I realize with some shame that most of what I know about Glenn Miller comes from the movie The Glenn Miller Story, which starred Jimmy Stewart as the great bandleader. I say “know,” because where facts are concerned, a Hollywood biopic of this era makes Wikipedia seem like Holy Scripture.
But I do know the music. I love big band music, and sometimes wonder if I was born thirty years too late. Miller’s theme song came to be “Moonlight Serenade,” a beautiful ballad with a remarkable arrangement. It was those arrangements that made the Glenn Miller Orchestra unique. While it’s easy to remember the trumpets in his songs, what made his sound distinctive was the combination of a clarinet and four saxophones on the melody line. The movie got that right, though the circumstances were pure Hollywood.
Following stints in other bands, Miller finally put together his successful outfit in 1938. The band then started churning out hits like clockwork. “Little Brown Jug”… “The Nearness of You”… “Jukebox Saturday Night”…”Blues in the Night”… “Pennsylvania 6-5000″… “Tuxedo Junction” … “Stardust”… “That Old Black Magic”… “String of Pearls”… “In the Mood”… “Chattanooga Choo Choo”… and “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”
Miller’s career was interrupted by World War II. Too old for the regular army, Miller volunteered to lead a modernized Army band. He formed a 50-piece band that performed more than 800 performances in England alone by 1944. In December of that year, Miller took a flight to perform for the soldiers who had just liberated Paris. He, the flight crew, and the airplane literally disappeared. No trace of them has ever been found.
His death was tragic, and he left behind a wife and two adopted children. But his music has continued to flourish, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra continues to tour to this day. Go hear them if you the the chance, and step back into a simpler time when popular music was focused on the quaint concept of melody.
The video is my favorite part of The Glenn Miller Story when Jimmy Stew, er, Glenn Miller discovers “the sound.”