Who the F Is … Drummer Allison Miller?

Our series on women you may not know — but should — this week looks at a drummer who proves that playing 'like a girl' is something to be proud of.
By: Trudy Ring
February 12 2014 8:21 PM

Who she is: A well-regarded musician whose range includes jazz, rock, and folk.

What she’s accomplished: You may not have heard of Allison Miller, but you’ve most likely heard her. She leads the jazz-oriented band Boom Tic Boom and has co-led several other groups, such as EMMA with Erin McKeown, and performed with the likes of Amy Ray, Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant, and Toshi Reagon, plus avant-garde sax player Marty Ehrlich and many other artists. Her music was also featured on The L Word. The Los Angeles Times deemed Boom Tic Boom's self-titled 2010 album one of the top 10 jazz releases of the year, and jazz mag DownBeat has twice named Miller “Rising Star Drummer” in its annual poll.

Miller once thought she couldn’t fit into the jazz world as a lesbian and a feminist. “The jazz world is a boys’ club,” she wrote in a Huffington Post column last year. “How would I continue to play the music I loved while being a radical lesbian feminist? How was I supposed to be one of the boys when I was realizing how powerful I felt as a woman?” She eventually began calling out “the boys” when they made sexist remarks. “Surprisingly, a lot of them were receptive to my challenges, and the ones who weren't just stopped calling me, which was fine by me,” she reported. “There are fewer of those guys than you would imagine. For the most part, the jazz world is not as conservative as I thought it was. But believe me, when someone needs to be called out, I’m happy to do it.”

While breaking down gender barriers, Miller has also crossed genre lines. A Boom Tic Boom performance was the hit of the 2012 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but Miller is also at home with folk, rock, blues, and other types of music. She has gigs coming up this month and next with Reagon, Boom Tic Boom, and numerous other artists, and in April she’ll be appearing with Ray at several East Coast venues. Then in May at the Mary Lou Williams Festival, she and Reagon will pay musical homage to the great women of jazz. When she’s not performing, Miller’s often teaching, and she’s set up the Walter Salb Memorial Musical Scholarship Foundation, named for her mentor, to help young people further their education in music.

Choice quote: “So many people have said to me, ‘You don’t play like a girl!’ They think it's a compliment. But actually, I do play like a girl. This is what girls play like. People hear with their eyes: They see a ‘girl’ and are surprised when they hear the power and prowess that they associate with ‘boys.’ By getting onstage and throwing down while looking the way I do, I am breaking stereotypes. I am a woman. I am a dyke. I am a tomboy. I play jazz.” — Miller in The Huffington Post

For more information: Miller has an extensive website where you can find a detailed biography and a schedule of her performances as well as listen to and buy her music.

Below, check out Miller with Boom Tic Boom in a “Tiny Desk Concert” for NPR.

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