Sammy Miller and his girlfriend, Misha, grew up in vastly different cultures. Miller 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, a Grammy Award-nominated drummer and singer who has performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and the White House. He leads the seven-piece, New York-based Sammy Miller and The Congregation, an up-and-coming poppy jazz group that sounds like a cross between the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Ben Folds Five.
Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Miller has written a humorous song titled “Date a Jew,” about the pressures he and his girlfriend felt during the early days of their courtship. The song appears on the new album, “Leaving Egypt.”
The “Date a Jew” music video features stunning shadow puppetry by the Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
“There was one thing in this world my momma said/you gotta date a Jew,” Miller sings at the start of the song.
A few lines later, he sings that Misha “learned at the mosque” not to date Jews.
But in real life, the pair got past the hurdles fairly early. Miller approached Misha when he was 16 at a Model United Nations conference for high school students.
He wasn’t the type to make a bold and brazen move. Even now at 28, he speaks softly and chooses his phrases deliberately. But back then at the Model U.N., he summoned the courage to walk up to her and tell her that he thought she was pretty.
“She didn’t say anything because it was kind of a weird thing to say,” Miller said.
So nothing came of their romance at first. But about a decade later, Misha showed up at one of Miller’s concerts, in Chicago. The rest is romantic history.
These days, they share each other’s traditions. For example, Miller recalls how Misha sat with him through his grandfather’s shiva, and how he then learned about Islam’s equivalent of the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.
The philosophy of openness and fellowship 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 serious and insular, which starkly contrasts with the musical philosophy some of the genre’s early icons like 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 bowties 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 said he isn’t very religious these days, but just about everything about his band’s aesthetic has a Jewish vibe, from the word Congregation in the group’s name to the album title’s Exodus reference, to the Moses-like staff pictured in some promotional photos (like the one attached to this article).
“[‘Leaving Egypt’] is us leaving the conventions of our jazz world,” Miller said. “We’re leaving what we knew for something unknown.”
On their “Leaving Egypt” national tour, Sammy Miller and The Congregation will perform on Mar. 28 at the Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. For information about the band, visit http://www.sammymillercongregation.com/.
Gabe Friedman writes for the JTA global news source.
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