By Sabina Lilly
Vocalist Milton Suggs has been surrounded by music for virtually his entire life. A third-generation musician based in New York by way of his hometown, Chicago, he has gone on to work with jazz luminaries from around the world.
In 2018 Milton performed in the Chicago Jazz Fest tribute to his longtime mentor and teacher, pianist Willie Pickens. We think it’s a great time to catch up with Milton—and to learn more about his rich musical background.
You come from a family of musicians including your father and namesake, bassist Milton Suggs. What was it like growing up in that environment on the West Side of Chicago?
I spent the first five years of my life in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, subsequently moving to Atlanta, GA where I spent the majority of my childhood. With my father passing when I was an infant of three months, I did not have his direct one-to-one influence—yet I certainly grew up aware of his legacy and contributions. There is a particular video of him and Mary Lou Williams on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that was my primary visual reference of his playing. I do often wonder how my own musical trajectory may have been influenced had he lived, but I am grateful to have grown up in school systems with robust music programs and a household where music and art were highly valued.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
My interest in jazz began to take shape toward the end of my high school years. I’m not entirely sure exactly what started it, but I remember feeling compelled to check out recordings of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Quincy Jones that were around the house—Quincy Jones particularly because he was already on regular rotation around the house and on car rides. It was during my freshman year of college that I read the Quincy Jones autobiography, Q, and decided to make a commitment to music. I ordered several more CDs such as Big Train by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, compilation CDs of Nat King Cole and Joe Williams, and many others.
CJM: You started out playing piano. How did that come about, and how did you move toward voice and any other instruments you happen to play?
When I decided to become a musician I was a freshman at Florida A&M University as a journalism major. I then enrolled in a beginner piano course and it went from there. I reached out to my godfather, pianist Willie Pickens, and he offered some guidance. He explained that my late start might make the path a bit more difficult (which it did), but he also agreed to give me lessons. I moved back to Chicago and began my studies with him while also attending Columbia College and then DePaul University. It was at Columbia that I began moving more toward voice, eventually making it my primary focus. I do play some bass as well since I still have my father’s instrument.
CJM: So pianist Willie Pickens played a significant part in your musical development. Can you describe that relationship?
Uncle Willie, as I call him, is an indispensable part of my musical development, and so is his wife Irma. Not only did he introduce me to the music, offering me weekly lessons free of charge, but they both showed an abundance of support by coming to my performances, offering advice and guidance, cooking meals, and being overall champions. I also got married in their back yard. Uncle Willie and I have a lot of the same personality traits that also helped our student-teacher relationship to flourish. I believe my father knew what he was doing when he chose them to be my godparents and I’m grateful he did.
CJM: Do you or have you done any teaching?
I do. Most of my teaching has been as a clinician at the college or grade school level and some private lessons. I'm looking to expand my work in this area in the near future.
CJM: Through the years you have performed with many musicians in various settings. Can you talk about one or two artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your singing?
In 2008 while attending graduate school at DePaul University I was the singer for their jazz ensemble. This ensemble was invited to perform at the Symphony Center in downtown Chicago for a master class featuring members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This was one of the earlier experiences that helped to define my singing and establish a trajectory for my career. Through this experience I was able to connect with Wynton Marsalis and receive some guidance and encouragement. Roy Hargrove’s annual visits to Chicago also proved to be immensely inspirational, not just for the times I was invited to sit in with him, but simply listening and observing from the audience. There are countless others, but to date my very favorite performance was the big band concert I presented at Millennium Park in July 2014 for the Made in Chicago series. I assembled a big band to perform music that I wrote using the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar as lyrics. I. I count that performance as a true glimpse into the possibilities of where I’d like to go musically.
CJM: You are also an accomplished lyricist and composer/arranger. How and when did you begin to write, and can you describe your writing concepts and process?
I began to write poetry as a hobby around 9 years old, which is where my love for language began. My efforts as a lyricist and composer began in earnest around 2009. As for a concept or a process, I just try to jot down any idea that comes to mind as far as a theme or lyrical idea. Afterward I try and flesh it out by writing in a stream of consciousness style and seeing what sticks and develop it from there. Musically, it’s sort of the same process. I just sit at the piano and play. Whatever I come up with that I really like I record and try to develop from there. It’s a process I'm still learning how to navigate and I’m still learning to get out of my own way.
CJM: Your latest release on the Black on Purpose label is entitled The Truth Inside. How did that recording come about?
The Truth Inside is a collection of songs that I had written over the course of three or four years. I felt like it was time to release another album this time featuring mostly original music so I got together with some of my favorite musicians to play with and made a record. I liked the outcome and am looking forward to the next session.
CJM: You played a little keyboard on The Truth Inside. Do you ever play and sing live?
Yes. As a matter of fact I am beginning to do that much more frequently. On the one hand I like accompanying myself because it allows me a greater control over the direction of the music in the moment. However, I do like focusing only on singing as well at times because I don’t have to divide my attention and I’m able to emote a little better vocally. I suppose it all depends on the mood.
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
My primary focus at this time is family. My wife Asha and I are very busy raising our 3-year-old-daughter, Nzingah. However, I am consistently writing and developing new material with plans to return to the studio in the early fall. I’ll keep you posted!