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Glenn Miller

By Joseph Gustaitis
8/19/2001 • American History Magazine

Half a century after his mysterious wartime disappearance, the big-band leader and composer who gave America “Moonlight Serenade,” “String of Pearls,” and “In the Mood” endures as the musical symbol of an entire generation.

Spring, 1994: It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, and the air is filled with speeches, prayers, and remembrance. And one thing else. Everywhere, it seems, there is the music of the Glenn Miller Band of the 1940s.

On the evening of May 30, 1994, a group of snowy-haired celebrants–some dressed in vintage World War II uniforms–fills the floor of London’s Royal Albert Hall to dance to Miller’s “In the Mood.” On June 5, a crowd of two thousand, which includes Her Majesty The Queen Mother, listens to the very same tune played by a U.S. Air Force contingent in Portsmouth. That same day at a military cemetery near Cambridge, where U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks, the band also plays Miller’s tunes. On June 6, aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, celebrities that include Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, and Sir John Mills are serenaded by Miller’s music. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic at Arlington National Cemetery, some four thousand people gather for prayers and speeches–and Miller songs played by an Army band. And in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first French town liberated by the Allies, “In the Mood” echoes across the landscape from loudspeakers.

Miller’s music was so pervasive at the anniversary observances that one reporter, Louis J. Salome of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, looking over the estimated forty thousand veterans at Normandy, dubbed them “the Glenn Miller generation.”

What was it about this music and the band that created it that made the Miller sound the aural symbol of an era? Of all the musical aggregations of the “Big Band Era,” how did the group that recorded such hits as “In the Mood,” “String of Pearls,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” and “Moonlight Serenade” achieve such lasting recognition?

Big Bands (generally speaking, those comprised of ten or more musicians) had been around for more than a decade before Benny Goodman and his group caught the fancy of Depression-weary America in 1935 and set it swinging.

One could, perhaps, date the Big-Band Era as far back as 1924, when Paul Whiteman’s already well-known orchestra debuted George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in a concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall and gave jazz a respectability that it had not previously enjoyed. With the door now opened, jazz bands such as the great Duke Ellington’s began to find their way into the mainstream of the American music scene. Their music–progressive, creative, and exciting–reflected the fast-paced “Roaring Twenties.”

The stock market crash of 1929 and the sweeping economic depression that followed changed the nation’s mood. Americans, anxious to escape the realities of the Great Depression, turned to slower, more romantic music. “Sweet” bands such as those led by Guy Lombardo, Hal Kemp, and Eddy Duchin became popular. Glen Gray and the Casa Loma orchestra developed a following, especially among college students, with a semi-swing sound that foreshadowed the Big Band band era. And by 1934, the Dorsey brothers–Tommy and Jimmy–and Benny Goodman had assembled their bands.

But the craze that made swing by far America’s most popular form of music effectively began with the astonishing breakthrough of Goodman’s band at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood in August 1935. Suddenly, the youth of the United States had found a new sound, one that contained elements of jazz and yet was different.

To many listeners, jazz and swing were the same, but most fans found swing [easier], more listenable, and more suitable for dancing, which was very important to the young people of the day. Jazz fans tend to think of their music as art meant for listening only. Some bands, like Goodman’s, drove pretty fast and were jazz-oriented, but others (often more successful) played what was known as “sweet” music. In fact, by the 1940s, Big Bands were cleanly separated, like Italian sausage, into two categories–“sweet” and “hot.”

But style had to be accompanied by exposure, and one of the reasons that the Big Bands ruled was their accessibility. One could hear the sounds in a range of ways, and few of them involved spending a great deal of money. Radio disk jockeys–“platter spinners”–were few. More common were live radio broadcasts of the bands, either from studios or ballrooms. The major radio networks saturated the air waves with the sound. In 1939, for example, NBC was presenting the music of no less than forty-nine bands, and CBS had twenty-one.

Nor was it necessary to attend a night club to hear these ensembles live (although even that was not unaffordable for middle-class listeners; the weekday cover charge to see Glenn Miller at the Cafe Rouge of [New York’s] Hotel Pennsylvania was seventy-five cents). The most prominent Big Bands usually spent the winter at such a big-city hotel, but during the rest of the year, they were on the road night after night, taking their shows to dozens of smaller communities. Occasionally, a Big Band was thrown in for the price of admission between shows at a big-city movie theater; these bands were not an afterthought, but the attraction that brought patrons to see the movie.

