Alton Glenn Miller (March 1, 1904 – missing in action December 15, 1944) was an American big band musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader in the swing era. He was one of the best-selling recording artists from 1939 to 1943, leading one of the best known big bands. Miller's notable recordings include "In the Mood", "Moonlight Serenade", "Pennsylvania 6-5000", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "A String of Pearls", "At Last", "(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo", "American Patrol", "Tuxedo Junction", and "Little Brown Jug".While he was traveling to entertain U.S. troops in France during World War II, Glenn Miller's aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel.
Early life and career
Miller was born on a farm in Clarinda, Iowa, to Lewis Elmer Miller and Mattie Lou (née Cavender). He went to grade school in North Platte in western Nebraska. In 1915, Miller's family moved to Grant City, Missouri. Around this time, Miller had finally made enough money from milking cows to buy his first trombone and played in the town orchestra. Originally, Miller played cornet and mandolin, but he switched to trombone by 1916. In 1918, the Miller family moved again, this time to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where Miller went to high school. In the fall of 1919, he joined the high school football team, Maroons, which won the Northern Colorado Football Conference in 1920. He was named the Best Left End in Colorado. During his senior year, Miller became very interested in a new style of music called "dance band music." He was so taken with it that he formed his own band with some classmates. By the time Miller graduated from high school in 1921, he had decided he wanted to become a professional musician.
In 1923, Miller entered the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he joined Sigma Nu Fraternity, but spent most of his time away from school, attending auditions and playing any gigs he could get, most notably with Boyd Senter's band in Denver. He dropped out of school after failing three out of five classes one semester, and decided to concentrate on making a career as a professional musician. He later studied the Schillinger technique with Joseph Schillinger, under whose tutelage he composed what became his signature theme, "Moonlight Serenade". In 1926, Miller toured with several groups, eventually landing a good spot in Ben Pollack's group in Los Angeles. He was also notably known for playing for Victor Young, whose Los Angeles studio orchestra accompanied Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, allowing him to be mentored under other professional musicians. In the beginning, he was the main trombone soloist of the band. However, when Jack Teagarden joined the Pollack's band in 1928, Miller found that his solos were cut drastically. From then, he realized that, rather than being a trombonist, his future lay in writing music. He also had a songbook published in Chicago entitled Glenn Miller's 125 Jazz Breaks for Trombone by the Melrose Brothers in 1927. During his stint with Pollack, Miller wrote several musical arrangements of his own. He also co-wrote his first composition, "Room 1411", written with Benny Goodman and released as a Brunswick 78, 4013, credited to Bennie Goodman's Boys. In 1928, when the band arrived in New York City, he sent for and married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger. He was a member of Red Nichols's orchestra in 1930, and because of Nichols, Miller played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy (where his bandmates included big band leaders Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa).
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Miller managed to earn a living working as a freelance trombonist in several bands. On a March 21, 1928 Victor session Miller played alongside Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Joe Venuti in the All-Star Orchestra, directed by Nat Shilkret. During this period, Miller arranged and played trombone on several significant Dorsey Brothers OKeh sessions including "The Spell of The Blues", "Let's Do It" and "My Kinda Love", all with Bing Crosby vocals. On November 14, 1929, an original vocalist named Red McKenzie hired Miller to play on two records that are now considered to be jazz classics: "Hello, Lola" and "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight". Beside Miller were clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, guitarist Eddie Condon, drummer Gene Krupa and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone.
In the early-to-mid-1930s, Miller also worked as a trombonist, arranger, and composer in The Dorsey Brothers, first when they were a Brunswick studio group (under their own name and providing accompaniment for many of The Boswell Sisters sessions), and finally when they formed an ill-fated co-led touring and recording orchestra. Miller composed the songs "Annie's Cousin Fanny", "Dese Dem Dose", "Harlem Chapel Chimes", and "Tomorrow's Another Day" for the Dorsey Brothers Band in 1934 and 1935. In 1935, he assembled an American orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble, developing the arrangement of lead clarinet over four saxophones that eventually became the sonic keynote of his own big band. Members of the Noble band included future bandleaders Claude Thornhill, Bud Freeman and Charlie Spivak.
Glenn Miller made his first movie appearance in the 1935 Paramount Pictures release The Big Broadcast of 1936 as a member of the Ray Noble Orchestra performing "Why Stars Come Out at Night". The Big Broadcast of 1936 starred Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Jack Oakie, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and also featured other performances by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, who would appear with Miller again in two movies for Twentieth Century Fox in 1941 and 1942.
