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It’s December 7—“a date which will live in infamy”—so I figure it’s a good morning to listen to some Glenn Miller and get in the World War II mood.

I was a Miller fan way back in high school. Maybe even junior high. This was back in the 1970s, mind you. I had started playing trumpet in fifth grade (although my inspiration then was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass) so I naturally became interested in big-band music. I can’t remember how I first started listening to Miller. Maybe it was because we played some of the Miller band’s songs in swing band, with me taking the trumpet solos on “In the Mood” and “String of Pearls.” That might have triggered it. Anyway, eventually I bought an album called Pure Gold that included the band’s biggest hits and later I got a two-record set at Mammoth Mart. I still have both those records. I also blew the then-colossal sum of $10.00 for George Simon’s Miller biography. It was chock full of anecdotes and photos. It was also the first time I came across the expression “in his cups” to describe someone who was drunk. I think it referred to Bobby Hackett, the trumpet player who ad-libbed that terrific, bouncy solo in “String of Pearls.” It seems that some swing-band musicians liked a good drink now and then. I recall a from the book story about how one of Miller’s musicians showed up drunk for a gig and the bandleader—who was a notorious taskmaster and a bit of a cold fish—made him play solo after solo when the poor guy could barely stand.

So somehow I stumbled into Glenn Miller fandom, 30 years after it peaked. I even relived the ghosts of big-band rivalries past when I started to vaguely resent Benny Goodman once I read that his band could swing better than Miller’s. I later came to realize that this was probably true. In our house we had a battered copy of the soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story. It belonged to my Uncle Artie, who had once played trumpet in a swing band in Maine. I listened to it and was blown away by “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the great live version from Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert. That song and Miller’s “In the Mood” now serve as shorthand for any film that wants to establish a 1940s setting.

I have to admit that the Miller catalogue contains a lot of bland songs and plenty of cutesy stuff, too (I’m looking at you, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”). But there was plenty of good material. However, beware of substitutes. I added some “Glenn Miller” tunes to my iPod a while back but I didn’t like them. They weren’t real Glenn Miller. They were re-recordings done by some modern band and you could sense their falseness from the first notes. The brass was too brittle, the drums were too much in the foreground and everything had the feeling of trying too hard. It was the audio equivalent of those commercials that use film that’s supposed to look old—but the fake scratches and tears in the black and white stock can’t hide its youth. Real swing band recordings have a certain warm sound, a quality that modern recording equipment doesn’t capture.

Later I added some real Glenn Miller, from a two-album set that my friend Bill had converted to MP3s. It was called Glenn Miller: A Memorial 1944-1969. (It must have been originally released on the 25th anniversary of his death.) Whenever I was at Bill’s place way back when I’d pop one of the discs on the turntable and listen to “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” which has a really cool fugue thing between the trumpets and the trombones that just rises and rises in intensity until the whole band comes in and shuts the door.

My favorite Miller tune of all time, though, isn’t one of his better known ones. It’s a weird mashup of swing and opera, a big-band arrangement of “The Anvil Chorus” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore. My knowledge of opera begins and ends with Tommy but I do know that anyone who believes the Miller band couldn’t swing should listen to this little number. It swings like it should be in a cartoon with animated animals playing instruments that bend and stretch to the beat in ways that defy the laws of physics. It starts with the drums fading in and the trumpets doing a “ta-dah!” thing before the band picks it up with a little Verdi riffing. The bass and drums just push things along, and the solos are all short but intense. I especially dig the trumpet, which spits out notes like they’re coming from a machine gun. Near the end there’s a great drum solo (in my imagination a cartoon octopus plays it) and then a clarinet solo ushers in the rest of the band for the big finish. All the sections start playing off each other like the parts of a well-oiled machine, saxes talking to trumpets, trumpets talking to trombones, drums and bass just pounding along, as if a bunch of conversations are going on separately but at the same time working together perfectly—and then one of the trumpets climbs up and up the scale until it reaches this screaming high note. The band vamps with a little Verdi before things draw to a close. “Anvil Chorus” just kicks ass.

Another great song from the album is the “St. Louis Blues March.” This one dates from the time after Miller enlisted in the army and led military bands. He wanted to play marching tunes that would help soldiers put a little swing into their steps but his superiors preferred that he stick to the usual Sousa marches. Listen to this swinging march and you’ll see that Miller was on to something. Whenever I hear it I can’t help but start marching myself. It’s a good thing I don’t pass anyone as the song plays in my ears this morning or I would embarrass myself by snapping a jaunty salute.

Miller eventually made it over to England and a few years ago I visited some of the places where he and his band played over there. I even stopped by the airport where he took off on his final flight into nowhere. His airplane disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944 as he was heading over to newly liberated Europe to play for the troops. The actual airport is gone but the original control tower remains and it houses a small museum of Miller memorabilia.

So that’s my little Pearl Harbor tribute on a cold and gray morning when the clouds are dropping random snowflakes as I walk. I wrap it up by playing “American Patrol.” It was never my favorite Miller song but it has the kind of patriotic appeal that seems appropriate for December 7. With big-band music on our side the Japanese didn’t stand a chance.



December 2010
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