Hollywood films also played a role in disseminating the big-band sound. Movie studios rushed to sign up the hot ensembles of the day, as directors churned out a succession of mediocre motion pictures, in which the image of the musicians, characterized in films by phony “jive” talk, bore little resemblance to true life. Despite their generally poor quality, however, these movies offered viewers (and preserved for posterity) the performances of such bands as those of Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Sammy Kaye, Woody Herman, and, of course, Glenn Miller.

Although not as [pervasive] [prominent] then as they are today, recordings too boosted the accessibility of the Big Bands. In 1939, record sales totaled $50 million (up from $10 million seven years earlier), and eighty-five percent of these sales were of swing music. By 1940 sales were $70 million, and a year later they soared to $100 million. The jukebox became a fixture in restaurants and saloons around 1934, and by the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, there were some three to four hundred thousand machines in the United States, most of them dispensing the music of the Big Bands.

And the most popular of them all was the Glenn Miller band; in the 1940s, poll after poll consistently placed the Miller band first. It set attendance records almost everywhere it went, and by 1943 there were more than five hundred Glenn Miller fan clubs across the United States and Canada. In 1940 alone, Miller recorded forty-five songs that made it onto the top-seller[s] charts–a figure neither Elvis Presley nor the Beatles ever matched–and it was estimated that one out of three nickels put into jukeboxes went to play a Miller record.

Alton Glenn Miller–he detested his first name and quickly dropped it–was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. When Glenn was five, the family moved to Tryon, Nebraska, where they lived for five years in a sod house. After a brief stay in North Platte, [Nebraska], the Millers relocated to Grant City, Missouri in 1915, and then, three years later, to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where Glenn attended high school.

 

Glenn’s mother played the organ, and as soon as their boys were old enough, she and her husband supplied them with musical instruments–a cornet for older brother Deane and a mandolin for Glenn.*[1] Before long Glenn had swapped his instrument for one of the brass variety, and, as his mother once told an interviewer, “He just played on that horn all the time. It got to where Pop and I used to wonder if he’d ever amount to anything.”

An outstanding high school athlete, Glenn was an avid basketball player and an all-state football end. His ambition, however, was to become a professional baseball player. A picture from Glenn’s high school days shows a rugged, broad-shouldered six-footer with large hands[–a good-looking guy, save for his overlarge head and his long, wide ears].

Glen played trombone in the school band, and although no one seems to have thought of him as an exceptional musician, he took his music more seriously than he did any sport. After graduating in 1921 he delayed going to college in order to take a job in a band organized by a saxophone and clarinet player named Boyd Senter. In January 1923, Miller entered the University of Colorado, where he seems to have spent most of his time playing in a popular campus band. At the year’s end, he dropped out of school to set upon the risky career of a full-time musician.

Glenn got his first big break in Los Angeles when he was hired to play in, and arrange for, the Ben Pollack band. A pioneer in expanding the small ensemble (usually of five to seven musicians) characteristic of 1920s jazz into the full-fledged Big Band, Pollack had an ear for good musicians. Over the years he hired not only Miller, but also the fine Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland; trumpeter Charlie Spivak, who went on to form his own Big Band in 1940; Benny Goodman; trumpeter Harry James; and a trombone player who was obviously Miller’s superior–the bluesy Jack Teagarden from Texas.

Although jazz always remained his first love, Miller himself was never a good enough instrumentalist to be a great jazz musician. Benny Goodman once said that Glenn “was a pedestrian trombone player and he knew it.” When Teagarden joined the Pollack band, Glenn saw the handwriting on the wall and determined to concentrate on arranging, an art for which he had a rare talent and which he had been studying with the esteemed teacher Joseph Schillinger.

Certain that his arranging assignments and occasional playing would provide a measure of financial security, he wired Helen Burger, the girl he had met in college, and proposed that she come to New York to marry him. They were wed on October 6, 1928. It was a most successful marriage. Said one of Glenn’s friends: “The greatest thing that ever happened to Glenn Miller was Helen Miller.”

During the next few years, Miller arranged for Paul Ash, Red Nichols, and several lesser-known band leaders. He also filled in on the trombone with established bands and found himself playing in the orchestra pit for Broadway productions. In 1934 he was the first musician hired, both for his musicianship and his skills as an arranger, by the Dorseys when they formed their first band.