Glenn Miller compiled several musical arrangements and formed his first band in 1937. The band failed to distinguish itself from the many others of the era, and broke up after playing its last show at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut on January 2, 1938. Benny Goodman said in 1976, "In late 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 don't know, Glenn. You just stay with it.'"
Success from 1938 to 1942
1939 Baltimore Hippodrome Ballroom concert poster.
Discouraged, Miller returned to New York. He realized that he needed to develop a unique sound, and decided to make the clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave. George T. Simon discovered a saxophonist named Wilbur Schwartz for Glenn Miller. Miller hired Schwartz, but instead had him play the lead clarinet. According to Simon, "Willie's tone and way of playing provided a fullness and richness so distinctive that none of the later Miller imitators could ever accurately reproduce the Miller sound." With this new sound combination, Glenn Miller found a way to differentiate his band's style from the many bands that existed in the late thirties. Miller talked about his style in the May, 1939 issue ofMetronome magazine. "You'll notice today some bands use the same trick on every introduction; others repeat the same musical phrase as a modulation into a vocal ... We're fortunate in that our style doesn't limit us to stereotyped intros, modulations, first choruses, endings or even trick rhythms. The fifth sax, playing clarinet most of the time, lets you know whose band you're listening to. And that's about all there is to it."
Bluebird Records and Glen Island Casino
In September 1938, the Miller band began making recordings for the RCA Victor, Bluebird Records subsidiary. Cy Shribman, a prominent East Coast businessman, began financing the band, providing a much needed infusion of cash. In the spring of 1939, the band's fortunes improved with a date at the Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and more dramatically at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. The Glen Island date according to author Gunther Schuller attracted "a record breaking opening night crowd of 1800..." With the Glen Island date, the band began a huge rise in popularity. In 1939, TIME magazine noted: "Of the twelve to 24 discs in each of today's 300,000 U.S. jukeboxes, from two to six are usually Glenn Miller's." There were record-breaking recordings such as "Tuxedo Junction" which sold 115,000 copies in the first week. Miller's huge success in 1939 culminated with his band appearing at Carnegie Hall on October 6, with Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Fred Waring also the main attractions.
From 1939 to 1942, Miller's band was featured three times a week during a quarter-hour broadcast for Chesterfield cigarettes on CBS, first with the Andrews Sisters and then on its own. On February 10, 1942, RCA Victor presented Miller with the first gold record for "Chattanooga Choo-Choo". "Chattanooga Choo Choo" was performed by the Miller orchestra with his singers Gordon "Tex" Beneke, Paula Kelly and the vocal group, the Modernaires. Other singers with this orchestra included Marion Hutton, Skip Nelson, Ray Eberle and to a smaller extent, Kay Starr, Ernie Caceres, Dorothy Claire and Jack Lathrop. Pat Friday ghost sang with the Miller band in their two films, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives with Lynn Bari lip synching.
First gold record award for "Chattanooga Choo Choo" is presented to Glenn Miller by W. Wallace Early of RCA Victor with announcer Paul Douglas on far left, February, 1942.
Miller and his band appear in two Twentieth Century Fox films. In 1941's Sun Valley Serenade they are major members of the cast, which also features comedian Milton Berle. The Miller band returned to Hollywood to film 1942's Orchestra Wives, featuring Jackie Gleason playing a part as the group's bassist, Ben Beck. Miller had an ailment that made laughter extremely painful. Since Jackie Gleason was a comedian, Miller had a difficult time watching Gleason more than once, because Miller would start laughing. Harry Morgan appears as Cully Anderson, the unrequited love interest of Ann Rutherford's character, Connie Ward. Miller was contracted to do a third movie for Fox, Blind Date, but as he entered the U.S. Army, this never panned out. The Glenn Miller Storywhich described his life from the beginnings to his tragic death was released in 1954.
