The Agony and the Ecstasy

Most interview subjects prefer to meet a writer out in public for coffee or lunch. Tib Miller insisted I visit him at his Northside home to listen to records.

From the street, Miller’s brick house looks suburban enough. But the bright blue front door and vintage carousel horses on the gate give the first sign that things are slightly off-kilter. Miller — 49-year-old concert promoter, vinyl collector and music fanatic — greets me around back, where seemingly countless pairs of shoes are stacked next to cartons of VHS tapes. In the kitchen, old sunglasses on a string dangle over the sink. The entryway to the living room is covered with wilted smiley-faces, and masks of all shapes and origins litter the wall above the fireplace.

But Miller’s music alcove is clearly the visual centerpiece of the house. LPs occupy one entire side of the relatively large living room. Hundreds of leather carrying cases containing thousands of 45s line the other walls’ floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In front of those shelves, pushcarts hold more cases containing more records, many spilling onto the floor in unruly piles. Photo collages from the concerts that Miller has brought to Northeast Florida since 1998 take up nearly every other available surface, along with typewritten letters, framed albums, beads, statuettes, straw hats and random knickknacks. From one corner, a white apron suspended from the wall implores, “Get Cookin’ With Boozoo & Leona.” From another, Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph featuring every notable mid-20th-century jazz musician, looms large.

At the center of it all sits Miller, ensconced in a tattered floral-print chair facing an expensive Numark turntable on the room’s only available shelf. Less than two feet away, a speaker is positioned on a hand-painted end table. At Miller’s feet are stacks of vinyl pricing guides and music history texts. Within that small radius, he is obviously in his comfort zone.

Miller goes out of his way to make me feel comfortable, too. He clears a seat on a cluttered couch and offers a bowl of homemade black bean stew. Records handpicked for my perusal were introduced in Miller’s calm, soothing voice. As the crackling strains of vintage blues, jazz, country, R&B and rockabilly songs bounce off the drums and tambourines in one corner and the half-strung guitars in the other, I mention how impressed I am by the wood-paneled room’s acoustics. Miller shoots me a glance that firmly discourages conversation while music is on. Instead, he settles farther back into the chair, his intense blue-gray eyes losing focus. I close my own eyes and forget about my perch on an ancient couch surrounded by dusty records in an unfamiliar man’s home. Soon, I am in the zone as well.

In this digital day and age, sharing records is a rare musical encounter: hands-on, personal, contemplative. Expand it exponentially for an audience at a live venue and it’s exactly what Miller has brought to Jacksonville since moving here in 1995, when he founded Flying Saucer Presents Inc. as a non-profit concert promotion firm. Some of Miller’s shows — Taj Mahal, Wilco, Merle Haggard, Old 97’s, Bill Maher, The B-52s — have been phenomenal successes. Others — Boozoo Chavis, Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Dave Von Ronk, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks — could be viewed as commercial busts. But Miller says those others still count among his favorites.

“The business catastrophes are often the grandest artistic successes,” he says with a flourish. “I’m no stranger to beautiful disasters. I’ve had plenty, and I’d love to have plenty more.”

Sell-outs or not, though, there’s no denying that each of Flying Saucer’s 100-plus offerings has seriously elevated Northeast Florida’s cultural cachet. Growing up in Connecticut, Miller says he became obsessed with music at a young age, playing his parents’ stack of old 78s on a hand-cranked Victrola. Early country traditional “Arkansas Traveler” was one particular favorite, he remembers, combining elements of intrigue, humor and yearning that still light his fuse today.

“For me, listening to music isn’t something that you do while you’re at your desk working,” he says. “It’s an experience you’re meant to apply mental powers to.” Referring to his ever-growing vinyl collection, he adds, “As you can see, this bug has gotten a little out of control. But it’s such a glorious bug to have because I’m still finding incredible records.”

And here’s the kicker: Miller doesn’t want to hoard the results of his discoveries. He doesn’t want to sterilely file his records away. He wants to play them for anybody who will listen, aiming to make connections, change lives and open minds. His first opportunity to do that came in the early 1980s, when he was studying electrical engineering at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Hanging around nearby Wesleyan University in his spare time, Miller was offered a late-night radio show at WESU by music industry veteran Jake Guralnick. Dubbing himself The Flying Saucer — “based on Pat Cupp & The Flying Saucers, not Billy C. Riley’s ‘Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ ” Miller clarifies — he began each show with “Rocket Number Nine,” one of Sun Ra Arkestra’s many mind-warping anthems.