Glenn’s association with the Dorseys lasted only a few months. Late in 1934 British band leader Ray Noble arrived in the United States to try his hand at wooing American audiences, who had heard and bought recordings that his “orchestra”–in reality an assemblage of musicians from other ensembles–had made in England. Anxious to cash in on the popularity of his records, Noble hired Glenn away from the squabbling brothers and gave him his first experience at organizing a Big Band. The group Miller put together included some of the finest musicians of the day, and for a time the Noble Orchestra drew crowds to the Rainbow Room atop New York’s RCA Building.

It was while with the Noble Orchestra that Glenn got his first opportunity to stand before a Big Band as leader. It was an experience he was eager to turn into a permanent situation. So in 1936 he decided to take the chance and begin recruiting musicians for a group of his own. It was a huge gamble, but one to which he brought estimable assets–his solid track record as an arranger and his shrewd commercial sense of what the public would welcome. He was also a very organized person; arranger Rolly Bundock called him “the General MacArthur of the music business.”

The Glenn Miller Band played its first engagement in May, 1937 at the Hotel New Yorker. The band went to Boston and then to New Orleans, where it was a huge success (though not financially; Miller himself was taking home a little less than six dollars a week). After that, it was all downhill, and the group could not earn enough to cover expenses. To compound Miller’s woes, his wife had an operation that made it impossible for her to have children (years later the couple adopted a boy and a girl). Following a New Year’s Eve engagement, Glenn broke the news to the band members that he had decided to call it quits. The band played its last date on January 2, 1938.

It had been, if nothing else, a learning experience. Jazz has never been the most popular form of music in the United States, and the one thing Glenn liked even more than jazz was success. He had no pretensions of being too artistic to be popular. If he were to start another band, Miller vowed, it would not be for the fans, not the musicians. Too many of his players had been “prima donnas,” he felt, who were interested in satisfying their musical souls by blowing far-out riffs whether or not the kids were following them. No, his new band, when it came, would have showmanship and a commercial sweetness. It would have a “sound.”

His instincts didn’t fail him. The distinctive Miller sound–a clarinet lead supported by four saxophones–had come to him while he was still with the Noble orchestra, but he had not really put it to the test with his first band. Now it would become his signature.

By March 1938 the second Glenn Miller Orchestra was in place. Miller had made some crucial additions–especially vocalists. The mainstays of the band were “girl singer” Marion Hutton, “boy singer” Ray Eberle, Gorden “Tex” Beneke, and a male quartet known as the Modernaires.

Hutton, the sister of actress/singer Betty Hutton, was only seventeen when she joined the group. She was not, by her own admission, the greatest of vocalists (saxophonist Al Klink used to joke that “the mike is out of tune tonight”), but she had enormous warmth and appeal.

Eberle, whose older brother, Bob Eberly with a “y,” sang for Jimmy Dorsey, was, like Hutton, a performer whose looks surpassed his vocal ability. At first a favorite of Glenn’s, he and Miller had a falling out that lead to his leaving the band in 1942. Hired for the band as a tenor saxophonist, Beneke quickly proved himself a valuable singer, ideal for some of the jazzier numbers and novelty tunes. He lent his voice on such songs as “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

 


*[ 1 ] Younger brother Herb eventually took up the trumpet; he became a professional musician and bandleader, too, although a much less successful one.

The Modernaires joined Miller in 1941. One of them, Chuck Goldstein, developed a way of singing a harmony high above the others, giving the group an unmistakable sound. “Some people,” he once remarked, “thought we had a girl with us.”

Glenn drove his band with a perfectionist zeal that made it–to the exasperation of many of his musicians–by far the most precise, the most rehearsed band of the time. He managed to combine a bit of jazz, a large dose of swing, a healthy dollop of showmanship, and a sprinkling of hokum. And it worked.

In March 1939, Miller contracted to play for the summer season at the celebrated Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. This was a coveted date–not for the money, but for the exposure over the air waves; the band broadcast from the Casino ten times a week, reaching thousands of listeners. Following that engagement, they went from sellout to sellout. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, it broke the attendance record set by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra eight years before, and in Syracuse, New York, it played for the biggest audience ever gathered for a dance.

Meanwhile, the band made one hit record after another, including “Little Brown Jug,” “In the Mood,” and “Moonlight Serenade,” which became Miller’s theme song. In December the band was hired for a thrice weekly CBS national radio program sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, and its national reputation was solidified. A poll taken in the summer of 1940 put the Glenn Miller band number one by a huge margin, almost doubling the votes of the runner-up, Tommy Dorsey.

