Alton Glenn Miller (March 1, 1904 – December 15, 1944) was an American jazz musician and band leader in the Swing era. After a very successful career, including many famous recordings, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances during World War II.
Life and career
Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1904. Several years later, in North Platte, Nebraska, he started his musical career when his father brought home a mandolin. As soon as possible, he traded the instrument for an old horn, which he practiced diligently.
In 1923, Miller entered the University of Colorado where he joined Sigma Nu Fraternity, but spent most of his time there away from school, attending auditions and playing any gigs he could get. 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, who is credited with helping Miller create the "Miller sound".
He toured with several orchestras playing trombone and landed a good spot in Ben Pollack's group in Los Angeles. Among the members of that band was Benny Goodman, who played the clarinet. During his stint with Pollack, Miller had the opportunity to write several musical arrangements of his own. In 1928, when the band arrived in New York City, he sent for and married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger.
During the 1930s, Miller earned a living working as a freelance trombonist in several bands, and compiling several musical arrangements before forming his first band in 1936. Jerry Jerome, Hal McIntyre, Charlie Spivak, Sterling Bose, and Irving Fazola were some of the musicians in the band. Kathleen Lane was the singer. The band failed to distinguish itself from the many others of the era, and broke up.
Discouraged, he returned to New York. Realising that he needed a unique sound, he dedicated himself to finding it. After a lot of work, he decided to make the clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone on the same note, while three saxophones harmonised. With this sound, the Miller band was born in 1937. This unique sound would lift his band above other bands of the era. Many jazz critics of that time felt that Miller's ascendancy was a shift in popular music, away from the "hot" bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Miller himself emphasized orchestrated arrangements over improvisation. Tex Beneke, Al Klink, Chummy MacGregor, Billy May, Johnny Best, Maurice Purtill and Wilbur Schwartz were some of the musicians in the band. Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton and the Modernaires were the singers. Many of the Miller musicians went on to studio careers in Hollywood after World War Two and backed up singers like Frank Sinatra.
His new band immediately attracted attention; large audiences attended their concerts, and a series of recordings followed. Beginning in June 1938, Miller dominated the top spot on the various popular music charts for more than a year, with "In the Mood" holding the top spot for more than fifteen weeks at the beginning of 1940 and "Tuxedo Junction" taking over and keeping Miller at number one into the summer. On February 11 1942, Miller was presented with the first ever Gold record for "Chattanooga Choo Choo".
"(Glenn Miller’s) arrangements are inventive and refreshing. He never forgets the melodic line. He lets you recognize the tune." — New York Times, January 1940
Military service, disappearance, and personality
In 1942, Miller joined the United States Air Force and was commissioned as a Captain. He was also appointed Commander of the Band and devoted himself to reorganising it. Then he formed the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band, which gave more than 800 performances for U.S. servicemen overseas in two years. Ray McKinley, Bobby Nichols, Hank Freeman, Peanuts Hucko and Mel Powell were among the musicians in the band. Johnny Desmond and the Crew Chiefs were the singers. For many years the only available recordings of this band, was a five record set issued by RCA in the mid-fifties. Since the nineties however, RCA and various companies have issued high fidelity compact discs of music previously thought lost.
On December 15 1944, he was scheduled to fly from England to Paris to play for the soldiers that had recently liberated the city. His plane disappeared over the English Channel and was never found. Miller's disappearence remains a mystery; the fact that neither Miller's remains nor the wreckage of his plane (a single-engined Norseman UC-64, USAAF Tail Number 44-70285) were ever recovered from the Channel have led to many conspiracy theories over the years. A popular theory holds that, in the foggy weather that bedeviled the Channel on that day, Glenn Miller's plane strayed into a "safe drop" zone and was bombed out of the air by Canadian Air Force bombers disposing of bombs that went unused during an aborted bombing run on German positions. Despite Miller's disappearence, his band continued to play for troops until August 1945, when the members were discharged and returned to New York.
According to Leo Walker in his book The Big Band Almanac, few people knew Glenn Miller well. Two people who did were Don Haynes, Miller's manager, and George T. Simon, jazz critic and author of Glenn Miller & His Orchestra. Don Haynes told Walker that Miller was a reserved person, but extremely warm towards those near him. But other musicians who were associated with Miller thought differently. They all respected Miller, but they described him as all business, generally cold, perhaps insecure and a person who had a driving ambition to be successful. They agreed that Miller was a musical perfectionist. "Glenn had guts," said George T. Simon in his book The Big Bands. "He could also spot phonies, whom he truly detested. If you were straight with Glenn, he'd give you at least the time of day. But if you weren't, he wouldn't even give you the time of night."
Miller's music is familiar to many born long after his death, especially from its use in a number of movies. James Stewart starred as Glenn Miller in 1953's The Glenn Miller Story, which portrayed many of his compositions. "Moonlight Serenade" was used in Tom Hanks' Big. "In The Mood" was used in Disney's remake of The Parent Trap, and in 1989 as the instrumental theme for Jive Bunny & the Mastermixers "Swing the Mood", a compilation mix that also included many early rock and roll tunes and was a number one single in the U.K., Australia, and several other countries.
In April 1992, at his daughter's request, a stone was placed in Memorial Section H, Number 464-A on Wilson Drive in Arlington National Cemetery.
- "A band ought to have a sound all of its own. It ought to have a personality."
- "I haven’t (got) a great jazz band and I don’t want one... A dozen colored bands have a beat better than mine."
- "(The saxophone sound) was always intended to be an all-around combination; but when we do play a swing number, we expect and try to make it swing as much as possible."
- "There is no rest, there must be no rest for a fellow when he is successful. He has got to keep right on going... And don’t think that I am the product of luck or breaks or anything like that. I have worked hard ever since I came out of the University of Colorado. I have played the trombone in so many bands, I can’t count them all."
- Download sample of "Tuxedo Junction" by Glenn Miller
- Glenn Miller Orchestra - USA
- Glenn Miller Orchestra - UK
- Glenn Miller Orchestra - Europe
- Arlington National Cemetery's page on Glenn Miller
- What happened to Glenn Miller?