With his orchestra, bandleader Glenn Miller (1904-1944) synthesized all the elements of big band jazzand gave a generation of young people the perfectexample of smooth, sophisticated dance music. Miller's popularity as a music maker began in 1939 and continued with standards such as "Moonlight Serenade," "In the Mood," and "Tuxedo Junction."
Miller was one of the most popular musicians of his time. Moreover, he was extremely patriotic and took his personal definition of "duty" very seriously. He used his power to create a successful military band on his terms. Then, just as he finally convinced the military to send his band to places where it could truly boost morale, he disappeared. Rumors circulated almost immediately, but Miller's fate remains a mystery.
Music in his Blood
Alton Glenn Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His parents, Lewis Elmer and Mattie Lou (Cavender) Miller, raised four children. The family moved quite often during his youth, to places including North Platte, Nebraska and Grant City, Oklahoma. In the latter town, Miller milked cows at the age of thirteen in order to earn enough money to purchase a trombone. According to Geoffrey Butcher in Next to a Letter from Home, his mother was the "main strength of the family," and Miller inherited his strong character and love of music from her.
Miller did not, apparently, count on music to be his career, because he finished high school and attended classes at the University of Colorado. During his time in college, though, he continued playing the trombone and worked briefly with Boyd Senter's band in Denver during the mid-1920s. The lure of music proved too strong and Miller left the university after three terms to try his luck on the West Coast.
A Promising Start
Miller played with a few small bands in Los Angeles until 1927, when he joined Ben Pollack's orchestra as trombonist and arranger. This was a wonderful opportunity for Miller since Pollack's band was well-known and respected. Pollack and his musicians moved to New York, and Miller was able to find so many opportunities to perform that he decided to strike out on his own. In addition to playing the trombone, he did arragements for Victor Young, Freddy Rich, and many others. Miller felt optimistic enough about his burgeoning career by 1928, that he decided to marry Helen Burger, a woman he had met in his student days at the University of Colorado.
For the next ten years Miller gained experience by organizing bands and arranging or playing for them. This included serving as the trombonist and arranger for the Dorsey Brothers, as well as organizing a band for the internationally famous Ray Noble, who had come to the United States from Great Britain. Miller not only organized a band for him, he also arranged and played for it. As Dave Dexter, Jr. related in Down Beat magazine, "it was with Ray Noble's band that he first earned national attention."
The Glenn Miller Orchestra was Formed
Despite his success with Noble, Miller wanted to have a big band of his own, and turned down a lucrative job with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company to work on this project. In March 1937, Miller's dream became reality when he put together musicians such as Charlie Spivak, Toots Mondello, and Maurice Purtill to form the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Though Purtill soon left to play with Tommy Dorsey, the orchestra carried on for the rest of the year, playing one-night stands in various cities.
In 1938, Miller temporarily suspended the band. Purtill's absence brought about problems with the orchestra's rhythm section that continued to plague its leader. The members were not meshing with one another the way Miller had hoped. He wanted to achieve a full ensemble sound, rather than spotlighting a soloist. Miller decided to reorganize, using only a few of the band's original members. Later that year the Glenn Miller Orchestra added singer, Marion Hutton, to its roster. By 1939, the band was playing to standing-room-only crowds in New York City. They made radio broadcasts and recordings, which did much to spread the Glenn Miller sound across the country. Their most famous recordings included "Moonlight Serenade," "In the Mood," and "Chatanooga Choo Choo."
Miller's orchestra was famous for its well-blended balanced sound. Critics have noted that it was not a vehicle for star soloists, but rather that emphasis was placed on the output of the entire band. Miller was known to discourage musicians who stood out from the rest of the orchestra, and praise those who combined well with their fellows. The Glenn Miller Orchestra was acclaimed by a large variety of fans because it played many different types of big band music-everything from hot jazz to popular ballads. Miller and his band had appeared in two motion pictures for Twentieth Century Fox: Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. They had achieved both fame and wealth.
In 1942, during the Second World War, Miller decided to break up his orchestra in order to accept the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was past the age when he might expect to be called to service. Nonetheless, Miller felt that he could and should do more to contribute to the war effort than play on the radio, safe from the action. He did not want to use his fame to excuse himself from what he felt was his patriotic duty. On October 7th, Miller enlisted in the army and invited members of his band to join him. They declined.
Upon his induction into the Army Air Forces (AAF), Miller was named director of bands training for the Technical Training Command. He was initially thwarted from implementing some his more creative plans. Several months later, though, after helping to organize almost 50 other bands, he was permitted to form a band of his own.
Miller wanted to incorporate string instruments into his band, in order to transcend the conventional sound of a dance band, which usually only included brass, reed, and rhythm sections. This was a highly innovative concept, and not all of the military bandleaders were open to his idea. In fact, he was reprimanded for an interview he gave to Time magazine in their September 6, 1943 issue, in which he criticized army band music of the time. He asserted that it should be up-to-date, so that the soldiers could enjoy it. He was also quoted as specifically criticizing the compositions of Sousa, which were standards for the army bands. Naturally bandleaders who were admirers of Sousa's works took offense. Miller later claimed he had been misquoted, but the magazine declined to print a retraction.
In November 1943, Miller was released from his other band responsibilities, leaving him free to concentrate on the growth and development of his own band. He wanted an ensemble sound, so improvisation by individual musicians was not tolerated. Miller also refused to give furloughs for band members. He felt that they were living the easy life, compared to soldiers out on the front lines. On the other hand, he was always willing to help musically talented servicemen find their way into a band, if he could manage it.
Miller was anxious to go overseas. After repreated requests, he received permission in June 1944 to take his band to England. They performed in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corportaion (BBC). Wartime London was the site of air raid warnings, rations on most items, and demolished buildings. Appalled by the conditions and concerned for the safety of his band, Miller made arrangements to move to nearby Bedford. Besides their weekly BBC broadcasts, the band also visited military hospitals and airfields to perform. The applause they received gave Miller and his band immense satisfaction.
Miller again grew restless. His next mission was to have the band sent to France. Once more, he met with opposition from the AAF, not to mention the BBC, which was concerned about their weekly program featuring the band. By November 15, he finally received approval.
A Mysterious Disappearance
Miller decided to fly to Paris to make arrangements before the arrival of his band. A Colonel Baessell was leaving for France and offered to let Miller ride along. They took off in a Norseman plane on the stormy afternoon of December 15, 1944. The plane, the pilot, and its passengers were never seen again. The plane never landed in France, according to flight records; nor was any wreckage found. The most-widely accepted theory asserted that the plane went down over the English Channel. Two months after his disappearance the Bronze Star was presented to Miller's wife, in recognition of his contribution to the war effort. On June 5, 1945, Glenn Miller Day was declared in the United States as a national tribute.
Further Reading on Glenn Miller
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, eighth edition, Schirmer Books, 1992.
Butcher, Geoffrey, Next to a Letter from Home: Major Glenn Miller's Wartime Band, Mainstream Publishing, 1986.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 6, Gale, 1992.
Flower, John, Moonlight Serenade: A Bio-discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band, Arlington House, 1972.
Down Beat, October 1996, pp. 36, 38.