On the stormy day of December 15, 1944, a military plane transporting big-band superstar Major Glenn Miller to Paris for a Christmas broadcast disappeared over the English Channel. It’s worth taking a moment, on the 70th anniversary of that event, to consider whom America lost.
What Miller accomplished in his 40-year lifetime is astonishing. During the 1930s, Miller was among a handful of innovators, along with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, who brought the big-band era to its artistic peak. He also modernized military music during World War II. By the 1940s, John Philip Sousa’s marches sounded stale to many. Miller infused jazz elements into his wartime compositions such as “St. Louis Blues March.” This added a bit of zip without flouting too many conventions.
“A band ought to have a sound all of its own,” Miller said. “It ought to have a personality.”
The personality of Miller’s band stressed harmony, and the effect of his music was to promote national harmony. The appeal of such tunes as “Moonlight Serenade,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “In the Mood” transcended not only the racial barrier but also — perhaps more impressively — the generational barrier.
“I don’t suppose there was a single listener in the United States, unless he was tin-eared and tone-deaf, who didn’t love and appreciate the music of the Miller band,” observed Bing Crosby.
Miller’s accomplishments are all the more dramatic in light of his humble origins.
Alton Glenn Miller was born to Lewis Elmer Miller and Mattie Lou Miller on March 1, 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. Glenn (who, like all members of his family, went by his second name) would be the second of four children, all of whom had musical proclivities. Unfortunately, the family patriarch could hold neither a tune nor a job. He even seems to have been a bad janitor. So the Millers were constantly moving, unable to escape poverty.
When the Millers moved to Grant City, Mo., in 1915, Glenn tagged along with elder brother, Deane, who played trumpet for the city band. Jack Mossberger, the band leader, saw Glenn’s potential. He offered to let Glenn play in the band and earn a trombone in exchange for shining the shoes in his store. The rest, as they say, is history. The trombone survives to this day in the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Another move landed the Miller family in Fort Morgan, Colo., where Glenn graduated from high school in 1921.He then enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he met his wife-to-be, Helen Burger. The match was a good one. Alan Cass, the curator of the Glenn Miller Archive, described Helen as the “rudder” in Glenn’s life. The 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story depicts their budding romance. Helen picked Jimmy Stewart to play the role of Glenn.
Miller left college after only three semesters to pursue his music career, first in California, then in New York. There is a myth that he flunked his harmony class, but the transcript shows that he was in good standing with the university. He got an incomplete — not a fail — in that harmony class and intended to finish his studies after the war was over. Tragically, that never happened, but the university did posthumously bestow an honorary doctorate on him in 1984.
Miller’s whirlwind career in the 1930s brought him fruitfully into contact with such artists as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby, among others. Miller could be a harsh taskmaster and struck many as cold — his sour relationship with Bill Finegan was a case in point. Nonetheless, he was known for his integrity. His business records, preserved at the Glenn Miller Archive, support his reputation for honesty, Cass said.
An anecdote recorded by George T. Simon in Glenn Miller and His Orchestra speaks volumes about Miller’s character. Simon describes his 1936 self as “the family lowbrow” in a “closely knit, slightly snobbish, and somewhat intolerant upper-middle-class Jewish clan” that lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Dinner guests included George Gershwin and Will Durant.
Simon, an amateur jazz aficionado, didn’t dare seat the dregs of speakeasy society at his parents’ dinner table. But when he found the courage to display Glenn, his family was charmed. “I think it was more that they never expected a jazz musician to be so down to earth, to talk so directly and so clearly, and just to talk so much good, common sense,” Simon said.
That pretty much summarizes Glenn Miller’s image: He struck people as the kind of jazz musician you could bring home to Mom and Dad. The down-to-earth quality was one star in a unique constellation of traits that helped catapult Miller to international fame.
In addition to being a trombonist, Miller succeeded as a band leader, a composer, and an arranger. He had an eye for spotting others’ talents. And, unlike other musicians, Miller saw himself as an entrepreneur. He was his band’s own agent. At one point, his business office funded four different bands, all successfully.
“In many ways, he was the Vince Lombardi of the band leaders — cool, calculating, self-assured, and immensely successful,” Simon wrote.
Miller received the first-ever RCA golden record — signifying 1 million sold — for “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in 1942. That was also the year he joined the Army and relentlessly poured his talents into the war effort. Miller was famously the head of the Glenn Miller Army Air Forces Band. He was also, among other things, director of bands for the Army Air Forces training command and host of a radio broadcast called “I Sustain the Wings.”
Miller never lost sight of his mission. His dedication to improving troop morale sometimes put him at loggerheads with superiors and pushed him to the point of physical exhaustion. In his two years in the Army, Miller was sick with pneumonia three times and had chronic sinus issues as well. Still, he took a modest view of himself.
“We didn’t come here to set any fashions in music,” Miller wrote in a 1944 letter to Simon. “We merely came to bring a much-needed touch of home to some lads who have been here a couple of years.”
When Miller did not materialize for the Christmas broadcast, the nation was gripped by the tragedy of his disappearance. Conspiracy theories ran rampant — the tale that he died in a French bordello was concocted by Nazi propagandists and is still circulated on the Internet. Dennis Spragg, senior consutant to the Glenn Miller Archive, argues persuasively in a forthcoming book, Resolved, that a plane crash due to bad weather and human error was the true cause Miller’s demise.
While we’ll never know what he would have given us had he survived the war, his music still finds appreciative listeners. Fans are especially excited that the Glenn Miller Archive is in the process of digitizing recordings of Miller band performances, some of which are in excellent condition and haven’t been heard since the original broadcasts. Cass told National Review Online that he is optimistic about the prospect of releasing new albums based on these recordings.
Perhaps America has not yet heard the last of Glenn Miller.
— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.