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Glenn Miller and the Swing/Big Band Era

Glenn Miller led the most popular big band in the world during 1939-42 and the most beloved of all the swing-era orchestras. His big band played a wide variety of melodic music and had tremendous success in every area of music. He was with the group for two years, and put together an enjoyable and well-rounded show. Glenn Miller was a man who influenced bands greatly for years. Alton Glenn Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda Iowa. His family had a tendency to move frequently, to places such as North Platte, Nebraska, and Grant City, Oklahoma. It was in Grant City that Glenn bought his first trombone, at the age of 13.

He earned the money by milking cows for $2 a week (Glenn Miller Biography). Glenn attended high school in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He studied at the University of Colorado for 2 years. It was in college that his interest in music flourished. He continued to play the trombone, his favorite instrument. Even at his young age, he was good enough to play in the Boyd Senter Band in Denver. At that point his love for music took over. Miller dropped out of school and went to the west coast to try his luck at being a musician. Miller played with many small bands until he had the opportunity to join Ben Pollack’s orchestra in 1926.

At that time the band included such well-known musicians as Benny Goodman, Gill Robin, Fud Livingston, and Dick Morgan. In September of 1926, the Pollack Band went into the recording studios and worked on “When I First Met Mary” and “Deed I Do”. These were probably the first record arrangements that Glenn Miller wrote. He stayed with the band until it went to New York in 1928 (Glenn Miller Story). It was then that he married his early love, Helen Berger, and moved with her to Manhattan. In the coming years, he developed his talent by working with Red Nichols in pit orchestras, as Smith Ballew’s musical director, and with the Dorsey Brothers.

In 1934, Miller helped form Ray Noble’s American Orchestra, which soon became popular through radio broadcasts. Miller was the lead trombonist and arranger. In 1937, he left the band, and his own popularity among big band circles enabled him to form his own band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra. They brought out a few records, and went on tour, but the attempt was doomed from the start. He could not keep the orchestra together and had to let all but four musicians go. What Miller needed was his own trademark to distinguish him from the other bands.

In 1938, with encouragement from friends, he gave it another try, and Miller built up his new orchestra on the basis of the four remaining musicians Hal McIntyre (alto), Rolly Bundock (bass), Chummy MacGregor (piano) and Bob Price (Glenn Miller Story). This time Miller was lucky enough to be supported by one of the most important agencies of the General Artists corporation and to obtain a record contract with RCA Victor’s Budget Bluebird Label. Glenn Miller again went on tour. At this time, he had the distinguishing characteristic in his music of having a clarinet double the sax melody an octave higher.

Times nonetheless, were hard until the big breakthrough came in 1939. The General Artist Corporation managed to get Miller an engagement at the Glen Island Casino New Rochelle. Glenn Miller’s time had come: on May 17 the band played its first night to a sold-out house and by the end of the engagements all box-office records had been broken. From there they traveled to Baltimore at the beginning of September. At Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theater all records were again broken. The orchestra returned to New York and played in front at the largest audience in the city’s history at the New York State Fare.

On September 9, he broke Guy Lombardo’s record attendance from the year 1931 and on October 6 helped Carnegie Hall to achieve new record receipts. The recording was also going full swing. Four records per week were being recorded by the orchestra. It was during this period, on April 4, that Miller’s signature tune “Moonlight Serenade” was recorded, as well as “Little Brown Jug” on April 10, and “In the Mood” on August 1 (“Glenn Miller”). At the end of 1939, the orchestra began a series of radio broadcasts (sponsored by the Chesterfield Cigarette Company) that was the last for two years and nine months.

The orchestra was heard three times a week on the radio and shared the top of the hit parade with the legendary Andrew Sisters for the first 13 weeks. In 1941 20th Century Fox produced the film “Sun Valley Serenade” and the orchestra played “I Know Why”, “It Happened in Sun Valley” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo”. Glenn Miller sold more than a million records with the last of these numbers and received his first “Golden Record”. The following year the orchestra took part in the film “Orchestra Wives” and played “Bugle Call Rag”, “Serenade In Blues”, “At Last” and “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo” (Glenn Miller Biography).

In 1942, at the pinnacle of his career, Glenn Miller joined the US Air Force. He began his service on October 7 with the rank of captain. He planned to form an orchestra to entertain the troops, and to do so he combined two Air Force Orchestras to create a gigantic band. The new orchestra included many well-known names. The “American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces” – as the new Glenn Miller Band was now officially named- came ashore at Gourock, Scotland. On June 9 Glenn Miller gave the first of many radio broadcasts for the Allied troops.

Four days later the orchestra performed their first successful concert at the Thurleigh Heavy Bombardment Base. Yet, there was to be only one more concert. This took place at the former Stoll Theater in London. . On  the afternoon of  December 15, Miller drove to an RAF-Base and took off in a single engine plane to precede his band to Paris. The weather was foreboding. It was horribly cold, foggy and wet. Not very confident, he said to the pilot, “Maybe we ought to call this off? ” The flight officer ribbed him about his fear of flying, “Do you want to live forever? ” They then took off and the plane disappeared.

The members of the orchestra followed the next day and only learned after their landing that Glenn Miller had not arrived. A hectic search for the plane was in vain. Official Army news reports said that ice probably formed on the plane, causing it to crash somewhere in the gray waters of the English Channel. Idolized by many during his lifetime, the news of  his death came as a stunning shock to the millions of fans around the world who had listened to his music. After his tragic death, Glenn Miller legend grew. The fascination of his music remained and continued to inspire enthusiasm in young and old alike.

Now, more than 50 years since the public first embraced the successful Miller Sound, both the legend and the music live on. The big band sound he created has continued to be performed with great popularity since his death. The New Glenn Miller Orchestra was formed and is the most sought after big band in the world today for both concert and dance band engagements. Still considered the greatest band of all time, its unique sound is loved by almost anybody that cares for dance music. An album of rediscovered recordings released in 1995 sold over 400,000 copies worldwide.

The quality of the music is what keeps Miller’s songs popular. Middle school and high school jazz bands continue to play his arrangements,  and are well received by audiences. His records were reissued countless times and his films shown on television over and over – the legend became myth. Plans to film his life never materialized due to the confusion of war. The biographical film “The Glenn Miller Story” with James Stewart in the leading role was a giant success. In 1954, the film had its premiere and is still loved today by all Glenn Miller fans as a testimony to the life of one of the most famous musicians – Glenn Miller.

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