1904 – 1944
Glenn Miller’s influence on the history of jazz represents a contradiction. Though many jazz enthusiasts disapproved of his disciplined, unorthodox approach, Miller’s music experienced undeniable popularity and success with 1940s audiences, and still charms listeners today. “Some of the critics,” said Miller in 1940, “point their fingers at us and charge us with forsaking real jazz.” He then concluded, “It’s all in what you define as ‘real jazz.’” Regardless of criticism he encountered, Miller devoted his life to crafting enjoyable music, aiming not to appease his critics, but to entertain his listeners.
Miller’s Early Years
Glenn Miller was born Alton Glenn Miller on March 1, 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. His parents, Elmer and Mattie Lou Miller, soon moved their family from Iowa first to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and eventually, to Fort Morgan, Colorado. In each of these new cities, Miller’s musical development took a new step. During his family’s stay in Nebraska, Miller’s father brought him a mandolin, which the boy soon traded for an old horn. While in Missouri, he first started playing the trombone as a member of a town band. When his family moved to Fort Morgan in 1918, Miller nourished his musical talents by joining his high school band.
Struggle to the Top
Immediately after graduating high school in 1921, Glenn Miller entered the Boyd Senter band, the first of a series of musical groups he would join. He later quit this group to attend the University of Colorado in 1923, but soon abandoned his college career to pursue his love of music. Over the next years, he moved to Los Angeles and became a member of Ben Pollack’s band, then came to New York City in 1928, working as a trombonist and musical arranger. At this time, Miller married Helen Burger, his college sweetheart. Miller then worked for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, organized an orchestra for Ray Noble, and studied music theory and composition with Joseph Schillinger.
Miller first recorded under his own name in 1934, while still working with the Noble orchestra. Then, in 1937, he tried to form his own band, which gained little popularity. After disbanding and then reorganizing his group, Miller finally found success in 1938, when Glenn Miller and his Orchestra got an engagement at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. The record breaking crowd of 1800, cemented the rise to fame for Glenn Miller and his Orchestra. From there he started to record records such as “Tuxedo Junction” which sold 115,000 copies the first week and his orchestra got a performance engagement at Carnegie Hall. In 1942, RCA Victor presented Miller with the first gold record for “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” which has gone on to be one of the most successful songs and recordings in the history of music. Miller’s recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1996. Mr. Miller’s orchestra also appeared in two films, “Sun Valley Serenade” and “Orchestra Wives.” In 1942, at the height of Miller’s popularity he decided to quit life as a civilian and volunteered his services to the war effort. Although he was too old (age 38) to be drafted and was told they didn’t need his services, he finally found his niche as the leader of an Army band. He soon rose up through the ranks as Captain and entertained the Allied Forces. Glenn Miller’s time in the military had a huge impact for years to come. He formed a Fifty Piece Army Air Force Band which he took to England in the Summer of 1944 and gave upwards of 800 performances. He was promoted to Major and started recording records for the war effort. He recorded at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles would go on to record most of their recordings. On December 15th of 1944, Miller was to fly from the United Kingdom and was on route to France to help organize his band to make a more permanent home in Paris. Unfortunately, his single engine plane did not make the flight and his plane was lost at sea while flying over the English Channel. He left behind his wife Helen and his two very young children. In 1953, Major Glenn Miller’s life story was made into a film “The Glenn Miller Story” starring Jimmy Stewart. Today, Glenn Miller’s legacy continues through his recordings and the huge impact he had with his orchestra and the distinctive sound he created. The big band era of the late 30’s and early 40’s would not be complete without Miller’s recordings of “Moonlight Serenade” and “In the Mood.” They defined the era.