A Musician on the Upper West Side
“I think every home should have an upright bass,” said John Miller, walking into his music room and nodding at the instrument in the corner. “It adds a certain je ne sais quoi. The shape of the bass, the contours, the gestalt of the bass only adds to a room.”
Mr. Miller ought to know. A bass player himself, he has two upright basses, nine electric basses, an electric guitar and a studio piano in the Upper West Side rental that he shares with his wife, Constance Barron, an actress and singer. Half a dozen more electric basses and yet another upright bass share the couple’s weekend home in the Berkshires.
“I got upright bass No. 3 from a guy who lived in my building,” recalled Mr. Miller, 70. “I was in his apartment once, and I saw this funky instrument leaning against the wall, and he said, ‘If you want it, it’s yours.’ He told me he’d ripped it off the High School of Music and Art in the 1950s.”
He added: “It had a carving on the back, ‘Maria loves Koussevitzky,’ ” a reference to the legendary double bassist and conductor. “How could I resist?”
Mr. Miller makes the bulk of his living assembling orchestras; he has put together the pit crew for more than 100 Broadway shows, most recently, “Something Rotten,” “Beautiful,” “Once,” “Jersey Boys,” “It Shoulda Been You” and revivals of “Gigi,” “Les Misérables,” “On the Town” and “On the Twentieth Century.”
But this is no Johnny one-note. Mr. Miller has also been a studio musician for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Bette Midler. He was the vocalist, bass player and guitarist on his own charming album of musical theater staples, and had a featured role in the 1977 Broadway musical “I Love My Wife.” Granted, the part wasn’t much of a stretch: Mr. Miller played a bassist.
Now, he has a recurring role as a dope-dealing percussionist in the Amazon Prime series “Mozart in the Jungle”; season two starts shooting the week of Aug. 10.
Mr. Miller has occupied his apartment, a short walk from his childhood home, since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1968. A family friend who lived in the building encouraged him to go see the rental agent — and to take along some cash to expedite the transaction.
“But I wasn’t sophisticated enough to ask the friend, ‘How much do I tip the guy?’ ” Mr. Miller said.
“I remember sitting at the desk in his office. He’s not looking at me and I’m not looking at him. But at a certain point, I put a $20 bill in front of him and another $20 bill and another $20. He’s writing the contract, but clearly he sees out of the corner of his eye that the bills are starting to pile up,” he continued. “I think at four or five bills, no more than that, he sort of nodded, ‘That’s enough.’ Lucky he did or I’d still be sitting there.”
The cash got Mr. Miller a bright rent-stabilized 15th-floor space with two bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen and four closets. He was, he said, beyond busy as a musician, and left the decorating chores to the women (including two who are now ex-wives), who went in and out of his apartment, in and out of his life.
“Each relationship had a different paint color or wallpaper,” Mr. Miller recalled. “Years later, when we were taking down the wallpaper and stripping paint, I would remember them by the patterns and the colors. I’d think back and say, ‘Oh, the blue was so-and-so.’ ”
He and Ms. Barron, 72, met in 1963 while working on a campus production of “West Side Story.” She was Maria. He was smitten.
“She was the shiksa goddess, so I knew we would just be pals,” Mr. Miller said. It was, in any case, an enduring friendship. The two stayed in touch, and when Ms. Barron, divorced and with three grown children, decided, at the age of 49, to give New York a try, the pals became a couple.
“I remember it as a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ thing,” Mr. Miller said. “One morning we woke up in bed together, and we’ve been together ever since.” They married 17 years ago.
It was Ms. Barron who, in the manner of her predecessors, headed the decorating committee, first getting rid of the welter of wires embedded in the ceiling molding, then installing baseboard molding, sanding the floors, stripping the doors, re-nickeling the bathroom fixtures and sponge-painting the living room a buttery yellow.
She also did a little reshuffling, turning the bedroom into a music studio, converting Mr. Miller’s music contracting office into the bedroom, then moving the office 80 steps away — the farthest her husband was willing to commute — to a space in the building next door. “When Connie moved in, she said, ‘We have to change things around, because I’m not going to sleep in the room where you had your active social life,’ ” Mr. Miller said.
The living room, where he has practiced the Japanese tea ceremony for 25 years, is suitably serene, furnished in earth tones and wood: a well-broken-in brown leather sofa, a drop-leaf Queen Anne side table and a refectory dining table that was custom-made for the couple. Plop down on the couch and you can see into the kitchen, where the walls display paintings by the couple’s friend Ken Shaw, a Chicago artist. Elsewhere are works once owned by Mr. Miller’s parents and family photos.
Early in their relationship, Mr. Miller and Ms. Barron contemplated moving out of the apartment and buying a brownstone in the neighborhood. That way, they could spread out and give over a whole floor to the music-contracting business and its staff.
“I’ve only lived in rental apartments, so the brownstone world was fascinating to me,” Mr. Miller said. “I didn’t realize how narrow and dark many of them were. We had a number of real estate agents showing us different places, and the one thing they all said to us was, ‘If you get a brownstone, can I have your apartment?’ That’s when the light bulb went off, and I said, ‘Hey, I have an even better deal than I ever knew.’ ”
All the things Mr. Miller had long taken for granted — high floor, quiet, bright and relatively big — he stopped taking for granted. He told Ms. Barron that they really should fix up the place. Not that it all went harmoniously.
“I went kicking and screaming when Connie said, ‘Let’s change the bedroom.’ And I went kicking and screaming when she said, ‘Let’s get an office.’ And I’ve loved every change,” Mr. Miller said. “I know any other change she suggests, I’ll go kicking and screaming until she does it. And then I’ll be happy.”