The Life and Legacy of Glenn Miller

September 14, 2011
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By Devin Grant

There are some incredible jazz musicians alive today who astound us with their sound, their originality and their skill. Artists like Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins blow us away, but we should be careful not to forget the people who came before, who laid the groundwork to help jazz develop to what it is today, and who are legends in their own right. One such jazz legend is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, band leader to ever live, Glenn Miller.

Early Life

Son of Lewis and Mattie Lou Miller, Alton Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa on March 1st, 1904. Moving from Clarinda to North Platte, Nebraska, and then on to Missouri and Fort Morgan, Colorado, Miller’s musical start came in North Platte around 1914 when his father bought him a mandolin, which – as any good brass player would – he promptly traded for an old horn. In 1916 in Missouri Miller switched – as any good brass player would – to the trombone, and by the time he was going to Fort Morgan High School in Colorado he was practicing almost non-stop, to the point where due to the difficulty of making it in the music business his mother once said “It got to where Pop and I used to wonder if he’d ever amount to anything.” For a time her fears seemed justified; after enrolling at the University of Colorado, but spending more time on the road auditioning and playing gigs, Miller dropped out after failing three out of five courses one semester, deciding instead to focus entirely on his music.

Beginning of a Career

After touring with several orchestras, Miller ended up in Los Angeles, in the band of Ben Pollack (playing alongside future fellow band leader Benny Goodman). It was with this group that Miller began distinguishing himself as a composer and arranger, arranging songs for Pollack and co-writing his first original composition, “Room 1411”, with Benny Goodman. After Ben Pollack’s band moved to New York Miller married his high school sweetheart Helen Burger, and in 1934 Miller joined the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, playing with the group for a year. In 1935 Ray Noble approached Miller to assemble a band for him, resulting in the Ray Noble orchestra containing such members as trumpeter Charlie Spivak and saxophonist Bud Freeman.

Building His Own Name

In 1937 Miller decided to break out on his own, and formed his own band. Despite a couple of recordings for Decca and Brunswick, Miller’s band mainly only played a few one night stands and was unable to distinguish themselves among the multitude of big bands at the time. After parting ways at the end of 1937, Miller realized he needed to give his band an original sound, and used a technique he had first developed for the Ray Noble Orchestra of having a clarinet holding the melodic line while the tenor sax plays the same note, supported by the harmonizing of the other three saxophones. This sound, particularly thanks to lead clarinet Wilbur Schwartz, was something completely original that no other band seemed to be able to copy, and in March of 1938 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was born.

The Golden Years

The Glenn Miller Orchestra’s big break came in 1939 with an engagement at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, where they set an attendance record with an opening night crowd of 1800 listeners. This became a bit of a trend for Miller, attracting the largest dancing crowd in Syracuse history at the New York State Fair, and topping Guy Lombardo’s all time record at the Hershey Park Ballroom in Pennsylvania, capped off by a performance at Carnegie Hall with other greats Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring and, you guessed it, Benny Goodman.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra had found mainstream success, and it showed in the charts. Miller had 17 Top 10 hits in 1939, followed by another 31 in 1940, and 11 in each of 1941 and 1942. These hits included such jazz standards as “In The Mood” (the original theme of which was written by Miller himself), “Moonlight Serenade” (written by Miller) and a number of well-known Miller arrangements such as “A String of Pearls”, “Little Brown Jugs”, and “Tuxedo Junction”. This success culminated in two film deals for the band, 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade (which introduced the hit song “Chattanooga Choo Choo”) and 1942’s Orchestra Wives (featuring “(I Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo” and using “At Last” as a motif throughout the movie).

A Call To Arms

With the introduction of the United States to the war in 1942, Miller decided to serve his country in the way he knew best, and convinced military higher-ups to allow him to enlist, eventually taking control of the Army Air Force Band. Miller modernised the group, constructing a 50 piece jazz group with marching band influences, and obtained permission to tour the group around England entertaining the troops. In the span of a little under a year, Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band made over 800 performances, including 500 broadcasts heard by millions and over 300 personal performances including concerts and dances. Sadly Miller was absent for the last six months of these activities.

Tragic Death

Just before Christmas of 1944, the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band was scheduled to do a six week tour of Europe, operating out of Paris, France at that time. As such, on December 15th, 1944, Miller boarded a flight for Paris to set up the accommodations for his band. This was the last time that Miller was seen alive, and his official status is missing, presumed dead on December 15th, 1944. While it is possible that weather caused the crash, reports suggest that it is possible Miller’s plane was accidentally struck by bombs jettisoned by British aircraft over the English Channel, after returning from an aborted mission. Whatever the cause, that day the world lost one of the greatest musical minds of its time.


The impact that Glenn Miller has had on jazz, and music in general, is undeniable. He was awarded the first ever gold record for his recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and was a charter inductee into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Three of his recordings have made their way into the Grammys Hall of Fame: “In The Mood” in 1983, “Moonlight Serenade” in 1991, and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in 1996. Miller was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Miller’s writing and arranging had a very distinct style, which was different from that of the time. Taking some importance away from featuring a solo artist, which many groups would do, Miller focused more on having a precise, tight sound from his entire band, believing that melodies and a perfect background were more important. Many critics criticized Miller for this at the time, claiming that he was straying from real jazz, but in retrospect Miller is widely regarded as one of the best band leaders of all time, creating an incredible sound and showing just how much a band can come together and play as a single entity, a wish that any jazz band player will recognize coming from their conductor. Miller’s iconic tunes are seen as excellent indicators of the music of the time; his songs “In The Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” are jazz classics, and his recording of “Jukebox Saturday Night” even references notable names of that era, with friendly parodies of Harry James (at that time the trumpet player for the Benny Goodman Big Band and a future band leader himself) and the Ink Spots (an excellent male vocal group of the time – I highly suggest you give them a listen if you’ve never heard them before). The jazz world has a lot to thank Glenn Miller for, not the least of which is the incredible music that we continue to listen to, and will for years to come.

Related Links:

http://www.glennmiller.com/index.php – Official Site of Glenn Miller

http://www.glennmillerorchestra.com/ – Official Site of the Glenn Miller Orchestra

One comment

  1. After December 15, 1944, Glenn Miller’s trail turns cold. Nobody knows what happened to Miller.

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