The Improvised Life: Exploring Intersections of Mental Health & Creativity through Jazz


Project Summary

Sam Miltich and Friends present "The Improvised Life: Exploring Intersections of Mental Health & Creativity through Jazz," a program highlighting cultural contributions of famous artists with mental illness and inspiring hope through Sam's own story and original compositions.  In five communities, the tour presents a free daytime program at a community mental health center and a ticketed evening performance at a performing arts center. Sam's dialogue explores intersections of mental health and the creative process and his pursuit of well-being amidst the daily challenges of living with a serious mental illness.  He will describe his definition of recovery and the sense of purpose he cultivates through quality engagement in career and family life. Backed by a world class band consisting of Dave Karr (tenor sax), Chris Bates (bass), and Nathan Norman (drums), the tour expands exposure to jazz in rural communities and increases awareness of the issues faced by a vulnerable population.   

Scroll down to the "Detailed Project Description" section for further information on the background and intended outcomes of this project.


Be a Sponsor! 

This grant must be matched by a portion of funding raised through ticket sales, donations, and sponsorships. We are still seeking to close the remaining gap in our funding. All donors will be graciously recognized with signage and thanks from the stage at our performances.   A sincere thanks to all of our donors to date and performance partners listed below!!!


MSAB Grant Partners & Performances

  • Northfield, MN - April 6 - 7, 2019

    • FREE PRE-SHOW EVENT (by invitation only)

    • TICKETED CONCERT (open to the public):

      • $12 (adults) $6 (students) at the door or online HERE

      • 2:00 PM on April 7 at Main Street Moravian Church

      • 713 Division Street Northfield, MN 55057

      • Hosted by Hot Spot Music

  • International Falls, MN

    • FREE EVENT - May 24 at 3:00 PM

    • TICKETED CONCERT - April 12 at 7:00 PM

      • Backus Auditorium

      • 900 5th Street, International Falls, MN

      • Tickets are $12 (adults) or $5 (students) and can be purchased at the door or in advance at Backus Community Center, City Drug Store, Betty's in Fort Frances, J & D Foods Littlefork

      • Hosted by Backus Community Center

  • Bemidji, MN - May 2, 2019

    • TICKETED CONCERT: $12 (adults) $6 (students) at the door

      • 7:00 PM at The Rail River Folk School

      • 303 Railroad St SW, Bemidji, MN 56601

      • Hosted by Sam Miltich & Rail River Folk School

  • Alexandria, MN & Evansville, MN - May 17, 2019


    • TICKETED CONCERT: $10 at the door.

Don't see a location near you?  Contact us to explore bringing this program to your area.


This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a 2018 Arts Tour grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature’s general and arts and cultural heritage funds.

This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a 2018 Arts Tour grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature’s general and arts and cultural heritage funds.

Detailed Project Description:


Artist Profiles

Sam has selected a group of three other musicians to make up the band for this project: bassist Chris Bates, saxophonist Dave Karr, and drummer Nathan Norman. Together they represent some of the most active and high caliber jazz musicians working in the state of Minnesota. These musicians were selected for their commitment to jazz as an art form and the compatibility of their personal artistic sensibilities with the musical style of artists whose compositions will be featured. 

Sam Miltich , guitar - Sam is a self-taught jazz guitarist born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. Sam burst on the scene in his teens as a young lion of gypsy jazz, joining Paul Mehling's Hot Club of San Francisco and touring internationally with the world-renowned Robin Nolan Trio.  Sam's fluid and instinctive sound has graced hundreds of stages, from small towns on the Iron Range to New York's Lincoln Center.  In addition to fronting his own band, the Clearwater Hot Club, Sam records and performs extensively with Minneapolis-based jazz singers, Connie Evingson and Charmin Michelle; legendary Twin Cities saxophonist Dave Karr; and Dutch swing violin maestro, Tim Kliphuis.  In addition to a busy touring schedule, Sam also hosts a weekly Jazz at the VFW night in his home town of Grand Rapids, MN.  

Chris Bates, bass – Chris Bates is a bassist of formidable talent. Having worked professionally for 25 years across all spectrums of the musical landscape he continues to be a driving force in the Minnesota music scene. As a member of the Atlantis Quartet, Framework and Red Planet (among others) Chris has been featured on over 30 original jazz recordings and his bass playing provides supple and intrinsic support in any musical setting.

Dave Karr, tenor saxophone - Dave Karr has performed with some of the finest local and national jazz instrumentalists and vocalists in the world.  In addition to performing, he has composed and arranged music for film, radio, television commercials and various recording projects since 1970. Young at heart, the octogenarian claims, “I have found the fountain of youth in the challenge of jazz improvisation.” He is the winner of a McKnight Fellowship for Performance Excellence for the year 2007-2008.

Nathan Norman, drums - Nathan is a native of Washington, DC.  He earned a Bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in 1984 then studied with the Percussion Group of Cincinnati at the University of Cincinnati before returning to Washington to teach at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Nathan has performed in a variety of musical settings including performances with the Louisville Symphony, Mannheim Steamroller, the Percussion Group of Cincinnati, the Minnesota Orchestra, Illusion Theater and various Twin Cities jazz artists.  Nathan has been performing and recording as a freelance musician in the Twin Cities area since 1988.

Performance Format

Each community will host two performances through this project. The first will be a daytime performance at a mental health center, which will be free to the consumers, staff, and general public. This program will focus on a message of hope for recovery by highlighting Sam's own experience with schitzophrenia and other accomplished musicians who achieved great personal and professional success while living with mental illness, such as famed jazz pianist Theolonious Monk.

The second performance at a performing arts center in the community will be a more traditional concert program, but the accompanying narrative will highlight the creative and important contributions to society and culture that can be made by individuals with mental illness. This event in particular will aim to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness by reaching a broad cross-section of the community.

Connection to Mission

This project is closely related to Sam Miltich’s personal artistic mission. Sam experienced his first major psychotic break at age 22 and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Already a working jazz musician at the time of his diagnosis, he connected particularly with the music of jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk and has continued to use Monk’s music as part of his recovery. After reading a biography of Monk that went into great detail about the artist’s own struggles with mental illness concurrent with his deep dedication to his art and family, Sam was inspired to share that story with a wider audience. The project connects to partner missions through the presentation of high quality arts experiences (performing arts centers) and activities that contribute to the enrichment and education of the community on the subject of mental health (mental health centers). 

Project Outcomes

This project aims to increase recognition in the general public of the social and cultural contributions of people with mental illness (achieved through performing arts center concerts) and inspire hope for recovery while expanding exposure to and knowledge of jazz music for people living with mental illness (achieved through mental health center concerts).

This project does not include activities outside the two scheduled performances in each community, but the performances themselves include an educational component through the narrative delivered by Sam Miltich and woven throughout the concert. The aim of this narrative portion is to provide context to the music being heard and highlight the intersections of creativity, mental illness, improvisation, and cultural contributions in both Sam's and other legendary musicians' life and music.

The community mental health center performances are a unique component of this project, as most of these organizations rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to present a live music – particularly performances featuring musicians of this caliber. While jazz concerts are not unique to performing arts centers, this program will present an added focus on mental health awareness and education.