“It was this concept of beaming in every week for a broadcast,” Miller remembers. “I wanted to expose people to sounds that were considered too risky. There was never a concept of, ‘I get it and you don’t — I’m going to hold on to it.’ It’s always been, ‘I get it — and I want you to get it, too.’ ”

After college, Miller started working as a software engineer, but continued to spend his free time devouring music and attending concerts in New York, where his older sister lived for more than 30 years. His first promoting job came when a club-owner friend wanted to bring Sun Ra to Wesleyan in the early 1990s and utilized Miller’s connections at the college. Other than that, though, Miller says there was no need to book shows in the Northeast’s fertile artistic grounds. Instead, he cultivated close friendships with his favorite artists, particularly iconic blues-rock outfit NRBQ. “When you see a band eight million times, people get used to seeing your face,” Miller laughs. “So I just dug in with NRBQ and hoped for the best. They really served as a primary catalyst in helping me discover other artists that I wasn’t aware of.”

In 1995, after 15 years accumulating records and honing his musical knowledge, Miller and his wife Sis Van Cleve, a Jacksonville native whom he met at Trinity, moved to the South to be closer to her parents. Miller first tried bringing his Flying Saucer radio show to Jacksonville University’s WFIN, but says his eclectic tastes didn’t gain much traction with the student body there. “I realized that if something was going to happen in Jacksonville with these artists I loved, I was going to have to do it,” Miller remembers. “The idea was, ‘Can I introduce this act and his or her particular greatness to North Florida?’ That way, hopefully, somebody else could catch the bug.”

Through his in-laws’ connections at Theatre Jacksonville, Miller befriended former executive and artistic director Robert Arleigh White and inquired about a concert series for the 311-seat venue. The first show, Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers, occurred in March 1998, with Boozoo Chavis, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and NRBQ soon to follow. Miller gives credit for the shows to White, now executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. But White remembers things differently. “Right away, I could tell Tib was intrepid, smart and tenacious,” White says. “He didn’t need a lot of help — he was so single-minded about his personal mission. And Theatre Jacksonville was a good springboard for him, somewhere he could cut his teeth, take some risks and figure out how the business worked.”

From the get-go, Miller took a keen interest in the entire concert experience, mulling details like the art hanging in a venue’s lobby, the way concertgoers were greeted, and stage lighting, sound dynamics and visual aesthetics. “Tib’s always been very meticulous about setting the tone at his shows,” White says. “He wants the artist to leave with a good feeling about Jacksonville, the audience to go away with a desire to come back to the venue, and his collaborators to say, ‘Holy smokes — who would have thought to have done that?’ ”

Miller next set his sights on bigger acts and more prestigious venues, like downtown’s Florida Theatre. Miller says theater general manager Erik Hart originally approached him about Flying Saucer’s programming, while Hart remembers things the other way around. Either way, both men laugh when recalling the circumstances of their first collaboration, quirky indie-rock pioneers Yo La Tengo. “I told Erik, ‘You’re going to have more empty seats than full ones,’ ” Miller chuckles. “But he said, ‘Let’s try it!’ And you can’t beat that.”

The Florida Theatre’s expansive stage gave Miller the idea of bringing his record collection to the audience. To this day, he still performs carefully curated set lists of rare 45s before headlining acts go on. Hart believes it’s only one of the ways that Miller injects fresh energy into his historic venue. “Success in a show is sometimes related to selling out all the seats,” Hart says. “But more often that not, there are other measures of success. And what Tib brings to the table is a different dimension to our overall programming — a whole range of musical acts that we normally wouldn’t look at. Some shows have done very well, while others have not. But virtually everything has been extremely interesting.”

Miller describes himself as a “loyalist” who “doesn’t jump around,” so for the better part of the last decade, he booked shows at only three locations: The Florida Theatre, Jack Rabbits and Freebird Live. In fact, when I first interviewed him in 2011, he said he’d turned down multiple offers to extend his reach south toward St. Augustine. “I’m trying to help Jacksonville,” he said at the time. “This is where I live, so this is where I want to share music with people.”

Since then, his stance had softened. American rock icons Wilco requested a show at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, and he agreed. He’s even working with St. Johns County Cultural Events Division General Manager Ryan Murphy to bring another Flying Saucer Presents concert series to Ponte Vedra Concert Hall later this year.

