This Week in Texas Music History- We meet an Austin woman who ranged from swing jazz during World War II to boogie-woogie piano in the swinging 1960s.
By Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
Jazz artist Ernie Mae Miller was born on February 27, 1927 in Austin. She grew up in a rich environment for music education, learning baritone sax from Anderson High School band director B. L. Joyce and taking piano lessons from instructors at Samuel Huston College. In the 1940s, Miller attended Prairie View College, now Prairie View A & M University, a school her great-grandfather L. C. Anderson had a hand in founding. As a music student during World War II, Ernie Mae Miller joined the Prairie View Co-Eds, an all-woman jazz band recruited on campus in 1943 while many touring male artists were away at war. By 1944, the Prairie View Co-eds were touring black colleges and venues across the country, including Harlem’s Apollo Theater and performing on gigs with Bob Hope and Billie Holiday. They became important symbols as talented Black women artists who were also ambitious, full-time college students.
Miller returned to Austin and started a family after graduating from Prairie View in 1949. She traded out her swing sax for boogie-woogie piano and started gigging around Austin at Sixth Street venues and the city’s hotels. Her most well-known musical home was the New Orleans Club, where she was a star attraction from 1951 to 1966. Miller released two records of her performances there. In 2002, Miller’s swing past returned with a reunion of the Prairie View Co-Eds, shining a spotlight on the often unheralded artistry of women instrumentalists in jazz.