In January 1977, Miller furthered his career when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by his son trumpeter Mercer Ellington. Miller was recommended for the job by his friend saxophonist Bill Easley. The job with Ellington brought him to New York City where he began to make a name for himself in the city’s jazz scene.
Miller remained with the group until early 1979 when he joined the rhythm section of singer Betty Carter’s group alongside bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Greg Bandy. In late 1980, he joined trumpeter Woody Shaw’s group, performing with him until the summer of 1983.
After joining tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin for a brief tour, Miller joined drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, making his debut with the group on 1984’s New York Scene. During his time with Blakey, Miller started to record with several up and coming young jazz musicians including trumpeter Terence Blanchard, tenor saxophonists Donald Harrison, John Stubblefield and Branford Marsalis, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
In 1985, Miller made his debut recording Keys To The City for producer Orrin Keepnews’s label, Landmark. Starting in 1986, Miller became a member of drummer Tony Williams’ quintet.
While with Williams, Miller pursued a dazzling array of side projects. In 1987, Mulgrew formed the cooperative ensemble Trio Transition with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Freddie Waits. The group toured throughout Europe and sometimes included alto saxophonist Oliver Lake as a featured soloist.
The same year, Miller began to perform with tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, appearing on his album Stardust. 1987 Mulgrew also performed on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s album Verses and also played with the group Wingspan on a self-titled album. In 1992, when Williams dissolved his group, Mulgrew further focused his attention on these other projects.
Miller toured with the New York Jazz Giants before performing with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Miller continued to lead a trio while working as a sideman on various recordings. In 1993, Mulgrew performed with guitarist Ron Muldrow and tenor saxophone Joe Lovano.
The same year, Miller along with pianists Harold Mabern, James Williams, Geoff Keezer and Donald Brown formed The Contemporary Piano Ensemble. Initially starting after a performance at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival, the group consists of four pianists, with one sitting out, performing simultaneously with a rhythm section. The group performed last in 1996.
1993 also saw Mulgrew performing on bassist Steve Swallow’s album Real Book with Lovano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and drummer Jack DeJohnette. On “Bite Your Grandmother,” DeJohnette plays an opening cadenza before the unison melody of Lovano and Harrell begins the top of the form. With the unrestrained performance of DeJohnette, Miller and Swallow prove to be a reliable and interesting rhythmic partnership with the two men utilizing the upper registers of their instruments to contrast with the dark sound of Lovano. Mulgrew’s solos offer brief, but poignant examples of his harmonic intelligence and aptitude.