Glenn Miller Revisited

Music styles and fads come and go. I have always prided myself in genuinely liking some of every genre, except the current “rap” style of “music.” Its historical cousin in opera, “recitative,” is sometimes tolerable, only sometimes because opera is not my favorite medium. Many of the choruses and arias, however, are masterpieces. My stance is unique, even though being a trained musician I don’t join the “hoity-toity” black-tie group.

Much of what we like in music and the arts has to do with our upbringing and exposure, so I understand why we have diehard country, rock, rap or whatever, fans. Had I not endured years of formal music study, I probably would be more of a country music fan, the music I grew up with. The adolescent years of emotional crises soothed by song after song locks in the emotional ties lasting a lifetime. I guess that’s why I still love listening to the music of the 50’s and 60’s.

I have been watching re-runs of Lawrence Welk for decades because the music is straightforward, simple and best of all, big band. However, lately I’ve been watching the Molly B. Polka Party (don’t roll your eyes). Not because I’m a polka fan (they all start sounding like a variation on one song), but I’m intrigued that there exists a whole culture of folks who grew up on and love polka music. I did get Pat to polka with me in the kitchen, but found out it requires a larger space, too much thinking on my part, and besides it’s tiring. I do think we would fit in with some of the old folks dancing on Molly B.’s show since I would look like the ones who do sort of a “polka shuffle.”

The music experience of my generation was not the height of the big band era even though some super stars have always used big bands in concerts and recordings including current times. Big bands of the 30’s and 40’s, known as the swing era, were what the average person grew up with. They would go to big dance halls and ballrooms to listen and dance to Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and a jillion other famous, and otherwise, bands all over the country. It is amazing that a few have survived living off the name of the original founder and playing the same charts. One of the most successful is the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

When I saw the ad for a Glenn Miller concert coming to our little outpost I was going regardless of cost. I would gladly give up snickers for the rest of my life. So off we went recently to enjoy the modern version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. It was a wonderful time of listening to “In the Mood,” “Moonlight Serenade,” “String of Pearls,” and a couple of hours of other big band hits of the era. All of the pieces were Glenn Miller songs arranged in the unique style of the Glenn Miller “sound.” No band at that time was as recognizable as was Glenn Miller.

He originated the prominence of the tremulous woodwind section sound that became his trademark. Whereas the brass sections of bands are usually the most prominent because of their forceful presence, Glenn Miller used the woodwind section as prominent with the brass section backing it up. Sort of the reverse of conventional arranging. It wasn’t just the switch that proved unique, but it required new ways of utilizing instrumentation to make it work. The woodwind section often used sort of an exaggerated vibrato to produce that distinctive sound.

Strangely enough my first introduction to Glenn Miller was at a guitar music studio where the owner had played trumpet as a teenager during that era. So he arranged big band music for a group of eight or ten mid-teen steel guitar students who performed some of that material. Only later did we realize how unique that experience was. At the time all we knew was that it was really difficult to play that stuff on our funny “big band” instruments. The finished product was really fun to play.

At the concert, we were seated at round tables with tablecloths encircling a dance floor and bandstand, just like the old days of the ballrooms. Unlike the good ‘ole days though, there were dancers with cowboy hats doing the country two-step. Our folks will two-step to anything. There were some jitterbuggers on the swing numbers but nothing like the old films of that time. Now Pat can jitterbug. I can’t, even though I am a little jittery at times. I sure am glad Pat didn’t insist that I try, ‘cause if I slipped, the best entertainment of the evening would have been me crawling over to the stage for something to hold on to and get back up. So, we sat and watched, and listened, drank a cup of coffee, and had a great time with some other elderly at our table who were also past the dance floor age.

Glenn Miller’s career was cut short in his early forties at the height of his career when his private plane went down over the English Channel while entertaining the troops during WW II. The Glenn Miller Orchestra, under the direction of various leaders has traveled the world since then treating people to the unique sound of the swing era. How long will it go on? I don’t know except that most of the band members are young whippersnappers. There is something magical about the signature song, “Moonlight Serenade”, that reportedly gave goose bumps and teary eyes to the lovers of big bands and especially Glenn Miller fans. It is one of the simplest melodies with masterful orchestration that only Glenn Miller could produce. If you haven’t already, you must listen at least to that piece.


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