The Enduring Sound of Glenn Miller
On the 50th anniversary of his passing, the band leader is honored at home and abroad
Glenn Miller disappeared, but he never went away. Fifty years after his World War II flight over the English Channel was lost, the most popular band leader of his day still calls tunes around the world.
I see the phenomenon from a weekend drummer's seat on the wedding-party bandstand. When dancers seem frozen to their chairs, it's time for ``In the Mood.'' Heads turn, partners smile, and the floor comes alive with young and old. ``String of Pearls'' works almost as well. And ``Moonlight Serenade'' does it on the slower side.
It's as if the listeners add to our modest efforts the wonderful, mellow big band that swings in the mind's ear when they hear a Miller classic. There's the shimmering clarinet-and-saxophones harmony that dazzles even musicologist Gunther Schuller:
``One has to go outside Western culture to Japanese Gagaku or Hindu music to find a sound so singularly distilled and unvaryingly consistent in its use.'' There's the virtuoso muting of the brass. There's the micromanaged spectrum of contrast and dynamics (``American Patrol'' starts so-o-o far in the distance). Not to mention the sheer romping fun of a ``Chattanooga Choo- Choo'' or ``Pennsylvania 6-5000.''
Our high school swing band played these arrangements when they were new in a Minnesota town like Clarinda, Iowa (pop. 5,500), Miller's birthplace. Now high school musicians in Japan play them -
and travel to Clarinda in an exchange program with American students sponsored by the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society, which recently opened a Tokyo branch.
(Not to be confused with the International Glenn Miller Society, founded in London, where Miller's music was ``a breath of fresh air'' in the dark days of war, says its secretary.)
The birthplace society has members in 47 of the United States and 24 other countries. This year's annual June festival drew fans from a dozen countries. Besides such music as that of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which still tours almost nonstop, the festival imports displays from the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado, which Miller attended.
The ``surprisingly soulful trombone of Miller,'' according to a British recordings guide, is heard in a late 1920s Red Nichols band that includes Benny Goodman. It's surprising, because Miller's trombone is not what made his reputation. It was the polished outcome of his drawing together talents ranging from black American jazz musicians to the Russian-born theorist of mathematics-based composition, Joseph Schillinger. Miller recordings still sell, with one current selection going beyond 300,000 copies, and two new CDs coming in February. Public television stations lucratively show Miller specials at fund-raising time.
I called up Miller biographer George T. Simon, who helped organize Miller's first band. Did he imagine then that we'd still be talking about Miller a half-century later? He wasn't thinking that far ahead, but just from the band's rehearsals he had predicted that ``one of these days'' it would be No. 1.
How did Miller do it?
Mr. Simon: ``A perfect blend between musicianship and commercialism. He knew exactly how to milk an audience so the cream would come to the top.''
Ray McKinley, the great jazz drummer who went on to lead Miller's spectacular Army Air Force (AAF) Orchestra: ``It was not very complicated. He wasn't really the last word in creativity. It was good simple jazz music ... with a very good arranging staff.''
Edward Polic, author of two massive volumes on Miller's AAF band: ``His arrangements - no matter how trite the tune, they were always tasteful.''
When Major Miller disappeared Dec. 15, 1944, he was on the way to Paris to prepare for the arrival of that AAF band. Today's international commemoration begins with a minute of silence at noon, followed by a top-brass US Air Force wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. As a memorial tree (American holly) is dedicated there, another (scarlet oak) will be dedicated in England.
And tonight, National Public Radio will broadcast a Washington concert in which US Air Force musicians recreate Miller's AAF orchestra, complete with strings.
* The band begins a national tour in May, with concerts in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and California. `One has to go outside Western culture to Japanese Gagaku or Hindu music to find a sound so singularly distilled and unvariedly consistent in its use.'