In 2004, Miller orchestra bassist Herman "Trigger" Alpert explained the band's success: "Miller had America's music pulse ... He knew what would please the listeners." Although Miller had massive popularity, many jazz critics of the time had misgivings. They believed that the band's endless rehearsals—and, according to critic Amy Lee in Metronome magazine, "letter-perfect playing"—diminished any feeling from performances. They also felt that Miller's brand of swing shifted popular music away from the "hot jazz" bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and toward commercial novelty instrumentals and vocal numbers. For years, even after Miller died, the Miller estate maintained an unfriendly stance toward critics that derided the band during Miller's lifetime. Miller was often criticized for being too commercial. His answer to the criticism was, "I don't want a jazz band". Many modern jazz critics still harbor similar antipathy toward Miller. Jazz critics Gunther Schuller (1991) and Gary Giddins (2004) have separately defended the Miller orchestra for whatever deficiencies earlier critics have found. In an article written for The New Yorker in 2004, Gary Giddins says he feels that these early critics erred in denigrating Miller's music, and that the popular opinion of the time should hold greater sway. The article states: "Miller exuded little warmth on or off the bandstand, but once the band struck up its theme, audiences were done for: throats clutched, eyes softened. Can any other record match 'Moonlight Serenade' for its ability to induce a Pavlovian slaver in so many for so long?" Schuller, notes, "[The Miller sound] was nevertheless very special and able to penetrate our collective awareness that few other sounds have..." He compares it partially to "Japanese Gagaku [and] Hindu music" in its purity. Schuller and Giddins do not take completely uncritical approaches to Miller. Schuller says that Ray Eberle's "lumpy, sexless vocalizing dragged down many an otherwise passable performance." However finally Schuller notes: "How much further [Miller's] musical and financial ambitions might have carried him must forever remain conjectural. That it would have been significant, whatever form(s) it might have taken, is not unlikely."
Reaction from musical peers
Louis Armstrong thought enough of Miller to carry around his recordings transferred to seven-inch tape reels when he went on tour. "[Armstrong] liked musicians who prized melody, and his selections ranged from Glenn Miller to Jelly Roll Morton to Tchaikovsky." Jazz pianist George Shearing's quintet of the 1950s and 1960s was influenced by Miller: "with Shearing's locked hands style piano (influenced by the voicing of Miller's saxophone section) in the middle [of the quintet's harmonies]." Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé held the orchestra in high regard. Tormé credited Miller with giving him helpful advice when he first started his singing and song-writing career in the 1940s. Mel Tormé met Glenn Miller in 1942, the meeting facilitated by Tormé's father and Ben Pollack. Tormé and Miller discussed "That Old Black Magic" which was just emerging as a new song byJohnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Miller told Tormé to pick up every song by Mercer and study it and to become a voracious reader of anything he could find, because "all good lyric writers are great readers." In an interview with George T. Simon in 1948, Sinatra lamented the inferior quality of music he was recording in the late forties and in comparison with "those great Glenn Miller things" from eight years earlier. With the opposite opinion, fellow bandleader Artie Shaw frequently disparaged the band after Miller's death: "All I can say is that Glenn should have lived, and 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' should have died." Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco surprised many people when he led the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the late sixties and early seventies. De Franco was already the veteran of bands like Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. He was also a major exponent of modern jazz in the 1950s. He never sees Miller as leading a swinging jazz band, but DeFranco is extremely fond of certain aspects of the Glenn Miller style. "I found that when I opened with the sound of 'Moonlight Serenade,' I could look around and see men and women weeping as the music carried them back to years gone by." De Franco says, "the beauty of Glenn Miller's ballads [...] caused people to dance together."
The Army Air Force Band 1942–1944
in Bedford, where Miller played in
World War II.
In 1942, at the peak of his civilian career, Miller decided to join the war effort. At 38, Miller was too old to be drafted, and first volunteered for the Navy but was told that they did not need his services. Miller then wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young. He persuaded the United States Army to accept him so he could, in his own words, "be placed in charge of a modernized Army band."After being accepted into the Army, Miller's civilian band played its last concert in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 27, 1942. His patriotic intention of entertaining the Allied Forces with the fusion of virtuosity and dance rhythms in his music earned him the rank of captain and was soon promoted to major by August 1944.
At first placed in the United States Army, Miller was transferred to the Army Air Force. Captain Glenn Miller served initially as assistant special services officer for the Army Air Forces Southeast Training Center at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1942. He played trombone with the Rhythmaires, a 15-piece dance band, in both Montgomery and in service clubs and recreation halls on Maxwell. Miller also appeared on both WAPI (Birmingham, Alabama) and WSFA radio (Montgomery), promoting the activities of civil service women aircraft mechanics employed at Maxwell.
