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July 16, 2014
The Glenn Miller Sound
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

In 1954 when the American film, “The Glenn Miller Story” was released, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay and Best Score.  The film won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording.  The figure of Glenn Miller was artfully played by James Stewart. 

Glenn Miller’s story takes us to music and beyond.  In the 1940s, Glenn Miller (1904-MIA 1944) rose to critical acclaim as a trombonist, jazz musician, leader of his own band in the Big Band era, and an Army Air Force band leader.  His music topped the Hit Parade.  In dance halls, in night clubs, even on the streets, people danced to his music.  There was no mistaking the Glenn Miller sound. 

Searching for That Special Sound

For Glenn Miller, success didn’t come easily. Like so many beginners seeking their niche in life, he knew failure. He was forced to hock his trombone more than once . . . even musicians had to eat. He managed to eke out a living as a freelance trombonist, an arranger, and composer but dreamed of two things:  having his own band and owning his unique sound.  With a few musicians who believed in him, Miller began trying different combinations of instrumental sounds and different rhythmic arrangements.  Month after month, the Miller sound eluded him. At first, nothing clicked.  Nothing seemed to trigger that ‘I’ve got it’ moment.  But with each new arrangement, through trial and error, he inched closer to his very own sound.

Out of Adversity . . .

Like so many events in life, the Miller sound emerged from a mishap.  When his lead trumpet player hurt his lip that prevented him from playing a solo part, another had to step in so that the show could go on the next night.  But he was a clarinetist. He would have to do.  So Miller stayed up through the night, re-arranged the score for one clarinet and four saxophones; they would alternate with four trombones.  With piano and percussion, four trumpets would chime in to complete the whole ensemble.  A radical combination!

At rehearsal, the affinity of clarinet for saxophones, softened by the mellow trombones, began to jell.  The trumpets, toned down, allowed the other instruments to shine.  The next night, the band played “Moonlight Serenade” with its understated, nice ’n easy, gentle rhythm—cool jazz. Eureka, the Miller sound was born! 

Within a short time and for years after, the jukeboxes lit up. The public couldn’t get enough of that Miller sound.  “Moonlight Serenade” sold almost one million records shortly after it was released. It seemed as though he had divined America’s musical pulse. Quite simply, his was the music needed to boost morale at home and abroad during the war years. 

The Miller sound permeated “Tuxedo Junction,” “Little Brown Jug,” “In the Mood,” “A String of Pearls,” “St. Louis Blues, March,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,”and “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”  It was only through the painful ordeal of trial and error that he discovered what would draw and delight his audiences.  His music made them happy and automatically got them on their feet to dance together.  That’s how invigorating it was!

Service in the United States Army and Air Force 

Glenn Miller wanted to serve in the Armed Forces to boost the spirits of those fighting during the dark, drab days of World War II.  He wrote to Brigadier General Charles Young and persuaded the Army to accept him as the leader of a modernized Army band. First, Captain Glenn Miller, and later Major Miller, he was then transferred to the Army Air Force. In summer 1944, he formed a 50-piece Army Air Force Band and took it to England where he and his ‘boys’ gave 800 performances.  While the troops were away from home, he gave them a piece of home.  One could say that he helped win the war with music.  As he noted, “America means freedom, and there’s no expression of freedom quite as sincere as music.” During World War II, the Glenn Miller sound became the dance hall rage not just in the United States but in other allied countries as well.  His music lightened heavy hearts darkened by war.

Missing in Action

Glenn Miller’s sudden and untimely disappearance stunned Americans and deeply touched our Allies.  On December 15, 1944, he was air borne to Paris from England to play for the soldiers there.  The plane vanished while flying over the English Channel, and to this day, neither it, nor the aircrew, nor the passengers has been found.  To this day, Major Glenn Miller remains listed as ‘missing in action.’

His music continued to be played into the 1950s and ‘60s.  When bands would open their programs with “Moonlight Serenade,” people would weep as the music carried them back to those years of World War II that coincided with happy jazz music and the Big Band era.  Today, cacophony parades as music.

Glenn Miller’s Approach to Life 

Glenn Miller approached life simply and straightforwardly.  He was convinced that his talent could bring happiness to others.  To find it, he went through the ‘school of hard knocks.’ Finally, his mission embraced the world.   Lessons from the Glenn Miller play book!

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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September 19, 2014

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