liked to have as a 17-year-old, Marcus Miller said: "Tools that are very helpful are design thinking or, you know, kind of like, you know, some productivity tools, etc. But you don't learn those. But that would have been super. I mean, for me, it would have been super helpful to have those, you know, in in in college, I learned them right later. And I choppiness. Yeah design thinking is who? That's really important." Marcus emphasized the value of design thinking and productivity tools, noting that they would have been extremely beneficial for him at a younger age, and he only learned them later in college Marcus shared his experience playing in a large orchestra with Jon Batiste: "I don't know if you saw it's funny. You mentioned large orchestra. Did you see the new Jon Batiste's movie 'American'? Yeah... So that was the last time I played two big orchestras in concert in September 2022 at Carnegie Hall, and I was actually playing the bass saxophone, which is a very, very tall, very rare saxophone. It is really deep, larger than the baritone saxophones. It's like a cannon. It is a really, really fun instrument to play. And I also had an alto saxophone solo. I usually play in smaller ensembles." "So what that looked like was I reached out to the National Museum of Mathematics, which is based in New York and said, 'Hey, I want a gig at your place. I really love math and musician.' And the woman who was the director is like, 'Yeah, whatever.' But she agreed to come out and see me. Right? And she came with one of the board members, and like five minutes in, they're like, 'No, this guy's a thing, we should have him at the math museum.' And what that turned into was a two-year residency there, well, where every two months, I would put on a programme. I bring a great mathematician and a great musician together, and we'd have great conversations. And so I kind of took over that spot. Like Pete, there's existing branding, people already say math and music are the same thing. Yes. And so like because that niche already kind of exists in people's minds, I just kind of stepped in and filled" “Math can be experienced as play in much the same way music is.” — MARCUS MILLER, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Interview: Marcus Miller
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