Miller initially formed a large marching band that was to be the core of a network of service orchestras. Miller's attempts at modernizing military music were met with some resistance from tradition-minded career officers. For example, Miller's arrangement of "St. Louis Blues March", combined blues and jazz with the traditional military march. Miller's weekly radio broadcast "I Sustain the Wings", for which he co-wrote the eponymous theme song, moved from New Haven to New York City and was very popular. This led to permission for Miller to form his 50-piece Army Air Force Band and take it to England in the summer of 1944, where he gave 800 performances.While in England, now Major Miller recorded a series of records at EMI owned Abbey Road Studios. EMI at this time was the British and European distributor for RCA Victor.The recordings the AAF band made in 1944 at Abbey Road were propaganda broadcasts for the Office of War Information. Many songs are sung in German by Johnny Desmondand Glenn Miller speaks in German about the war effort. Before Miller's disappearance, his music was used by World War II AFN radio broadcasting for entertainment and morale as well as counter-propaganda to denounce fascist oppression in Europe with even Miller once stating on radio:
"America means freedom and there's no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music".-Glenn Miller
Also, the Miller-led AAF Orchestra recorded songs with the American singer Dinah Shore. These were done at the Abbey Road studios and were the last recorded songs made by the band while being led by Miller. They were stored with HMV/EMI for fifty years, never being released until their copyright expired in Europe in 1994. In summarizing Miller's military career, General Jimmy Doolittle said, “next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”
U.S. Army Air Force UC-64
Miller's monument in
Grove Street Cemetery,
New Haven, Connecticut
Miller spent his last night alive at the Hall in Milton Ernest, near Bedford. On December 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from the United Kingdom to Paris, France, to play for the soldiers there. His plane (a single-engined UC-64 Norseman, USAAF serial 44-70285) departed from RAF Twinwood Farm in Clapham, on the outskirts of Bedford and disappeared while flying over the English Channel. No trace of the aircrew, passengers or plane has ever been found. Miller's status is missing in action.
There are three main theories about what happened to Miller's plane, including the suggestion that he might have been hit by Royal Air Force bombs after an abortive raid on Siegen, Germany. One hundred and thirty-eight Lancaster bombers, short on fuel, jettisoned approximately 100,000 incendiaries in a designated area before landing. The logbooks of Royal Air Force navigator Fred Shaw recorded that he saw a small, single-engined monoplane spiraling out of control and crashing into the water. However, a second source, while acknowledging the possibility, cites other RAF crew members flying the same mission who stated that the drop area was in the North Sea. Further research by British scholars also seems to indicate that this is the most likely probability, making Miller's death a "friendly fire" incident. In his 2006 self-published book I Kept My Word: The Personal Promise Between a World War II Army Private and His Captain About What Really Happened to Glenn Miller, Clarence B. Wolfe — a gunner with Battery D, 134th AAA Battalion, in Folkestone, England — claims that his battery shot down Miller's plane. Another book by Lt. Col. Huton Downs, In 1997, German journalist Udo Ulfkotte came up with another explanation, this one more salacious. According to the German tabloid Bild, Ulfkotte had been researching American and German intelligence efforts during the war for a book on German intelligence agencies. Ulfkotte claimed that while going over documents he had obtained from the American government under the Freedom of Information Act, he found evidence that Miller had actually arrived safely in Paris on the 14th, but had a heart attack on the 15th while consorting with a French prostitute, and that the American military had covered up the episode.
When Miller disappeared, he left behind his wife, the former Helen Burger, originally from Boulder, Colorado, and the two children they adopted in 1943 and 1944, Steven and Jonnie. Helen Miller accepted the Bronze Star medal for Miller in February 1945.
Civilian band legacy
The Miller estate authorized an official Glenn Miller "ghost band" in 1946. This band was led by Tex Beneke, former tenor saxophonist and a singer for the civilian band. It had a make up similar to the Army Air Force Band: it had a large string section. The orchestra's official public début was at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway where it opened for a three-week engagement on January 24, 1946. Future television and film composer Henry Mancini was the band's pianist and one of the arrangers. This ghost band played to very large audiences all across the United States, including a few dates at the Hollywood Palladium in 1947, where the original Miller band played in 1941. In a website concerning the history of the Hollywood Palladium, it is noted "[e]ven as the big band era faded, the Tex Beneke and Glenn Miller Orchestra concert at the Palladium resulted in a record-breaking crowd of 6,750 dancers." By 1949, economics dictated that the string section be dropped.
This band recorded for RCA Victor, just as the original Miller band did. Beneke was struggling with how to expand the Miller sound and also how to achieve success under his own name. What began as the "Glenn Miller Orchestra Under the Direction of Tex Beneke" finally became "The Tex Beneke Orchestra". By 1950, Beneke and the Miller estate parted ways. The break was acrimonious and Beneke is not currently listed by the Miller estate as a former leader of the Glenn Miller orchestra.
