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Jazz advocacy: Guitarist Sam Miltich teaches mental-health tolerance with music

Beginning in June, Miltich will tour Minnesota with a conversation-and-performance project titled “The Improvised Life: Exploring Intersections of Mental Health and Creativity Through Jazz.”

Sam Miltich

Photo by Jeff Peabody
Sam Miltich wanted to bring jazz and performance to rural areas of the state to increase access to art for people who are suffering from mental illness.

When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Sam Miltich thought his life was over.

That was a little more than a decade ago.

Today, Miltich, 33, has managed to make his mental illness just one part of who he is. A widely successful jazz guitarist and a married father of two, Miltich keeps up with his psychiatric medications and takes good care of his physical health in order to keep the symptoms of his schizophrenia in check. It took work, but Miltich learned how to thrive despite his schizophrenia, building what he describes as a “happy, busy, normal” life for himself and his family. He makes his home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and travels around the state and the country, playing his own unique brand of improvised jazz in small-town clubs, on the radio, on international tours with groups such as the Robin Nolan Trio and performing in New York at Lincoln Center.

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Miltich isn’t anywhere near where he thought he’d end up during those first dark months after his diagnosis, and he’s thrilled about that.

Hearing you have schizophrenia “can feel like a death sentence,” Miltich said. “The label is slapped on you, and you think, ‘I’m never going to get rid of it. I’ll end up being that crazy guy on the corner.’ But it turns out that this diagnosis can actually be the beginning of your life.” He paused at this idea, thought a moment, and continued. “Leading up to this, you’ve been having all these symptoms, you’ve been experiencing all this horrible stuff, and your life feels like it is falling apart. But the truth is, the diagnosis, as painful as it feels at first, ends up being the first step in getting help and moving toward recovery.”

It’s not that everything after the diagnosis went smoothly. Miltich explained that he resisted his diagnosis at first, and it took him and his psychiatrist several tries before they were able to develop a successful treatment plan. But eventually they did, and now he feels that he understands what he needs to control his symptoms.

He’s not unrealistic — Miltich understands that most people who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness don’t feel the slightest bit optimistic at first, but he wants to offer them hope, even if it seems like a tiny flicker of light at the end of long, dark tunnel.

“I really want people to have that feeling of relief, of, ‘Now that I’m diagnosed, I can look into what my treatment options are and what I can do to have a good life,’” he said, “because a good life really is possible with mental illness. Look at me: I have a good career. I love my wife and my wife loves me. I have two beautiful kids. We have what we think of as a good life, something that once seemed so far out of reach.”

Life, improvised

Beginning in June, and continuing into spring 2019, Miltich will pick up his guitar and hit the road, touring the state to tell the story of his own good life and honoring the contributions of other artists who lived with mental illness in a conversation-and-performance project he’s titled “The Improvised Life: Exploring Intersections of Mental Health and Creativity Through Jazz.”

The tour, funded through a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, will take Miltich and three other musicians — saxophonist Dave Karr, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Nathan Norman — to five places in Greater Minnesota: Cook, International Falls, Bemidji, Northfield, and Alexandria and Evansville. They’ll hold daytime performances at community mental health centers and evening appearances at local arts centers.

The group will perform songs composed by Thelonious Monk, a master jazz pianist widely thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, and Miltich will also talk about connections between mental illness and the creative process, using stories from his own life as illustration.

He’d always admired Monk’s music, but Miltich was inspired by his life story after reading the biography “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” by Robin Kelley.

“When I read the book, I completely related to him,” Miltich said. “What struck me was Monk’s image at the time of an eccentric jazz musician.” His creative highs and low periods of isolation and depression are well documented, Miltich explained: “They now think he had bipolar illness. The truth is, no matter what he was dealing with, he was incredibly hardworking. He was a dedicated husband and father. He was living and succeeding with a major mental illness in the 1950s.”

Sam Miltich

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Sam Miltich: “A good life really is possible with mental illness. Look at me: I have a good career. I love my wife and my wife loves me. I have two beautiful kids.”

“The Improvised Life” tour came out of Mitich’s desire to expand his audience. Two years ago, when he was taking a break between performances on tour, Miltich realized he was yearning to reach people who don’t usually get a chance to listen to and discuss live jazz.

“I was in a city, sitting on a park bench,” Miltich recalled, “and I thought, ‘The people who come to my shows have access to music and art. I want to make sure that all people, regardless of social status, have access to high quality art.”

Miltich wanted to bring jazz and performance to rural areas of the state to increase access to art for people who are suffering from mental illness. He knew that there is a network of community mental health centers in Greater Minnesota, so he decided to organize his tour around them.

