Jazzman's aim: Keep it interesting

Dan McMillion's high-powered sound breaks the area's monotony.

By LOGAN NEILL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 11, 2008

SPRING HILL - As it turned out, 2007 was a pretty good year for jazz band leader Dan McMillion. Considering the anemic state of the jazz scene in the Tampa Bay area, well-paying gigs were fairly plentiful.

For a guy who has maintained one of the region's finest jazz orchestras for more than a dozen years, it makes for a comfortable musical niche that has earned him respect from peers and fans alike.

McMillion, 70, admits that keeping it all going takes tenacity and hard work, much of which he learned from his former boss, big-band great Woody Herman.

He tries to strike a balance between contemporary jazz that is both accessible to the public and musically challenging, a tough balancing act for a musician as demanding as McMillion.

"It doesn't do you much good to go too far either way," he said. "You can play the most incredible, far-out music, but if no one gets it, then what's the point?"

All of which may be why McMillion has succeeded in venues where others have failed - gigs like the monthly Hernando Jazz Society show, where he will perform at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

When asked to play the monthly dance last year, McMillion said, he was skeptical, fearing that his high-powered brand of jazz wouldn't dovetail with the social atmosphere of the event.

"I was worried that what I played wasn't what they would want to hear or dance to," McMillion recalled.

But a few well-chosen standards mixed with his regular repertoire seemed to do the trick. Society members couldn't wait to have him back.

The seeds of McMillion's high-soaring stylings can be traced to the late Maynard Ferguson, whose fervent, pop-laced sound earned the jazz trumpet master great commercial success during the 1960s and 1970s.

McMillion, who grew up in Detroit trying to emulate the lyrical tones of Harry James, said the blend of tight rhythms and expansive melodies that fueled Ferguson's music made him realize that there was good ground left to cover.

"To me, Maynard's blend of pop and jazz was fun to listen to, and the fact that he was such a dynamic player inspired me to want to put a band like that together," he said.

Doing so proved to be a daunting task for McMillion, who still works his day job as owner of Dan's Volvo Service in South Tampa. With few local jazz clubs to rely on for regular work, he soon found himself spending an exhaustive amount of time finding enough work to keep even a quartet of musicians happy and busy.

These days, rather than try to keep a permanent roster of skilled players, McMillion relies on a network of potential sidemen on his computer to fill slots as needed. Doing so allows him to take jobs in other areas of the state without having to worry about travel arrangements.

"Not only is there freedom in it, playing with different musicians keeps it interesting for me," McMillion said. "That's what it's always really been about for me anyway."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.


To hear the Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra

The Hernando Jazz Society will present the Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the SNPJ Hall, 13383 County Line Road, Spring Hill. Admission for nonmembers is $10. For information, call (352) 666-4842.