Hollywood soon beckoned, and Miller traveled to California to make two movies for Twentieth-Century Fox, Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). As examples of cinematic art, these films are forgettable, but they are priceless as a record of the Miller band in its prime. In numbers like “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Serenade in Blue,” and “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” the players demonstrate their showmanship, flapping their mutes, standing for solos, and flashing their choreographed pumping of trombone slides. Miller himself comes off as a credible and likeable actor.

By the time Orchestra Wives was filmed, the United States was at war, and the draft was beginning to siphon off Miller’s musicians. At age thirty-eight, he was not subject to being called up, but he thought he could help the war effort. His idea was to reform military music, to update it to a style that the troops would enjoy.

Glenn first offered his services to the U.S. Navy, but was turned down. So on August 12, 1942 he wrote to Brigadier General Charles D. Young, expressing his desire to “do something concrete in the way of setting up a plan that would enable our music to reach our servicemen here and abroad with some degree of regularity [and thereby] help considerably to ease some of the difficulties of army life.” General Young immediately accepted his offer. The band played their last Chesterfield show on September 24, and Glenn reported for induction on October 7, 1942.

Now a captain in the Air Corps, Glenn met resistance from what he called “goddamn idiot officers” who liked the marches of John Philip Sousa just fine and saw no need for swing in the military. Eventually, however, Miller was named Director of Bands Training for the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command and authorized to organize a band at Yale University, which had become a training area for cadets. Miller proceeded to collect as many first-rate musicians as possible; some were from his group, many came from other bands. He also added a string section, getting many players from the country’s best symphony orchestras.

The outfit, officially known as the 418th Army Air Forces Band, was activated on March 20, 1943, with permanent station at Yale. The band managed to combine traditional military duties–playing at retreat parades and at review formations on the Yale Green–with performing at dances, open houses, parties, and luncheons, and on radio, over which Miller’s musicians broadcast I Sustain the Wings, a series designed to boost Air Force recruitment.

Much was made at the time of the band’s use of traditional jazz tunes such as “St. Louis Blues” in march tempo, as a kind of swinging march. The military brass, fearful of scandalizing traditionalists, took pains to point out that such innovation never occurred during retreat or review, but only as the band was marching to and from these ceremonies.

On July 28, Miller’s new swinging military band made its debut in the Yale Bowl. Time magazine reported at the time that “Oldtime, long-haired U.S. Army bandmasters had the horrors,” but the group was a smash with the troops. It presented an original spectacle: two drummers with full swing band kits and two string bass players–perched atop two jeeps that wheeled along slowly with the marching musicians–provided the rhythm.

Despite the misgivings of traditionalists, the band was a hit. Its appearances at bond drives were so successful that Glenn began to fear that he and his musicians might be kept stateside instead of being sent overseas to boast troop morale.

Finally, in the spring of 1944 the AAF orchestra got its orders to go to England. They arrived in time to experience the German V-I buzz bombs that fell on London, killing almost five thousand people. Feeling responsible for the safety of his men, Miller persuaded the military brass to move his unit to Bedford, a village some fifty miles north of the British capital and out then of the reach of the bombs.*[2] On the day after the men had vacated their London quarters, a buzz bomb fell a few feet from the building, blowing away its entire front and leaving the place in ruins.

Always the organizer, Glenn spun off sub-units from the full band, which was now known as the American Band of the Supreme Allied Command, to perform different types of music on four radio series. Strings With Wings featured a full string section headed by George Ockner; The Swing Shift, a seventeen-piece danceband led by Ray McKinley; Uptown Hall, a seven-piece jazz ensemble under Mel Powell; and A Soldier and a Song, crooner Johnny Desmond accompanied by the full band.*[3]

 


*[ 2 ] It wasn’t long before the Germans unleashed their V-2 bombs, which rendered Bedford as much a target for their strikes as London.

*[ 3 ] Fifth unit two pianos

These units instituted a backbreaking schedule of radio broadcasts and concerts. Miller was on the air thirteen times a week, and his musicians performed seventy-one live concerts during their five-and-a-half month stay in England, leading General Jimmy Doolittle to remark that “Next to a letter from home, Captain Miller, your organization is the greatest morale builder in the [European Theater of Operations]. By the time they returned to the United States and were deactivated in January 1946, the band’s members had played an estimated three hundred personal appearances on the continent before more than 600,000 people in slightly less than a year.

While still in England, much of the band’s travel was in their own C-47 air bus. One band member estimated that they spent some six hundred hours in the air, often enduring close calls when pilots had difficulty finding air strips in the dark. Miller, who disliked flying and whose ears would ring in the unpressurized cabin, considered the plane second-rate.

