By Jeff Olson
In his seminal volume, The Big Bands (1967), George T. Simon writes, “Of all the outstanding popular dance bands, the one that evokes the most memories of how wonderfully romantic it all was, the one whose music people want to hear over and over again, is the band of the late Glenn Miller.”
This is still true today, nearly four generations after that tragic day seventy-five years ago. On the afternoon of December 15, 1944, Glenn Miller set out in a small plane over the English Channel to make arrangements for his band’s arrival in Paris a few days later. Neither the plane nor any of its three occupants were ever heard from again. Glenn was survived by his wife Helen and their two children, Steven and Jonnie.
Alton Glenn Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. He attended the University of Colorado for two years, but dropped out to pursue a music career. However, during the Great Depression jobs were hard to find, even those in the music business. Fellow musician and friend Benny Goodman tells of he and Glenn sharing an apartment together and how there was not enough work to go around. As he remembered, “…things got so rough for us that occasionally they would get up early and borrow empty milk bottles from in front of other apartments and cash them in at the local grocery store so we could buy hot dogs for lunch.”
In addition to being a good musician, Glenn Miller had a sharp business acumen and was determined to lead his own band one day. He believed “A band ought to have a sound all of its own. It ought to have a personality.”After more than a decade of looking for work and playing as a trombonist and arranger for several bands and orchestras, Glenn started his own band in early 1937. The band lasted less than a year, but he learned a lot from it and with a resolve not to give up. He started a new band within several months and this time there was no looking back. Through this band, Glenn found that sound he had been long searching for, and it caught on almost overnight. During the next three years, the Glenn Miller Orchestra became the number one dance band in America with a string of 59 top ten songs (of which 17 were #1) and was featured in two motion pictures, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. Their 1942 recording of Chattanooga Choo Choo became the first gold record awarded in the music industry.
In December 1941, America entered World War II. While our troops could occasionally listen to Miller’s music through USO radio broadcasts and camp appearances, this wasn’t enough for Glenn Miller. On August 12, 1942, he penned a letter to Brigadier General Charles D. Young expressing a strong desire to bring his music and ideas to the troops overseas, most of whom were Miller fans before their entrance into the military. In his words, “I have an idea that such programs might put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts.”
In his letter Glenn requested to “go into the army”, and he did so at the apex of his music career, with his orchestra’s weekly gross income ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 per week [$243,000 to $308,000 in 2018 dollars]. How could anyone walk away from this level of hard-earned success and also risk life itself when he didn’t have to? And besides, he was not obliged to serve as he was too old to be drafted. In Glenn’s words, “I, like every American, have an obligation to fulfill. That obligation is to lend as much support as I can to winning the war. It is not enough for me to sit back and buy bonds…The mere fact that I have had the privilege of exercising the rights to live and work as a free man puts me in the same position as every man in uniform, for it was the freedom and the democratic way of life we have that enabled me to make strides in the right direction.”
On October 7, 1942, Glenn Miller was inducted in to the U.S. Army. In November he received his commission as a captain and was assigned to the Army Specialist Corps (A.S.C). Immediately, Glenn set out to implement his ideas and do something new and different and exciting for Army Air Forces’s (AAF) music and morale. His plans centered on organizing several outstanding bands. Each would be trained to play both inspiring marching music and outstanding dance band music. Unfortunately, most of his plans didn’t materialize due to government/military bureaucracy and entrenched traditions. In one instance, a post commander scolded Glenn for playing swinging march arrangements of jazz tunes for cadets to march to. “Look, Captain Miller, we played those Sousa marches straight in the last war and we did all right, didn’t we?” To which Glenn replied, “You certainly did, Major. But tell me one thing: Are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war, too?” The band continued to play its swinging blues marches.
One of Glenn’s projects which did materialize was his organization of an AAF band. The band was shipped out to England in late 1943. It toured war zones in Europe and in less than one year was engaged in over 800 performances. Of these, 500 were broadcasts heard by millions. There were more than 300 personal appearances, including concerts and dances with a gross attendance of over 600,000. As Glenn stated, “We didn’t come here to set any fashions in music. We merely came to bring a much-needed touch of home to some lads who have been here a couple of years.”
While Major Glenn Miller is still officially classified as “missing in action,” his music certainly hasn’t been. Since 1956 new editions of the Glenn Miller Orchestra have recorded and toured, keeping his music and legacy alive and relevant to new generations. Three of Glenn’s original recordings, Moonlight Serenade, In the Mood, and Chattanooga Choo Choo, have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2003, Glenn posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Glenn’s love of music and love of country were undeniable and inseparable. In one of the I Sustain the Wings radio broadcasts, he commented, “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.”