Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

October 11–18, 2001

cover story|music issue

Miller’s Crossing

Jim Miller, founder of Dreambox Media, recalls his transition from jazz-rock drummer to record producer/entrepreneur.

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Some musicians come to the Philadelphia jazz scene by birth; others are drawn here, like moths to flame. Jim Miller, founder of Dreambox Media, falls into the latter category — although, as he laughingly admits, there was a good deal of serendipity involved.

It was the holiday season, sometime in the late-’70s, and an Indianapolis-based fusion band was storming the country (or its hotel lounges, anyway) on tour. "We were playing a whole chain of Sheratons," Miller recalls, "and we ended up at Valley Forge, and they held us over for some reason. This was back in the day when there would be a radio in the wall of the hotel room, and whoever had been there before had left it on WRTI. I turned it on and heard: ‘That’s right, we’re in the middle of John Coltrane weekend; 72 straight hours of Trane.’ And I was immediately thinking, ‘I’m moving here.’ It seemed like Jazz Mecca to me."

Soon afterward, Miller relocated — and persuaded his bandmates to do the same. "We looked around and found a place that would deal with a bunch of unrelated guys living together. Then the band kind of shook itself out; a bunch of people left and went back to Indianapolis. Those of us who stayed became this band Reverie." That jazz-rock outfit, propelled by Miller’s assertive drumming, would become a sort of staple in the Philadelphia area. And it was in Reverie that the seeds of Miller’s current business were contained. After seeing a record deal fall through, the band took its master tapes and issued a self-produced album on a rugged indie imprint they called Encounter Records.

The success of this experiment resulted in a follow-up album, Watch the Skies. Then came a third installment, a live album called In Concert. It was at this point, the mid-’80s, that Miller was approached by vocalist Suzanne Cloud. "She was the first person that said: ‘Can I be on your label?’" Miller remembers. "I wasn’t even thinking of it as a label; it was just a way to promote Reverie. But she started putting out the word to ‘Father John’ [D’Amico] and Mark Kramer and a bunch of other people, so all of a sudden we had a little roster. And then she started helping me with it."

It’s telling that Miller so quickly involves the names of others in the Philadelphia jazz community. In the 15 years since its coalescence, his record label — now known as Dreambox Media — has been defined less by a central agenda than by the collective vision of its musicians. The label’s core consists of Philly regulars like Cloud, pianist Eddie Green, saxophonist Denis DiBlasio and bassist Mike Boone. Others on the current roster include drummer Webb Thomas, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, saxophonist Larry McKenna, bassist Darryl Hall, vocalists Ken Shepherd and Zan Gardner, the Philadelphia Heritage Art Ensemble and the electro-acoustic ensemble Mars 2 Earth. Last year’s Live at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus featured performances by Bobby Zankel as well as Bootsie Barnes — and many more.

Miller’s modus operandi with Dreambox is simple: document the music, as it is. "The thing I’m into is just preserving, or archiving, where you were at that moment," he says. "That’s why I like the live stuff; I like the spontaneity. I’d much rather have mistakes and things in it, and have energy and truth, than some really polished thing." The Dreambox catalog illustrates his point: The low production value of Live at Ortlieb’s, for instance, seems apropos. Other live releases — like last year’s Monkadelphia, the result of a faculty concert at Rowan University, and the Jim Ridl Trio’s LIVE— convey a rough immediacy that would be tough to replicate in the studio. It should be noted, though, that there are items in the catalog that do reflect a studio sheen: among them, J.D. Walter’s Sirens in the C-House, Dave Sayers’ Misfit and Suzanne Cloud’s Looking Back.

Of course, the path of an artist-run indie label is littered with obstacles. Chief among them, for Miller, is distribution; he’s in the process of taking one corrupt distributor to court. Fortunately, the label has enjoyed considerable success online (www.dreamboxmedia.com). Locally, Dreambox releases can be found at the Sound of Market (15 S. 11th St., Third Floor, 215-925-3150). As for Miller, he can be seen backing a number of the artists on his roster. And he’s been working on his own tunes: "I’m finally going to do a CD myself." On Dreambox, of course.

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