Promoted to major in August 1944, Glenn, was becoming restless; he wanted to get his band to France so they could play for the men marching on Germany. With his health poor and his morale low, he seemed to be developing a touch of fatalism, at one point saying that he believed that he would never see his wife and child again.*[4] “I’ve had a feeling for a long time now,” he said, “that one of those buzz bombs has my name on it.” Then, on November 15, he got the go-ahead he wanted to take his musicians to the continent.

At first, band manager Don Haynes was scheduled to fly to Paris ahead of the musicians to make preparations, but at the last minute Miller, characteristically impatient, decided to go himself. On December 13, one day before his planned departure, the weather was so bad that no military aircraft were making the channel crossing. The following day, however, Haynes ran into a friend, Lieutenant Colonel Norman F. Baesell, who was going to Paris on December 15 in a general’s private plane. He invited Miller along.

As takeoff time approached, rain, poor visibility, and a low ceiling continued to hamper flight schedules. Word was, however, that the weather was clearing over the continent and the plane would be allowed to leave England. As Miller looked at the nine-passenger C-64 Norseman, he was dubious. First, he noted that there was only one motor; Baesell countered that one had been enough for Charles Lindbergh when he flew the Atlantic alone in 1927. Then, after he took his seat he said, “Hey, where the hell are the parachutes?” To which Baesell retorted, “What’s the matter, Miller, do you want to live forever?”

When the band arrived in Paris three days later, Miller was not there to meet them. Obviously something had gone wrong. For days the musicians hoped that Miller would somehow turn up, but eventually the truth had to be faced. Glenn was officially reported missing on December 23.

For years afterward, speculation about Miller’s fate centered on the bad weather and the plane’s lack of de-icing equipment. In late December 1985, however, two former members of a Royal Air Force bomber crew came forward with a story that provides the likeliest explanation of the accident that will probably ever surface. They had been aboard one of some 150 Lancaster bombers returning from an aborted raid on Germany on December 15, 1944. Following standard procedure, the crew jettisoned their bombs near Beachy Head on the southern coast of England. But as the bombs exploded, the gunner reportedly saw a Norseman below them fall into the sea, apparently downed by the shock waves. A check of the records at Britain’s Ministry of Defense subsequently confirmed the aborted raid and the return of the Lancasters. Miller, in other words, may have been a victim of that grim military occurrence, “friendly fire.”

Shortly before his death, Glenn had outlined his postwar plans. He would mark his return to the United States with a concert at New York’s Paramount Theater and then work only six months out of the year, spending the rest of the time raising oranges at his California ranch, “Tuxedo Junction.”

Miller had no way of knowing it, but the Big Band Era was quickly drawing to a close. A strike by the musicians’ union against the record companies that lasted from August 1942 until September 1943 kept the bands out of the recording studios. Although the union eventually got what it wanted, the strike dealt a severe blow to the Big Bands. Singers, who had been able to record with choral backup, had gained popularity and were in demand for radio performances. The new vogue for romantic singers, initiated by Frank Sinatra after he left the Tommy Dorsey band in 1943, brought vocalists like Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, and Jo Stafford to the fore.

By the end of 1946, eight of the nation’s top bands had dissolved. As big-band veteran John Best once recalled, “I was on the road with Benny Goodman, and he was guaranteed $3,000 a night. Tommy Dorsey was getting $4,000. Suddenly one night, the total take was just $700.”

Radio disk jockeys were proliferating, rendering it unnecessary for stations to air live music. Also, a wartime twenty-percent amusement tax on nightclub checks continued into peacetime, with a predictable decline in business. Most crucial of all, tastes changed. As jazz moved into the era of bebop, fans rarely turned to Big Bands to hear their kind of music.

And yet Miller’s music survived. It weathered the period of neglect, and even aversion, that inevitably envelops the recently fashionable. But now you can hear it in television commercials or dance to it in clubs and at weddings. Even fifty years after Miller’s death, to listen to his band’s biggest hits is to be struck by their huge familiarity. These were not just songs of their day, but of the century. They are an indispensable part of American popular music.

*[ 4 ] He never did see his second adopted child

 


New York writer Joseph Gustaitis is a frequent contributor to American History magazine.

For more on Glenn Miller, his band, and his music see Glenn Miller & His Orchestra by George T. Simon (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974); Moonlight Serenade: A Bio-discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band by John Flower (Arlington House, 1972), and The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band: Sustineo Alas/I Sustain the Wings by Edward F. Polic (Scarecrow Press, 1989).

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