Swing's the Thing
Talk about a mind-numbing experience…. a few months ago, I was at the home of friends, a married couple in their mid-30’s, enjoying a BBQ. They know I do the review thing, so one of them asked me what was on the horizon for reviews. I mentioned that I was going to do an overall look at Glenn Miller, that he had a two-disc compilation of the best of his works called The Essential Glenn Miller. Their response? Blank stares. “Who is Glenn Miller?”, they asked. “He was a big-band leader of the late ‘30s/early ‘40s,” I replied.
It crept into my head that of course, these young’uns probably never did hear much of Miller’s music—and from the reaction, didn’t know who he was. Mentally, the wheels were turning, since I’m a dozen years older than either one… if they don’t know Miller or his work, they CERTAINLY had to know the song “In the Mood”, through other parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs… SOMEWHERE! Again, no luck—even after I karaoked the hook. One other person at the Q (he was 50), came over and started singing the lyrics. Not only did it not help, it just proved that we were worse than any vaudeville team up in the Catskills during that era.
I never grew up a fan of big bands, mostly because my parents loved them, and of course, Mr. Rebel here had to go in the direction of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, etc. But as age brought me along, I started to appreciate and get into what these masterful bandleaders were putting out. I learned that Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were not evil, torturous spirits, and along with those two, Miller had the swing craze down pat.
Miller, whose original first name was Alton (later changed legally to Glenn), was born on March 1, 1904. He started to play his signature instrument, the trombone, when he was just 11 years old. He quit college to make music his full-time career, and after starting in Los Angeles and Chicago, moved to New York in 1928. Nine years later, he put together his own orchestra, which bombed. The next year, he tried again, and this time, was more successful. One of the keys to Miller’s success was that he played in two places where his music was broadcast live on the radio (his sponsor was Chesterfield cigarettes). But after building up his and his band members’ respective careers, Miller decided in 1942 that he wanted to help U.S. troops that were serving in World War II. He wanted to be a civilian enlisted man and perform overseas to help the morale of the soldiers stay high. And after the Navy rejected his overtures, the Army welcomed him with open arms. Miller performed all throughout Europe until 10 days before Christmas in 1944, when he died in a single-engine Norseman while en route to Paris for a holiday show. (His band went in a separate plane and made it safely.)
Before his Army stint, Miller had woodshedded under the tutelage of some of the finest swing practitioners of that era. He played with both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (who used Bing Crosby as vocalist at times), famous drummer Gene Krupa, and even cut some sides with Goodman. So Miller was no stranger to the swing and swingers of that time.
What made Miller unique was that he was all about solid melodies, and that his ego drove him to make his mark as a bandleader, more so than a musician. Miller was perfectly happy to let his reed section (clarinet central) do the key hook of “In the Mood”. To him, clarinets were just as intense and integral to the big-band sound as a great guitar solo is to rock. “In the Mood” swings hard and heavy, and it has a melody that most (older) folks can’t escape from. The same thing goes for “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, a song whose catch phrase is a phone number. (Back then, one would take the first two letters of the word preceding the last five digits, and use the corresponding letters on the phone; Pennsylvania would translate into “73”. And remember if you can: back then, there was no “Q” or “Z” on the telephone dial.)
Of course, Miller wasn’t all about stomping around on the dance floor—there were ballads which encouraged slow dancing to counter the faster, harder tunes. Two of his most famous were “A String of Pearls” and his first hit, “Moonlight Serenade”. Many of the songs here feature vocals; some swing hard, like “Over There”, others are mid-tempo, like the classic “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and there are plenty of slow numbers along those lines, such as “The Story of a Starry Night” and “The Nearness of You”, which were specifically built for going cheek-to-cheek on the dance floor. Instrumentals like “American Patrol” and “Song of the Volga Boatmen” reflected the (then) current times of war.
Fortunately, there’s only one apparent omission in the batch: a rollicking “King Porter Stomp” made a few other compilations, but is not in this grouping. That minor quibble aside, people of today who have no clue as to whom Glenn Miller is will be somewhat amused at what comes out of their speakers should they give a listen, especially the songs with the crooning vocals. But back in the 1930s and ‘40s, this was the essential music of the time, since it was one of the few relief outlets for families who were suffering through the effects of WWII. Like mosh pits today, swing music was a form of physical release back then (at least, a release that could be viewed by families in public places). Glenn Miller’s music was certainly an important part of the nation’s culture at those times, and this encapsulation of his career is one of the best ever put together. The Essential Glenn Miller will bring back memories to the oldsters, and may provide some entertainment for the current generation of listeners. If not, go find and download “In the Mood”, at least—you’ll need to get used to it for future weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc.