Ron Miles, whose gleaming, generously understated cornet playing made him one of the most rewarding bandleaders in contemporary jazz, if also one of its most easily overlooked, died on Tuesday at his home in Denver. He was 58.
His label, Blue Note Records, said in an announcement that the cause was complications of a rare blood disorder.
Mr. Miles had only recently gained the wider attention that he had long deserved, and his death proved as wrenching as it was unexpected for a jazz world already reeling from a cavalcade of untimely deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pianist Jason Moran paid tribute to Mr. Miles in a Facebook post, praising the spirit that he poured into both his compositions and his contributions to other people’s bands. “He’d make a chart with so much soul and simplicity,” Mr. Moran wrote. “And he would imbue any other song with that soulfulness as well. Every turn was original.”
For decades, Mr. Miles enjoyed the admiration of insiders and fellow musicians and was known as a munificent educator and standard-bearer on the Denver scene. But his retiring personality and his relative absence from New York conspired with the resolute unflashiness of his playing to keep him out of the brightest spotlight. In his bands, the accompanists were often more famous than the leader.
Only with the 2017 release of “I Am a Man,” a collection of seven inspired originals played by an all-star quintet, did the scope of his creativity gain wider recognition. Three years later, Blue Note released the quintet’s second album, “Rainbow Sign,” a set of languorous, gleaming tunes that he had written while caring for his ailing father, who died in 2018.
The title had a few levels of meaning for Mr. Miles, all of them intertwined. Referring to a passage in the Book of Revelation, when Christ perceives that his skin is multihued, Mr. Miles said the rainbow was a symbol of humanity’s oneness. “The idea of a rainbow is that it’s this thing that takes us outside of our expectations and our limitations of what we can see,” he told the Denver-based publication Westword.
While grieving, Mr. Miles had also been drawn to mythology that sees rainbows as a gateway connecting the living to their ancestors. “Those who have left us can come back when we see a rainbow and visit us,” he said, “and we can interact with them through this rainbow.”
Ronald Glen Miles was born in Indianapolis on May 9, 1963, to Jane and Fay Dooney Miles. When he was 11, his parents moved the family to Denver, hoping that the mile-high climate would help Ron cope with his asthma, and took jobs as civil servants there.
He started playing trumpet in middle school, at a summer music program, and grew devoted to the instrument as a student at East High School. Mr. Miles played in the jazz band alongside the future actor Don Cheadle, who played saxophone, and soon began an apprenticeship with the respected Denver saxophonist Fred Hess.
Mr. Miles and Mr. Hess would become collaborators, making a number of recordings together and both serving on the faculty of Metropolitan State University of Denver, where Mr. Miles eventually became director of jazz studies.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Denver, but soon transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder to study music. He went on to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music, but he would spend the rest of his career in Denver, where he mentored a generation of musicians — both on the live scene and in classrooms at Metropolitan State.
On his first album, “Distance for Safety,” released in 1987, he led a hard-driving trumpet-bass-drums trio infused with equal doses of rock and free jazz. He went on to release a string of consistently unorthodox albums on various small labels, conforming to no favored format or style, including “Witness,” a 1989 quintet date, and “Heaven,” a 2002 duo record with the guitarist Bill Frisell.
As Mr. Miles’s career went on, an expansive Rocky Mountain sound seeped ever more indelibly into his compositions and his playing, which was rough around the edges but balanced and controlled at its core. In the 2000s he switched fully from the trumpet to the cornet, a slightly less glamorous instrument that seemed to suit him.
Unlike a typical East Coast trumpeter, he rarely flitted or zipped around on the instrument. He approached notes as if to disarm them, sometimes allowing tones to fill themselves out gradually, becoming wide and full and bright. The melodies he traced felt designed to be followed, even when they went fiendishly askew.
By his mid-50s, Mr. Miles had become the leading brass player in what can now be considered a legitimate subgenre in jazz: the blending of American folk, blues and country with cool jazz and spiritual influences. One of its originators was Mr. Frisell, a Denver native 12 years older than Mr. Miles. In the 1990s and 2000s, the drummer Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band were its biggest exponents. Mr. Miles worked closely with both musicians.
He began collaborating with Mr. Frisell in the 1990s, playing first in the guitarist’s unusual quartet (joined by trombone and violin); they went on to appear in a variety of each other’s ensembles. Mr. Blade joined them in a trio under Mr. Miles’s direction that recorded a pair of arresting albums, “Quiver” (2012) and “Circuit Rider” (2014), before expanding into a quintet.
With Mr. Moran added on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass, Mr. Miles composed for the band with each individual musician in mind. And he gave his side musicians full scores, rather than just individual parts, so they would see how all their voices would move together.
The band became a darling of the jazz world, and “I Am a Man,” released on Enja/Yellowbird Records, garnered widespread acclaim. Mr. Miles made his first appearance as a leader at the Village Vanguard last year, playing the storied club’s reopening week after it had been shut down for a year and a half because of the coronavirus.
Mr. Miles is survived by his wife, Kari Miles; his daughter, Justice Miles; his son, Honor Miles; his mother; his brother, Johnathan Miles; his sisters, Shari Miles-Cohen and Kelly West; and his half sister, Vicki M. Brown.
Mr. Miles was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2017; that same year, he joined the saxophonist Joshua Redman in recording “Still Dreaming,” a tribute to band Old and New Dreams, with Mr. Miles filling the trumpeter Don Cherry’s chair. The album earned him his lone Grammy nomination.
Mr. Miles had also been a member of the pianist Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, an acclaimed avant-garde quintet; the violinist Jenny Scheinman’s groups; and the blues musician Otis Taylor’s backing band.
A decade before Mr. Miles put together his quintet, the New York Times critic Nate Chinen, reviewing a performance with a sextet, made note of how selflessly he led his band. “Mr. Miles, who wrote most of the material for the group, appeared flatly uninterested in solo heroics; he was more intent on submerging himself in a sound,” Mr. Chinen wrote. He added, “The songs felt like internal monologues in open spaces: careful and contemplative but free.”