Saxophonist Miller is lifelong big band man

Band director and saxophonist Ralph Miller, of Ooltewah, found his love of music as a child, and today’s Christmas and New Year’s events have him hopping from party to party with one of his many bands, offering a wide variety of jazz, old standards, background dinner music or a full-fledged show.

“I’m working and playing more than I have in my entire life,” said Miller, now a part-time elementary school music teacher at Boyd-Buchanan School after a 30-year career directing in public schools. “People still want some good entertainment. That’s why the restaurants of New Orleans are so successful. You get that wonderful Creole food and that Creole music.”

He’s organized music groups from a single pianist to a 17-piece band, covering Dixie brass, big band, swing and now even a new German band.


Contributed photo

Saxophobia is, from left, Tommy Ogle, Kevin Jackson, Ralph Miller, Johnny Adams, Jonathan Cathell and Keith Guillot.

“I’m hoping to get booked for the opening of Volkswagen,” he said.

The German band plays authentic German tunes and features lead vocals by Ooltewah High School German teacher Ron Cates and Apison Elementary School principal Ron Hughes on accordion.

Miller’s played at Riverbend, SwingFest, the Superintendent’s Honors Banquet and on the Delta Queen.

In the 1970s Miller played with traveling performers Red Skelton, Stevie Wonder and Liberace, all at the Memorial Auditorium.

Miller comes by his saxophone career honestly, following somewhat in the footsteps of his father, who played sax in the Alhambra Shrine band downtown.

“I learned from him and a lot of other people,” Miller said, though he admitted he learned the most in school bands.

Miller has his father’s collection of “dreamy” photos — bands posed on a stage amid celestial décor or a trio at a local radio station microphone.

“Some of these guys, their sons and nephews play for me now,” Miller said, looking at the photos.

Miller’s own son, Adam Miller, is band director at Hunter Middle School. Miller’s got one grandchild and one on the way.

“We’re hoping they’ll sing and play instruments just like their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents,” he said.

Miller sang as a child at the Brainerd Theater’s Saturday kids club, like the Mickey Mouse Club, where kids modeled clothes from Miller’s and Loveman’s department stores and performed short live shows, many of which were recorded for radio.

“If I lived in California I’d be in the movies right now,” he said. “I’ve been on a stage all my life and being a band director was just an extension of that, because I didn’t want to go on the road.”

Miller met his wife, Joy, in the band at UTC.

“If she hadn’t have played the clarinet we probably wouldn’t have met,” he said. “She used to sit behind me and put her knees in my back.”

Joy Miller retired last year after teaching French at Ooltewah High for 29 years. Now she teaches piano at Boyd-Buchanan’s after-school program.

Miller spent 26 years in Hamilton County schools as a principal and band director, working at Ooltewah Intermediate School, now Wolftever Creek Elementary School, Ooltewah Middle School, East Lake Junior High School, Chattanooga High School and Cleveland Junior High School.

Now Miller takes his band Saxophobia around to 25 elementary schools every May, presenting a 30-minute program to reward students for finishing the year’s testing.

He said he got the idea in the late 1990s at Disney World while listening to the ToonTown Tuners sax quartet as they played “My Girl” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“And I said, ‘I can do that,’” Miller said, adding that in his memory, Big Ridge Elementary School students were the most excited fans.

“It was like Elvis was in town,” he said.

Over the Christmas holidays Miller will be seen playing at the mayor’s Christmas party at Bessie Smith Hall and wandering from floor to floor playing at Alexian Village on Signal Mountain.

New Year’s Eve Miller and Saxophobia will play a Lombardo-style “Auld Lang Syne” at the Creative Discovery Museum’s New Year’s at Noon event, followed by a short rock ‘n’roll concert and parade.

“You don’t think of New Year’s Eve without thinking of the music of Guy Lombardo,” Miller said, harking back to the days of “Auld Lang Syne” at the Roosevelt Hotel. “That’s how you knew it was New Year’s Eve.”

Miller said he’ll keep playing as children, parents and grandparents keep demanding.

“As big as it’ll get,” he said.


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