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Jazz with an Interfaith Beat
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Jazz with an Interfaith Beat

Sammy Miller, center, in yellow, and his band the Congregation.
(Lauren Desberg via JTA)
Sammy Miller, center, in yellow, and his band the Congregation. (Lauren Desberg via JTA)

JTA – Sammy Miller and his girlfriend Misha grew up in vastly different cultures: Sammy was raised Jewish in suburban Los Angeles, while Misha was raised Muslim in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the United States when she was 12.

Miller also happens to be a musician — the drummer leads Sammy Miller and the Congregation, an up-and-coming poppy jazz group that sounds like a cross between the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Ben Folds Five.

Now he’s written a humorous song, titled “Date a Jew,” about the pressures he and his girlfriend felt during the early days of their relationship.

“There was one thing in this world my momma said, ‘You gotta date a Jew,’” Sammy sings at the start of the song. A few lines later he sings that Misha “learned at the mosque” not to date Jews.

Fortunately, in real life, the pair got past the early hurdles. Miller, 28, approached Misha when he was 16, at a Model UN conference for high school students. Nothing came of it at first. But about 10 years later, Misha showed up at one of Sammy’s concerts, in Chicago. The rest is romantic history.

 

These days they share each other’s traditions — Sammy recalls, for example, how Misha sat with him through his grandfather’s shiva mourning period, and how he then learned about Islam’s equivalent of the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.

The philosophy of openness preached by the song dovetails perfectly with Miller’s musical ethos as well: making jazz fun and accessible again to all. A Juilliard graduate, Miller believes that the contemporary jazz world has become too insular and too serious, in stark contrast to the inclinations of jazz icons like the late Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who were storytellers.

“I’m trying to create material that is very much of our moment, which is my experience. … We’re not dressing up in bow ties and pretending like it’s 1927,” he said. “We want to create space for people to be themselves, and I feel like Misha did that for me and I did that for her.”

Miller isn’t very religious these days, but just about every part of his band’s aesthetic has a Jewish vibe, from the word “congregation” in the name to the just-released album title’s Exodus reference (“Leaving Egypt”) to the Moses-like staff pictured in some promotional photos.

“[‘Leaving Egypt’] is us leaving the conventions of our jazz world,” Miller said. “We’re leaving what we knew for something unknown.”

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