“Tib is an interesting cat,” Murphy says. “He’s very good about making sure the people he works with feel comfortable. After talking to him, I realized that several shows I’d seen at The Florida Theatre over the years were his — I just didn’t know it at the time. That lets me know that his events are about the artist, not the promoter, which carries a lot of water in our business. And everyone certainly appreciates it when local promoters are putting on local events.”

One local event that stands out was held earlier this year, when Miller arranged a benefit concert at The Florida Theatre honoring the work of former St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. Miller put more effort than usual into the occasion, pulling off a bill he’d been dreaming of for years: a “songwriter’s showcase,” featuring underrated American treasures Van Dyke Parks and Billy Joe Shaver. Merle Haggard’s 2011 appearance also took a decade to firm up, Miller says. And he worked on Tom Waits for a similar amount of time, only to have another promoter book the show. But, Miller graciously adds, “The important thing is that somebody brought Tom Waits to Jacksonville.”

That passion spills over into Miller’s fervent desire to support independent businesses around Jacksonville. Ironically, he says he hasn’t found a community of like-minded vinyl enthusiasts in Duval County; in fact, he orders records by mail from dealers around the country. He also claims to have never sold a record, which seems specious until one personally beholds his vast collection. “I’m a careful buyer,” he says. “I have a want list, but there’s no rush. I don’t need to have them all tomorrow. I chuckle when people talk about having everything. That’s a sheer impossibility.”

After a lifetime spent toiling in the software field, Miller was recently laid off from his job at ICS, Inc. He’s even considering finally taking up promotions full-time. But for now, he says he’s happy to have a technological break, enjoying time with his family — wife Sis, 13-year-old daughter Pepper and eight-year-old son Gram — and their coterie of animals: two dogs, two cats, a flock of free-range chickens and six horses. In addition to serving as assistant director of college counseling at Episcopal High School, Miller’s wife is a board member of Horse Sense & Sensitivity, which provides therapeutic horseback-riding opportunities. Currently, the organization conducts its program on the Millers’ large tract of land.

When I asked about Flying Saucer Presents’ online presence, Miller laughs and says a friend does maintain a Facebook page for him. “But this is not about being ‘friends’ with someone via a website,” he asserts. “I much prefer talking to people in person. I want to see their face, read their expression and really get to know them. Jacksonville has a million people, and I’m just looking for those 500.” Miller says he has a handful of fans who have attended every concert he’s booked since 1998. And he claims that he’s never taken a dollar out of the non-profit 501(c)(3), putting all proceeds back into future events. Chuckling, he adds, “Not that there have been many dollars to take out.”

Erik Hart believes that advancing the city’s musical vanguard requires risks. That, he believes, is what makes Miller such an asset to Jacksonville. “One show that comes to mind is Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys,” Hart remembers. “It was a fantastic show, but we took a hit on it — nobody else would touch [something] like that. I’m grateful to have a guy like Tib who’s got the balls to do things like that.”

Robert White agrees, saying Miller’s “quiet presence” belies his fervent desire to bring outside-the-mainstream experiences to Jacksonville. “I’m so glad somebody thinks that there’s an audience for that here,” White affirms. “He’s expanded the capacity for Northeast Florida to absorb a more diverse range of opportunities. And that creates a win-win for everybody.”

Before leaving Miller’s house, I ask about one of the many posters on his music room wall, of Los Angeles saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. The image, taken in 1951 by Hollywood photographer Bob Willoughby, depicts McNeely bent over backwards, wailing on his sax, while a handful of ecstatic fans pound on the stage in front of him. “Those onlookers, that whole audience there, that’s me,” Miller says. “Just look at those faces! Every one of them is completely enraptured — it doesn’t matter who you pick out. They all capture my exact sentiment about music and its depth and profundity. The act of booking a show is all about making moments like that happen.”

Rising from his chair, Miller pulls out a McNeely record from 1962. Before dropping the needle, he points out that the featured harmonica player was George “Harmonica” Smith, who played with and mentored Rod Piazza, the first act Flying Saucer Presents brought to Jacksonville, in 1998.

“That’s better than Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation, right?” Miller laughs. “And you know what the amazing thing is? You can’t find any of these connections online. You can only find them by listening to records. Every month, I find something new like that — and I’m predominantly still picking up music from the same time period. How is that possible?”

Glancing back up at the picture of McNeely as the jazz legend’s wild, honking saxophone sounds fill up his music room, Miller’s eyes sparkle and, if for only a moment, tear up. “Some people want to be done,” he says with a measured voice. “They want to find every record. But that’s not what drove guys like Big Jay. It was about continual, never-ending discovery and exploration. And that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Nick McG

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