A CHANCE ENCOUNTER LEADS TO A STUNNING MUSICAL COLLABORATION by Malia Rulon Herman
This duo had Maplewood in common
It was happenstance, how they met. Or maybe it was fate.
Vern Miller, a retired South Orange/Maplewood music teacher whose bass-playing career started in college with the 1960s garage rock band the Remains, which performed on the Ed Sullivan Christmas Show and opened for the Beatles, has never stopped making music.
Jeiris Cook, a 43-year-old, bowtie and cap-wearing father of three young boys, grew up in Georgia and started singing at age five as part of a “very musical church family,” before moving to Maplewood in the mid-1990s, where he attended Columbia High School, graduating in 1998.
Ironically, though, the two did not meet in Maplewood, where Mr. Miller, as he was known to his students, was busy juggling 7th and 8th grade concert bands and jazz ensembles, with a resurging career as the Remains reached cult status across the Northeast and Europe.
“It got crazy,” Miller admitted, explaining that he would sometimes take a personal day on Friday and fly to Europe on Thursday night so he could headline shows on Friday and Saturday nights before flying home Sunday.
“I was back in school on Monday,” Miller says. He did this over and over, playing shows across Europe on weekends and during Spring Break. “It was nuts. But I mean, I couldn’t not do it. It was a great opportunity – and we were having a ball.”
He was also having a ball in the classroom. “I loved teaching,” Miller says, his face lighting up with a giant grin as he remembers his former students.
“When I was trying to get young people to cooperate and work together, they knew that what I was telling them wasn’t just from something I read in a book on how to teach young kids, it was something that I experienced from the inside,” Miller says, describing what it was like to hang out with the Beatles, and what he learned from the three weeks he toured with them.
“If you’re in a musical group, you’re doing it with other people, so you have to find a common ground,” he says, explaining how his experiences helped him teach students how to set goals and collaborate.
“They believed in me. I had credibility,” he said.
Among his former students were: Anthony Mazzocchi, a former SOMSD Board of Education member and director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University; Dr. Qawi Telesford, a current SOMSD BOE member; Ahmed Best, a Broadway performer and musician also known for his role as Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and now appearing in The Mandalorian; Eric Hudson, a Grammy Award-winning music producer; Matt DeFilippis, senior vice president of licensing for ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers; and, of course, singer/songwriter Lauryn Hill.
Mazzocchi, who played trombone in Miller’s band before going on to study at the Manhattan School of Music and play in some of the top orchestras in the country, admitted that at the time, he was “too young to really understand the gravity” of Miller’s career. What he did understand was a teacher believing in him so much that he took the time to call his mom and recommend private lessons.
“What if he didn’t make that call?” Mazzocchi says. “That changed the trajectory of my life forever.”
Miller, he says, has continued to inspire him as an adult.
“He has lived a life steeped in music. He’s always doing something,” Mazzocchi says, with a note of awe in his voice.
Following his stint with the Remains, Miller played bass for such luminaries as Donna Summer, the Ronettes, Bobby Hebb (Sunny), and the Shirelles. He then formed an 11-piece band called Swallow, which recorded two albums with Warner Brothers and opened for artists such as Aerosmith, Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, BB King, the Beach Boys, the J. Geils Band, the Isley Brothers, Bo Diddley, and the Supremes.
Miller also composed the theme song for the 1996 NJ Martin Luther King Celebration, which was performed by a 200-voice children’s choir, and composed a virtuoso tuba concerto that was performed by the U.S. Army Band in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, he played locally with the Caterpillar Book and Shakey Ground, groups made up of South Orange and Maplewood musician friends, some of which were the parents of his students. Between the two, Miller performed at Maplewoodstock at least five times between 2008 and 2017.
So it’s no surprise that Miller, now in his 70s, was still making music when Cook walked into his studio in Jefferson Township.
It was May of 2019, less than a year before the Coronavirus pandemic shutdown, and Cook’s son had started taking art lessons from watercolor artist Sue Miller, Vern’s wife. One day, after dropping his son off, Cook found the door to Miller’s studio open and there sat Vern Miller, surrounded by guitars, computers, sound equipment, and music posters.
“I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” Cook said.
Cook, who didn’t move to Maplewood until high school, never knew Miller as a teacher since most of Miller’s teaching career included working with middle schoolers, although he briefly taught marching band at CHS.
Cook wasn’t in band; he was in choir and did some music theater. He was also part of a quartet that performed singing telegrams. “We were very popular around Valentine’s Day,” he says with a chuckle.
For Cook, although music was in his blood, making a career out of it was a pipe dream. He played with a group for a few years after high school, but then, life happened. He got married, had children, and other than writing a song here or there, didn’t do music for about 10 years.
Instead, he worked at Verizon, did a brief stint as warehouse manager for Peloton and was selling mattresses for Ashley Furniture when he went on a Cub Scouts camping trip with his son and realized that if he could play guitar, he could lead the campfire songs.
“I wanted to do (music) full time,” Cook says. “I always got positive feedback about my voice, but I knew that nobody would hire me just going out there singing a cappella. I had to learn an instrument. You have to be able to accompany yourself.”
So that’s when Cook, at age 36, decided to learn to play the guitar.
By the time Cook wandered into Miller’s home studio in 2019, he had not only mastered guitar, but he was writing his own songs and playing paid gigs most weekends, turning his signature blend of soulful vocals with traces of folk and R&B into a full-time musical career.
“He came in and we started talking and listening to music,” Miller says.
“We listened to a lot of music,” Cook says, laughing.
A few months later, when restaurants and concert venues shuttered in 2020, Miller dove into songwriting. “I always have music going through my head,” he says. “I wake up with it, I go to bed with it; I can’t turn it off.”
The first song he worked on was very soulful, very Otis Redding, and that made him think of Cook, whose voice blends vintage soul and blues into a velvety serenade that, combined with his guitar, delivered a sound that is down home, raw and earthy.
“So, I emailed him, and I said, ‘I got this song, and it really needs a voice like yours on it. If you’ll do the singing on the track for me, I’ll play bass on one of your songs,’” Miller recalls.
Next up was a gospel song. And before long, the two were emailing back and forth, exchanging ideas on melody, lyrical prose, and vocal arrangement. Their remote collaboration continued with edits, and eventually, recording – all while shuttered in their respective homes weathering the pandemic.
“I would get an idea, usually for a first verse and a hook, a place to start from, and I’d send it off to him,” Miller says, explaining that Cook would work on it and send it back with his ideas.
What has emerged is a stunning, five-track EP titled The Jeiris Cook/Vern Miller Project, which is available on Amazon Music, Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music. The tracks feature Cook on vocals, and Miller on instruments.
It’s an impressive achievement, not only because it was 100 percent created remotely, but also, because the EP brings together two very different musicians at very different times in their lives who have created a beautiful harmony.
“Music is a bridge that connects across gender, generations, ethnicity – it connects everybody. It’s a place where people can meet,” says Miller, adding as only one with his musical pedigree can: “I learned all that from traveling with people like the Beatles and being around them.”
Cook agrees, describing music as a form of universal therapy that can heal across boundaries, connecting people from all walks of life.
Since the pandemic, Cook has returned to performing. He has been a semifinalist in two songwriting competitions, performed in ShowTime at the Apollo and opened for 50 Cent at the Nassau Coliseum. He also volunteers with Musicians On Call.
Cook’s first full-length album, called “Patchwork,” is due out this September.
Malia Rulon Herman is an education writer who loves rock music and can’t wait to hear what else this remarkable duo has in store.