He’s still working out the details, but Miltich explained that “The Improvised Life” performances will follow a loose structure: “I will speak, intertwining my personal story of recovery as well as interjecting some statistics about what’s going on for people with mental illness right now,” he said. “Then we’ll perform the music of Thelonius Monk and talk about the parallels between my story and his story. We’ll also perform some of my original work.”

Life runs parallel to art, and Miltich hopes that “The Improvised Life” will create an opportunity for him to hold up Monk as an example of how a person’s creative life can flourish despite serous mental illness.

“I want to say, ‘Look, here’s a guy who had a major mental illness and who was one of the greatest, most brilliant artists ever known,’ ” Miltich said. “Look at what this guy achieved in his life. People labeled him as this eccentric high priest of bebop, but to me he was a really responsible, loving, caring, brilliant man. I want to people to see that, to open their eyes — and their ears. ”

Lowest of the low

Miltich grew up deep in the country, in a “northwoods hand-built timber-frame home” that his father, upright swing bass player Matthew Miltich, built on 40 acres about 15 miles north of Grand Rapids. The house was humble (“On the inside, we had one door,” Miltich recalled with a laugh. “It was on the bathroom.”), but the young Miltich thrived there. He loved the quiet of the woods and the freedom to run where he pleased. It gave him a sense of inner peace that he still can’t seem to find in a city.

But when he was a young man, Miltich decided to move to the city. He was living in St. Paul when he had his first breakdown.

“The summer I was 22 I had a big split from reality,” he said. “I became psychotic. I had strong religious delusions: I believed I was the antichrist, that I would destroy the world. I thought I needed to sacrifice myself for the salvation of the world. I was extremely paranoid, hearing voices, deeply depressed.” The delusions were so strong that Miltich felt that he needed to end his life.

“I thought about suicide all the time,” he recalled. He saw a therapist in St. Paul who said he should be admitted to a psychiatric ward. Miltich didn’t want that. Instead, Katie Marshall, his then-girlfriend (now his wife), drove Miltich up north to her family’s cabin, hoping that the rural silence and fresh air would help him clear his head.

While fleeing the city felt like a relief, it didn’t solve Miltich’s problems. The delusions continued, and he eventually admitted himself to a partial-inpatient program at Range Mental Health in Hibbing, where he began the long, slow process of recovery.

At first, Miltich resisted the “schizophrenic” label, but he eventually decided to embrace it. Understanding his mental health is “like accepting part of my physiology,” he explained. “I realize now that I’m not responsible for the genetic makeup that was passed down to me though generations of lineage. I was just born that way. It is who I am, it’s not my fault, and I need to take care of myself because of that.”

Miltich and Marshall have stuck together through everything. “We’re really dedicated to one another,” he said. “She sees that I’m also super dedicated to my mental health. We’ve been together for 12 years and married for 10. I do what it takes to be a good dad and a good husband. That’s the most important thing to me.”

After his schizophrenia diagnosis, Miltich worried that wouldn’t be possible for him to become a father. But once he figured out how to manage his mental health, he and Marshall decided it was safe to start a family.

These days, Marshall works 9 to 5, and Miltich, who plays guitar gigs at night, spends his days caring for their kids, a two boys ages 7 and 5. He believes that becoming a father is one of the best things that has happened in his life.

“I always knew in my heart that getting married and having kids would be good for me,” Miltich said. “I knew it would give my life purpose and meaning.”

Miltich likes to point out that Monk was also active in caring for his children. “He was a brilliant musician and he was also a father. He stayed at home, doing daddy day care and changing diapers with his two kids. He was an incredibly loyal and dedicated husband, and he was tremendously disciplined and hardworking. I’d like to be just like him.”

An open book

For a little while, Miltich considered trying to keep his schizophrenia a secret. He thought that if people found out they might not want to hire him for gigs. But the more he thought about keeping his diagnosis under wraps, the less it made sense. If he had been diagnosed with diabetes, he wouldn’t have kept it a secret, he figured: If he needed help or rest or understanding, he’d ask for it. So why should he be ashamed of his mental illness?

Minneapolis-based vocalist Charmin Michelle is Miltich’s close friend and musical collaborator. She’s known him since he was 14 years old and thinks of him as a younger brother. Michelle admitted that she worried when Miltich began speaking openly about his mental health. “When Sam started posting things on Facebook about his mental illness, I was afraid for him,” she said. “I feel protective of him. I didn’t want anyone to say anything to hurt his feelings or do something mean to him.”

But it didn’t take all that long for her to understand that Miltich’s open-book approach was actually a good move.

