By Brian Arsenault
“Aujord hui, maman est morte.”
Actually not today or even yesterday. Rather in late spring when the weather begins to warm in the far northeast. Mom was 92 so her passing was not a surprise, but my last real contact with that generation was lost. As an only offspring it fell to me to sort through the accumulations of a long life. Not so many actually, but oh so many records.
From the recordings of the 30s and 40s in those plain brown paper record slips to the mono albums of the 50s.
Sinatra was there, of course. But no one, absolutely no one, was as well represented as Glenn Miller and his orchestra.
I remembered that as a kid whenever the adults talked after dinner about music it was usually about the big bands and the greatest affection was always expressed about the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Again, not surprising as George Simon who lived through and chronicled that era wrote: “Of all the outstanding popular dance bands, the one that evokes the most memmories of how wonderfully romantic it all was, the one whose music people most want to hear over and over again, is the band of the late Glenn Miller.”
Music critic and “Mom’s other son” Don Heckman has written of “the uniquely lush characteristics of the sound of the Miller band.”
So I had to listen, as I was a rock and roller even as a kid and never had time for those big bands.
It was a revelation. Phil Spector didn’t invent the wall of sound, the big bands did and Don’s “lush” is the perfect word. One need only listen to the band’s theme song “Moonlight Serenade” to be transported to a world of big ball rooms crowded to the outer reaches with couples in each other’s arms.
I know the song “At Last” from Etta James’ wonderful version but it is no greater than the Miller band’s long instrumental intro and then Bob Eberle’s vocal comes in so perfectly. Not everyone liked Eberle’s singing but I do — melodic and understated without any of the saccharine shmaltz of some vocalizing of the era.
And it wasn’t just the romantic songs. The provocatively titled “In the Mood” is perhaps the best jitterbug tune of the era. You can’t listen to it without moving around even if you can’t jitterbug. Mom told me that near the end of the World War II, when one of the many rumors of the war’s end was circulating, Dad jitterbugged with another sailor all around the dance hall.
When I hear all the horror expressed about twerking and schools banning it at dances I can’t help but smile. Remember what was said about the “wild dancing” of the sixties. And jitterbugging just a generation or so removed from the fox trot being thought of as daring and the Charleston as scandalous. Jitterbugging with girls being lifted high in the air, lots of leg and even a flash of panties. Each generation’s job is to shock the previous one, n’est pas?
I am not much of a philosopher, but the closest I come is a belief in a world of opposites. At a time of so much death and destruction, the War years were also a time of almost keenly felt life and romance. I think the WWII generation may have been the last that really believed in romance.
There was just so much life at a time of so much death. Dad was on a ship sunk late in the war as the Marines stormed Iwo Jima. He survived or I wouldn’t be here, but 320 of his shipmates didn’t. My favorite Uncle Larry’s brother died at Normandy.
I think grabbing at life and romance were why the Miller band was so popular. My parents were telling me that when I was too young to hear.
Yet there was another reason, I think. Miller didn’t have to join the Army. He was nearly 40 when the US entered the War and well past draft age. Like so many, though, he thought “it is not enough for me to sit back and buy bonds . . .”
Of course the army had him form a band and what a band it was with musicians drawn from his own civilian band and Benny Goodman’s and Artie Shaw’s and Harry James’s and Tommy Dorsey’s and that doesn’t exhaust the list.
True to his dogged determination at all times, Miller started arranging new marches from songs like “St. Louis Blue” and “Blues in the Night.” Simon wrote that a superior officer objected saying that the traditional marches served well enough in World War I to which Miller responded: “Tell me, Major, are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war, too?” Miller won.
That same determination led Miller to press to play for troops in combat zones. He wanted to be as close to the front as possible.
Seeking that audience of fighting troops, just before Christmas in 1944 Miller joined the flight of a small plane across the English Channel even though he was always afraid of flying. The plane was lost, probably to what we call friendly fire today, but lost nonetheless.
Almost everyone of that era was touched in some way by the slaughter of the war. How could they not love the band leader who joined the troops and was also lost.
I was recently told that big band Swing music is making a comeback. If that means new generations will hear the Miller band play, that is a very good thing indeed.