Bernice Miller's son sits on a plush couch in a suite at the Park Hyatt, his legs crossed, one clean white tennis shoe dangled over one knee, his hair neatly combed, his T-shirt spotless under a crisp black waist-length jacket. He is casually spooning a bowl of soup and talking about his third bass guitar, the one his mother bought him after his first two were stolen in 1977 -- both in the same week.

"I was devastated," Marcus Miller says, recalling how he lost them in his New York City neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens -- the first when he was held up and the other stolen from his car. "My mother didn't say a word. She went to the bank, withdrew some more money and got me another one. Twice in the same week. The second one she bought is the one I still play today."

That bass has taken Miller a long way.

Today, at 28, he is a modern-day soul master, one of the industry's top composers and producers (Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Roberta Flack, Miles Davis), a solo artist with two albums and a cofounder of a new group, the Jamaica Boys, releasing its first album on Warner Bros. Oct. 20. He also produced a District go-go band, Experience Unlimited, for the sound track of the upcoming Spike Lee film "School Daze." A studio whiz kid who began his professional career at age 16, he's laid down bass lines for the likes of Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Sonny Rollins, Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin and the "Saturday Night Live" band. Miller's bass sound is a trademark, his playing style emulated by young bassmen everywhere.

"Talent and intellect," says Miller, explaining his formula for musical success. "You have to have the ability to understand what it is that you do well, find out where it works the best and apply it. I was a funky guy, but there were a thousand funky bassists in my neighborhood. What I could do was to figure out how to put that funky lick from the neighborhood into a Dave Grusin record date."

Miller may be the only person in this swanky hotel who can wear his rock 'n' roll garb as if it were a suit. This is a man whose bass lines have rocked parties across America; whose thunks have amazed everyone in the biz from Carly Simon to Eddie Murphy; who gets flown from New York to L.A. to lay down bass tracks for a single record date; who did his first national tour with Lenny White at age 17 ("to be a teen-ager on the road is something I recommend for every young American," he quips); who toured with jazz great Miles Davis when he was 22. In other words, he's a heavy, no small feat at 5 feet 10 and 145 pounds "on a good day," he jokes.

"A lot of guys I grew up with became straight be-boppers," says Miller, sipping his soup, "but I never felt bad playing R&B. I love R&B. I don't see one musical form being better than another. I've done jingles and they were a challenge -- you have to be good to sight-read and do those things -- and I learned from them. The records I do, I never felt like I was compromising my musical integrity. I always enjoyed what I was doing. It's all music."

Miller epitomizes the emerging new breed of young black musician -- well-schooled, studied players who bridge three different worlds: the sophistication of straight-ahead jazz, the rhythm and blues of the home neighborhood streets and clubs, and the no-nonsense commerciality of studio jingles and pop music, a lucrative world still largely dominated by white musicians and producers.

What sets Miller apart from most other young talents is the high degree of proficiency he demonstrates in the jazz, rock and pop idioms, and the age at which he handles it. One would expect such maturity and passion from a Quincy Jones or a George Benson, but not from one under 30.

He was the clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, producer and keyboardist on Miles Davis' "Tutu" album, which won two Grammys in 1986, and is currently producing on a second Davis album and a Davis film sound track due next year. A producer and composer whose arrangements and hit-selling grooves made Luther Vandross rich ("The Night I Fell in Love"), made Aretha Franklin famous again ("Jump to It") and won a Grammy for David Sanborn ("All I Need Is You"), Miller is increasingly becoming an industry mover and shaker. The irony is that even while he was breaking into the music business in the late '70s and early '80s, he was studying music education at Queens College -- his applied instrument was clarinet -- and trying to make a choice between hitting the books and hitting the road.

The older of two boys in a working family -- his father is a pipe organist and a retired public transportation supervisor in the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and his mother a retired nurse -- he grew up listening to jazz and various funk sounds that floated through the Jamaica section of Queens, a hotbed of musical activity in the late '60s and '70s: James Brown, Count Basie, Frank Wess, John Coltrane, Tom Brown and Bernard Wright were among those who lived in the area. Sly and the Family Stone, Kool and the Gang, Mandrill and a host of lesser known bands such as Mother Knight and Five Carat Soul were also early influences on the musicians of his generation.

By the fourth year of college, however, he'd already made a name for himself by hitting the road with flutist Bobbi Humphrey, and later with the Lenny White Group. White, a former drummer with Chick Corea's Return to Forever, fronted a strong jazz fusion band from which today's jazz fusion hitmakers -- Spyro Gyra and the Yellow Jackets among them -- took their cue. (White is also a founding member of the Jamaica Boys.)

"One semester I knew it was ridiculous. {Percussionist and producer} Ralph McDonald would say to me, 'Marcus, why weren't you at that Coke jingle the other day?'

"And I'd say, 'I had to take an English test.'

"He'd say, 'Go back to school and find out how much money that English teacher made this year. When you find out, you'll know you could have made that much today.'

"I was the only one of my friends that came out the way I did," says Miller. "Most of my friends became be-boppers, and some of the guys that went that way, they fell on some hard times.

"It's scary, being a musician," says Miller, who doesn't smoke or drink. "You can end up in a very bad place. I was real fortunate, mainly because I never had to make a hard decision like, 'Do I play music or do I support my kids?' I've seen guys do that. I was born in New York. A lot of guys had to move to New York and support themselves and try to make it. When I was in high school, I would go down to clubs and jam and go home and eat my mother's food. There was a difference."

But there was also a question of talent, and versatility. "I wanted to be Paul Chambers," Miller says, speaking of the legendary bassist who worked with the Miles Davis and John Coltrane jazz units of the '50s and '60s. "I worked hard at it, too, playing upright bass. Then I got into Miles Davis' band and I said, 'Miles, you want me to play upright?'

"He said, 'Nah, man. Play electric.'

"So what are you gonna do? You study upright bass all your life because you want to play with the guy Paul Chambers played with, and then when you get with him he doesn't want to hear about it.

"It pays to be versatile," Miller says. "You have to be like a chameleon sometimes."