“I started looking at it as the same thing as when someone who is gay comes out to their friends and family,” she said. “I watched closely and saw that many musicians embraced Sam when he was honest about his struggles. Now I think that Sam’s coming out like this will help other people that have schizophrenia, to take off the stigma and help the public understand mental illness better. For Sam it’s been a good decision. I see it working for him.”

Sam Miltich and his friend and musical collaborator Charmin Michelle

Photo by John Connelly
Sam Miltich with his friend and musical collaborator Charmin Michelle: “When Sam started posting things on Facebook about his mental illness, I was afraid for him. I feel protective of him. I didn’t want anyone to say anything to hurt his feelings or do something mean to him.”

Bates and Miltich had performed together a few times before Miltich told him about his schizophrenia. When they played at a benefit for Kiefler Wellness Center in Grand Rapids, Miltich decided that it was the right time to tell his friend the whole story.

Bates had already heard talk about Miltich’s mental health: “Friends had told me, ‘Sam has been sick off and on,’ ” he said, “but there was no specificity to it. After that concert in Grand Rapids, I asked Sam about what was going on with him. He told me, ‘I have schizophrenia,’ and he explained a little more about what that’s like for him. Our friendship has grown from there.”

Miltich is aware that he doesn’t have to wear his mental health on his sleeve. Most days, he has his symptoms well under control, and if he didn’t say anything, most people wouldn’t know he had schizophrenia. He’s an ordinary-looking northern Minnesota guy, with slightly unruly brownish-blond hair and kind blue eyes. He walks his kids to school every day.

“I’m able to fake normal pretty well,” he said. “When people ask, ‘What do active symptoms look like for you?’ I say, ‘A disorganized thought might manifest itself with me sitting in my brown chair in my living room, drinking a cup of coffee and staying really still.’ I’ve learned to control my behavior in regards to my symptoms so it’s not usually visible to someone from the outside.”

But Miltich’s life it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. His symptoms are severe enough to qualify him for Social Security disability benefits. People react to schizophrenia in a variety of ways, and over the years many of the reactions he’s faced have been negative: He’s been dismissed by medical professionals and occasionally wounded by the misinformed attitudes of strangers.

“I’m amazed by how much stigma and discrimination I’ve come up against over the years,” he said. “It’s pretty bad for me, and I’m a pretty lucky guy, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for others who don’t have any family support. That stuff dwells within me, and makes it clear why I can’t stay silent about my schizophrenia. It’s too important. I’m hellbent on making the next generation’s life better.”

Jazz master

While part of Miltich’s life is dedicated to mental health activism, a larger part is dedicated to music. In his relatively short life, he’s built a strong following of jazz greats who appreciate his prodigious talent. As a young boy, Miltich showed a clear gift for music, deciding at age 15 to focus on jazz guitar. His parents encouraged his talents, introducing him to jazz greats.

When Miltich’s father turned 50, Michelle sang at his birthday party. The then-15-year-old Miltich jammed with him and Michelle.

“I saw him as a prodigy,” Michelle recalled. “I was amazed. I had two CDs out at the time and Sam said, ‘Let’s play everything on your CDs.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he did it. He didn’t have the music. He’d just listened to my CDs and learned it. He’s a natural.”

Saxophonist Karr agrees. “Sam is held in high regard and has a really crisp technique and a true swing feeling when he plays,” he said. “He takes you places where you haven’t been before.”

When Miltich was 18, he began playing with different jazz groups around the state, performing with a range of musicians. By the time he was 21, he’d already toured nationally and internationally.

While he understood that cities were the natural habitat of the jazz musician, Miltich knew instinctively that he needed to stay closer to home.

“It was clear to me that I wanted my life to be up north,” he said. “It keeps me centered and happy.” His reputation helps him draw some jazz greats like bassist Bates up to Grand Rapids every once in a while to play in local bars, but Miltich accepts that he has to put some miles on his car if he wants to perform with any regularity.

“When I decided to make a life up here,” he said, “I told myself, ‘I’ll just have to do some travelling.’ ”

A few times a month, Miltich makes the journey down to the Twin Cities, performing at local jazz clubs and jamming with his friends. Starting next month, he’ll hit the road again, this time heading away from the city for his rural “Improvised Life” tour. He feels its a good next step for his career — and his life.

“I’m well enough now that I don’t have to focus on my own mental health,” Miltich said. “I can be active in an advocate role. And I have a unique position as a performer: I’m in the public eye. Having the ability to play music helps me emotionally engage people. I feel I’ve been offered a wonderful platform to be able to address the issues, and I can’t wait to step up and take it on.”