Glenn Miller and the End of an Era

Setting the record straight about the tragic ending of legendary Big Band leader/trombonist Glenn Miller.

Glenn Miller Declassified
Dennis M. Spragg
01 Sep 2017

For big band music fans of an era before Buddy Holly and any notions of rock ‘n’ roll, 15 December 1944 was probably the first day the music died. On that day, Major Alton Glenn Miller, commanding officer of the Army Air Force Band (special), boarded a France-bound plane in England and never returned. Miller was a 40-year-old Iowa native, a trombone-playing, swing-music master on stage and in some films. Indeed, he was the best-selling recording artist of 1939-1943. That four year run of 23 number-one hits, more than Elvis Presley (18) and The Beatles (20) included “In The Mood”, “Moonlight Serenade”, “A String of Pearls”, and “At Last”.

On that fateful day, Miller’s plane vanished, no trace of the bandleader or two other occupants were ever found, and from such vague uncertainty a legend was born. Was the plane hit by Allied bombers mistaking it as a potential enemy? Miller disappeared, his band carried on (with Tex Beneke at the helm.) The big band and swing music era eventually ceded power to other forces, but Miller’s legacy remained strong.

In Glenn Miller DeClassified, Dennis M. Spragg meticulously analyzes flight data and concludes that the RAF (Royal Air Force) Lancasters, understood to have jettisoned their bombs over the English Channel, resulting in the loss of Miller and company, were victims of timing. They had indeed dumped their bombs, except it was 90 minutes before Miller’s plane went down. Spragg is meticulous in his writing style and research here, not always to the benefit of a compelling narrative, but the obvious hard work does pay off.

What, then, was the problem? How and why did Miller’s plane go down? For over 70 years, theories abounded regarding the how and why. While the when and where were never clearly determined, Spragg is able to dismiss the idea that the plane’s loss was collateral damage from misguided RAF Lancaster bombers. He’s also able to dismiss the idea that any member of the Lancaster aircrew would have delayed transmitting a radio report about a distressed fellow aircraft. Simply put, it was pilot error and poor weather conditions that downed the plane. Miller was not captured and tortured to death by the Nazis. He did not wither away somewhere on a remote island. Sometimes, the simple truth of a mystery more comfortably understood through the behemoth power of legend shatters true believers when the basic reality is revealed:

“The 1999 accident involving John F. Kennedy, Jr. off of Martha’s Vineyard is testimony to the toxic mix of bad weather, lack of situational awareness, and spatial disorientation… Miller put himself aboard a ticking time bomb.”

Later, Spragg makes it even more clear that celebrity makes what might have been a minor (albeit still tragic) accident a mysterious legend:

“If Miller had not boarded the aircraft, an accident killing Stuart Morgan and Norman Baessell [his fellow pasengers] would be a forgotten historic footnote.”

It’s within this context that Glenn Miller DeClassified provides its payoff. The problem is that it takes such a long time to get there, and it’s unclear whether or not the patient reader will feel rewarded by the end of the book. It’s categorized as Biography/ Military History/ World War II/ Music, but there’s much more of the middle two elements. It’s certainly important to provide a clear and comprehensive examination of Miller in the Air Force, but readers might feel as if they need to have gone through Air Force training to fully appreciate the particular characteristics of military life. We don’t get as much of the Miller story we might want prior to the man’s time in the Air Force. In fact, it’s only in the “Prelude” that we get a sense of how Miller built his career and life from 1938-1942. Spragg writes:

“Critics have perpetuated the opinion that Miller was not among the most talented jazz musicians and that he successfully led a band with limited jazz credentials. This conclusion is incorrect. Listening to Miller’s recorded output as a sideman reveals an excellent jazz musician… [he] could be disarmingly charming when he was relaxed…”

By the time Spragg gets to the next section, “A Sense of Duty”, it’s 8 December 1941, and this sense of duty seems married with a call to action. The problem is that Glenn Miller DeClassified gets bogged down in the arcane details of military strategy and bureaucracy within World War II. It’s necessary for the mission at hand, setting the record straight when it comes to how Miller’s plane went down, but it makes for tedious reading. The reader familiar with the classic 1952 Miller biopic The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart, will get frustrated. Based on a diary from colleague and fellow musician Don Haymes (a document that also figures in confusions and hasty conclusions about the loss of Miller), The Glenn Miller Story featured a dewy-eyed June Allyson as Miller’s faithful wife and Stewart as the brave and confident Miller. The film never set forth to determine how and why Miller’s plane went down, but it was a lush story that nicely mixed military life with romance on the home front and the joy of musical creation. It also went far to cement the legend of Miller. Spragg’s conclusion, in the section “Homeward Bound”, seems to reflect the strength of that film:

“Glenn Miller succeeded in achieving his goals for his country, the AAF, and himself. He was not a combat hero… Not physically qualified for overseas service, he brought ‘a hunk o’ home’ to grateful service personnel in Britain, although his respiratory health was compromised. The British people embraced him as one of their own…”

Glenn Miller Declassified manages to shed light on the loss of a great American bandleader. Swing Music and the Big Band era would have probably a maximum of ten more years near or at the top of the charts before giving way to more streamlined pop music and rock ‘n’ roll. It never fully died, of course, but the fact that the music was so intrinsically linked to World War II made it susceptible to relic status in post WWII America. Spragg pays due diligence to his duty as a Senior Consultant of the Glenn Miller Archive and his work at the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s certainly aware of and connected to his subject and the time period.

In the end, though, Glenn Miller Declassified is frustrating in that it doesn’t provide enough back story for the uninitiated. It’s a strong and rich account of a patriotic life and it will certainly serve to set the record straight and humanize and normalize Miller’s tragic ending, but it would have been better served had it provided a clearer and richer narrative of his pre-Air Force life.

RATING 6 / 10
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