Bettye Miller (1927–1977)
Biography courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collection, Kansas City Public Library & David Conrads, edited by Nina Cherry
From the early 1950s until her death in 1977, pianist Bettye Miller—along with her husband, bassist Milt Abel—were among the premier local jazz artists. Known for their musical polish and sophistication, Bettye and Milt also brought a unique warmth and intimacy to their performances. Miller was often spoken of as the “queen of Kansas City jazz”—the first since the great Mary Lou Williams—and she and her husband carried on Kansas City’s celebrated musical tradition for twenty-five years.
Bettye Miller was born in Clinton, Missouri, in 1928. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal music from Lincoln University, a historically Black university, in Jefferson City, Missouri, and taught elementary school in West Plains, MO, for two years before moving to Philadelphia for more voice training. In Philadelphia, she turned to the piano as her primary instrument and played in nightclubs there before moving to Kansas City in the early 1950s.
Photographs courtesy of the LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries
It was while playing at the Horseshoe Lounge on 32nd and Troost, that she met Milt Abel. They performed together at the Horseshoe Lounge for ten years, usually six nights a week, followed by regular engagements at various Kansas City jazz clubs, including the Plaza III, Putsch’s Strawberry Patch, and Mr. Putsch’s on the Plaza. As a duo, Bettye Miller and Milt Abel were key figures in Kansas City's jazz revival. They also performed occasionally in Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas, as well as at numerous jazz festivals and in benefit concerts, as well as recording a number of albums.
Miller’s death at the age of 49, after a two year long battle with cancer, was a major loss to the local jazz scene. “Bettye Miller was one of the fine musical talents of this region,” wrote a Kansas City Star editorial in 1977. “She could be thunderous, lyrical, dramatic or slightly coy on the keyboard. Contrasts were important in her style: Lush romanticism with sweeping arpeggios and crashing chords would give way suddenly to delicate, tinkling ruminations. Hearing her play always was an event--for other musicians and jazz fans alike.”
After her death, her daughter BettyeJo Miller, a pianist, trombonist and vocalist, continued performing with Milt Abel to continue her mother's legacy.
In 1978, the first Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival was dedicated to Bettye Miller. In this photo, Milt Abel is holding a handmade plaque of a piano and bass, presented by festival founders Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg.
Due to Linda Erwin Abel's generous donation, more recordings of Bettye Miller can be found at the Marr Sound Archives at UMKC University Libraries, including many unpublished recordings from rehearsals and live performances.
Fisher, Brenda. “Jazz Constellation Fainter Without Bettye” Kansas City Times, 2 March 1977
Flynn, Jane Fifield. Kansas City Women of Independent Minds. Fifield Publishing Co., 1992.
Haskins, John. “Jazz Queen’s Farewell With Happy Notes.” Kansas City Star, 3 March 1977.
Ritter, Jess. “Bettye and Milt Together--Body and Soul.” Kansas City Star, 8 February 1976.