Friday, April 17, 2015


Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here. This article is much more about Glenn Miller than it is his Orchestra, of which he had several iterations. Alton Glenn Miller was born March 1, 1904 and went missing, December 15, 1944, when his plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. He was then a Major in the Army-Air Force. There was just a little bit of hair standing up on the back of my neck when I came across some of this information: my pilot-dad's name was Glenn Alton Wallace, and he was a Captain in the Air Force at the time of his mustering out. I was born on December 15, 1955. Just. Weird. Coincidences happen all the time, but these are not the reasons for which Glenn Miller and his fine orchestras and songs were admired in my house, when I was a little kid.

Apropos of not this; my father and I from times forgotten used to ring in the New Year. He would invariable be soaked to the gills and at midnight would go outside and shout "AND HIGH ATOP THE TRIANON BALLROOM! IT'S GUY LUMBAGO AND HIS BOILED ARABIANS!" He proposed to my mother up there and I was never sure if his shouting was in celebrating or in consternating.

They were admired, and nigh-unto worshiped, because they were wonderful! Take a song like “String of Pearls” or “In The Mood”. You cannot but help find yourself pulled into Glenn Miller's world of Swing. Whether it was something like “Moonlight Serenade”or “Pennsylvania 6-5000” which was a novelty song of the Swing era, which music critics recognized was able to permeate the public gestalt, in a way few other songs could.

"Moonlight Serenade". The counterpoint is every bit as hummable as the melody. What an awesome tune.

Miller's Orchestras differed from other popular orchestras of the era, in that everything was highly, highly rehearsed. Therefore, the criticism of lack of spontaneity and the ability to “riff” as was becoming popular in other orchestras, led by Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Joe Venuti, was leveled towards Miller by some of his critics, although Gary Giddins and Gunther Schuller* (who was still hanging around when I was at the U of M) defended Miller, and his non-Jazz ways. Early on, in his career, Miller had played with all three men and their orchestras, and decided to go in another direction.       

Gunther Schuller (left) receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy in 2008, with A. B. Spellman. *Gunther is something else, and plain-spoken. Once at a party of musicians and composers, he was asked what it all meant. His reply? "We're all dirt under the carpet." A very witty, kind man. 

Whatever it was that Miller was developing and rehearsing, the public wanted it. Miller didn't write songs by himself. He either collaborated, or orchestrated a finished song. Up until 1937, there were so many talented people and groups, that Miller was discouraged. Benny Goodman said in 1976:

In 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. Glenn was pretty dejected and came to see me. He asked, 'What do you do? How do you make it?' I said, 'I just don't know, Glenn. You just stay with it.'”

"In the Mood" I played the saxophone part on the violin when I toured with Bobby Vinton. Don't ask me how it worked, or what it sounded like, but the Vintons and the audience seemed to like it. I was to tour with them for 4 years.

Downhearted, Miller returned to New York and re-tooled his sound; he needed something unique. He made the clarinet the solo melodic line, with the tenor sax holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within the same octave (closed harmony).

Outside of the french horn, the trombone has got to be the hardest instrument to play. No valves (although there are valved trombones) you have to have an ear that is dead-on. Most of their music is in closed-harmony, which makes it even more difficult for them. 

With this vastly improved and much different sound, he talked it up to the magazines and went on the road. He opened for ballrooms, and did live music three times a week for the Chesterfield cigarettes on CBS. In 1939, he had his first gold record with “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, with singers Gordon “Tex” Beneke, Paula Kelley and the singing group the “Modernaires”. He went on to appear in two star-studded cavalcades in the movies, “Sun Valley Serenade” and “Orchestra Wives”. He was scheduled to appear in later movies, but his disappearance and presumed death forestalled that.

"String of Pearls" has always fascinated me, because of the "walking inner line" in the harmony at the beginning. There is a bit of jamming towards the middle, so this is not typical Miller, but it works just fine!

His critical reception has always been mixed. Some felt that his letter-perfect playing, both his and his orchestras, diminished any feeling from performances and shifted away from the “hot jazz” of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Yet, while many jazz critics look to that as a fault, Gunther Schuller (Composition professor at Yale, author and critic) and Gary Giddins have separately defended Miller's music; Giddins, noting that the popular opinion should hold sway – make no mistake, Miller was VERY popular – along with the argument that:

Miller may have exuded little warmth on or off the stage, but once the band struck up, the audiences were done for: throats clutched, eyes softened. Can any other record match 'Moonlight Serenade' for its ability to induce a Pavlovian slaver?”

Schuller himself goes one better:

"[The Miller sound] was nevertheless very special and able to penetrate our collective awareness that few other sounds have. . . [it is to] Japanese Gagaku [and] Hindu music in its purity." High praise indeed.

"Pennsylvania 6-5000" wasn't a song that was sung in my house; it was shouted. My poor mom must have felt like she had two kids, not one.

Although his Orchestra(s) have outlived him, there is of course much speculation about which course his music would have taken. It is hard to say; he was daring, and not afraid to take chances if he was looking for a new sound or a new way to express that sound. At the end of the day, this is the same thing so many composers and musicians aspire to. That ineffable sound; that energy; that lightning in a bottle that we call music! 

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