Time was when the music to which everyone danced was endowed with melody, harmony, and structure – when its creative experimentation was built upon centuries-old musical conventions – and when its practitioners devoted decades of study to the perfection their craft.
Such was the case in early 20th-century America, a crucible of conditions favorable to the development of popular music. Decades of immigration from central Europe had funneled thousands steeped in musical traditions into crowded Eastern cities, where they could influence and challenge one another. Unprecedented prosperity freed the young (men) to study and create music and supported a lively musical theatre as well as a burgeoning sheet-music industry. Radio and early cinema broadcast tunes across the country. The new rhythms and harmonic liberty of jazz inspired innovation. From this cauldron of creativity emerged composers and lyricists such as Scott Joplin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Goerge and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern, and dance virtuosi such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell.
The soundtrack to popular social life of the 1930s and 1940s was “Big Band” jazz – music that conveyed through upbeat, whimsical, and at times naughty songs the irrepressible American optimism that survived even the darkest days of the Great Depression. Among the era’s virtuosic player-bandleaders were such men as Charlie Parker (saxophone), Duke Ellington (piano), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Artie Shaw (clarinet), and Benny Goodman (clarinet).
Perhaps the most beloved Big Band leader, whose wildly popular music in the 1930s and 40s was derided by critics precisely because it was popular, was trombonist Glenn Miller. The creator of swing music whose “beauty…caused people to dance together” (and which enjoyed a revival in the late 1990s), Glenn Miller led a life inspiring for its relentless determination and poignant for intimations of what might have been.
Alton Glenn Miller was born on 1 March 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa, to a middle class family. He spent his boyhood in North Platte, Nebraska, and Fort Morgan, Colorado. Although Miller starred on the football field as a youngster, his passion was music. His first instruments were cornet and mandolin. At age 11, Miller had saved enough money from his job milking cows to buy his first trombone.
Leaving the University of Colorado at Boulder after only one year, Miller sought his musical fortune at the age of 20. He worked steadily as a dance-band trombonist in Los Angeles and later in New York before trying to establish his own band in 1937.
Miller’s first band was undistinguished and folded in less than a year. Discouraged but not defeated, he experimented with instrumentation and musical arrangement in search of the right sound. In a stroke of genius, he hit upon the idea of using an unprecedented five saxophones (or four saxophones and clarinet) in his band, in the process creating a revolutionary new musical blend that became his trademark. The new band Miller formed in late 1938 was a smashing success.
Audiences grooved on the throaty, emotional warmth of the “Glenn Miller Sound.” The new band shaped popular tastes and imprinted itself onto the public consciousness during the intense years of World War II. Among the group’s numerous chart-topping hits are classics still enjoyed today.
Although Miller’s repertoire incorporated the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, he assiduously avoided one hallmark characteristic of jazz, improvisation. Much like his contemporary, the perfectionist Fred Astaire, Miller emphasized rehearsal and insisted on precision. Critics disparaged Miller’s “letter-perfect playing” style, but audiences flocked to hear his band and bought his records by the millions.
The Glenn Miller Band played its last stateside concert on 27 September 1942. At the age of 38, Miller had decided to join the armed forces to “do his bit” for the War Effort. That fall, he was commissioned into the Army Air Corps as a “assistant special services officer” at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. In spite of resistance from some of his tradition-minded superiors, Captain (and later Major) Miller devoted his skills to modernizing and overhauling the service’s band and orchestra program. In the evenings, he performed in local nightclubs and service halls and on local radio programs.
By 1944, Miller’s military music program had become so successful that he received permission to form a 50-piece Army Air Force Band and take the band to England. Through the summer and autumn of 1944, the Army Air Force Band under Miller’s direction performed 800 concerts in Great Britain and made studio recordings for the Office of War Information. Miller’s catchy tunes bolstered the spirits of servicemen and civilians alike as the Allies forced a German retreat in France. In the words of Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, commander of the Eighth Air Force in England,
“next to a letter from home, [Glenn Miller’s music] was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”
The Army Air Force Band scheduled a series of concerts for troops stationed in France for the Christmas season of 1944. On the night of 15 December, Miller took off from RAF Twinwood Farm near Clapham en route to Paris. Aboard the single-engine UC-64 Norseman were Miller, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, and pilot John Morgan. On that foggy, icy night, the small plane disappeared over the English Channel.
The remains of Miller’s plane have never been found. Numerous theories have been advanced to explain its mysterious disappearance, including the possibility that it was hit by a bomb jettisoned by an Allied plane returning home. A recent study concluded that Miller’s flight was probably doomed by a faulty carburetor of a type known to ice up in cold weather.
Miller left behind his wife, Helen, two adopted children, Steven and Jonnie, and a gaping void in the American music scene. What he might have achieved had he lived past 1944 will sadly, in the words of the late preeminent musicologist Gunther Schuller, “forever remain conjectural.”
In 1953, Universal Studios produced a wonderful biopic, The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart and June Allyson and featuring ten Miller tunes. The film – which I strongly recommend as both historical document and great entertainment – was hugely successful at the box office and helped to cement Miller’s status as a mid-century American cultural icon. To this day, orchestras sanctioned by the Glenn Miller estate continue to perform Miller’s music in the U.S., the U.K., and continental Europe.
After 75 years, Glenn Miller’s snappy, reedy jazz continues to embody his upbeat energy and optimism. To anyone interested in discovering the Miller repertoire, I recommend the two-disc set Glenn Miller – Greatest Hits.
Fortunately, many of Miller’s greatest tunes are also available on YouTube.
This masterpiece from 1939 is one of Miller’s most beloved and atmospheric love songs.
Chattanooga Choo Choo
A fun and catchy tune recorded in May 1941, Chattanooga Choo Choo appears in the film Sun Valley Serenade.
Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me)
This cheeky wartime love song, recorded in February 1942, spent 13 weeks on the Billboard charts and ranked 12th for the year in sales.
String of Pearls
Recorded in November 1941, String of Pearls is one of the Glenn Miller Band’s #1 hits.
This song originated with a college dance band called the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. The Miller band’s 1940 recording reached #1 on the charts.
In the Mood
One of my favorites, and one of the best jitterbug/swing songs of all time!
Recorded in August 1939, In the Mood sat at #1 on the jukebox list (precursor to the Billboard charts) for 13 weeks.
Quote for Today
“America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.” – Glenn Miller