When Glenn Miller was alive, various bandleaders like Bob Chester imitated his style. By the early 1950s, various bands were again copying the Miller style of clarinet-led reeds and muted trumpets, notably Ralph Flanagan, Jerry Gray, and Ray Anthony. This, coupled with the success of The Glenn Miller Story (1953), led the Miller estate to ask Ray McKinley to lead a new ghost band. This 1956 band is the original version of the current ghost band that still tours the United States today. The official Glenn Miller orchestra for the United States is currently under the direction of Nick Hilscher. The officially sanctioned Glenn Miller Orchestra for the United Kingdom has toured and recorded under the leadership of Ray McVay. The official Glenn Miller Orchestra for Europe has been led by Wil Salden since 1990.
Army Air Force band legacy
In the mid-1940s, after Miller's disappearance, the Miller-led Army Air Force band was decommissioned and sent back to the United States. "The chief of the European theater asked [Warrant Officer Harold Lindsay] Lin [Arinson] to put together another band to take its place, and that's when the 314 was formed." According to singer Tony Bennett who sang with it while in the service, the 314 was the immediate successor to the Glenn Miller led AAF orchestra. The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band's long term legacy has carried on with the Airmen of Note, a band within the United States Air Force Band. This band was created in 1950 from smaller groups within the Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. and continues to play jazz music for the Air Force community and the general public. The legacy also conitinues through The United States Air Forces in Europe Band, stationed at Ramstein Ar Base, Germany. A sub-unit of this group, The Ambassadors Jazz Ensemble, still tours Europe playing jazz throughout the Continent.
Glenn Miller's widow, Helen, died in 1966. Herb Miller, Glenn Miller's brother, led his own band in the United States and England until the late 1980s. Herb's son, John continues the tradition leading a band playing mainly Glenn Miller style music. In 1989, Glenn Miller's daughter Jonnie purchased her father's house where he was born. The Glenn Miller Foundation was created to oversee the subsequent restoration. In 1953, Universal-International pictures released The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart. In 1953, Glenn Miller was voted into the Down Beat magazine Jazz Hall of Fame in the Readers' Poll. In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Glenn Miller postage stamp. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammys), honored Glenn Miller by including three of his recordings in their Hall of Fame: In 1983, "In The Mood", Bluebird B-10416-A, was inducted. The recording of "Moonlight Serenade", Bluebird B-10214-B, was also honored by the Grammys in similar fashion in 1991. "Chattanooga Choo Choo", Bluebird B-11230-B, was inducted in 1996. In 2003, Miller received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In the United States and England, there are a few archives that are devoted to Glenn Miller. The University of Colorado, Boulder, has an extensive Glenn Miller Archive, which houses many of Miller's recordings, gold records and other memorabilia, which is open to scholarly research and the general public. This archive, formed by Alan Cass, includes the original manuscript to Miller's theme song, "Moonlight Serenade", among other items of interest. In 2002, the Glenn Miller Museum opened to the public at the former RAF Twinwood Farm, in Clapham, Bedfordshire, England. Miller's surname resides on the 'Wall of Missing' at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. A monument stone was also placed in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut next to the campus of Yale University. He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6915 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. The last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Paul Tanner, died on February 5, 2013.
Glenn Miller arranging staff and compositions
Miller had a staff of arrangers who wrote originals like "String of Pearls" (written and arranged by Jerry Gray) or took originals like "In The Mood" (writing credit given to Joe Garland) and arranged by Eddie Durham) and "Tuxedo Junction" (written by bandleader Erskine Hawkins and arranged by Jerry Gray) and arranged them for the Miller band to either record or broadcast. Glenn Miller's staff of arrangers in his civilian band, that handled the bulk of the work were Jerry Gray (a former arranger for Artie Shaw),Bill Finegan (a former arranger for Tommy Dorsey), Billy May and to a much smaller extent, George Williams, who worked very briefly with the band as well asAndrews Sisters arranger Vic Schoen According to Norman Leyden, "[s]everal others [besides Leyden] arranged for Miller in the service, including Jerry Gray, Ralph Wilkinson, Mel Powell, and Steve Steck." In 1943, Glenn Miller wrote Glenn Miller's Method for Orchestral Arranging, published by the Mutual Music Society in New York,a one hundred sixteen page book with illustrations and scores that explains how he wrote his musical arrangements.