Tag Archive | "big band"

The King of Swing

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Some monarchs wear jewel-encrusted crowns; others are more like earth angels.  Those souls in the latter category seem to have been born with special gifts that allow them to uplift thousands and thousands of their fellow human beings, even after they have departed this earth to claim their heavenly wings.  Known for innovation and integrity in their art, certain musicians and songwriters feature heavily in this category, and the King of Swing is one of them.

His name on this earth was Glenn Miller, and if you are among the few souls here who have never heard of him or his music, sit tight, for you are about to get an education and hopefully, a sense of delight through his the new music form that brought to the world.

Born Alton Glenn Miller on March 1, 1904 to farmers Lewis Elmer Miller and Mattie Lou (nee Cavender), the boy’s early years in Clarinda, Iowa were unsettled.   The family quickly moved to North Platte, Nebraska, where Glenn attended grade school, and in 1915, they transitioned once more, this time, to Grant City, Missouri.   By the age of 11, the future King of Swing had learned to play the trombone and demonstrated his musical ability by playing in the town band.  Once again, the Miller family pulled up stakes and moved to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where the young trombonist would attend high school.

A new style of music called “dance band music” was surfacing and this caught Glenn’s interest.  With the idea in mind to form a band able to play this upbeat new music, he drafted some classmates with musical talent.  By the time Glenn had donned his graduation cap, he knew in his gut that music was destined to be the center of his life.

In 1923, he was accepted at the University of Colorado.  But like many musicians who have gone before him and like many who have followed him, book learning had lost its appeal.  Bent on carving a career in music, Glenn dropped out of college to study with Joseph Schillinger.  Schillinger taught music composition and is largely credited with helping Glenn develop his signature sound.  While still studying under him, Glenn Miller composed a melody in the key of C for his first piece, entitled Moonlight Serenade.  When lyricist Mitchell Parish added his words to the song and Miller released it, this tune, which was originally slated as the “B” side of a record, exploded all over the music charts.  For fifteen weeks, it rode Billboard’s Top Ten, and would become Miller’s signature theme song.

After touring with several bands, Miller landed a job in 1926 with the Ben Pollack group in Los Angeles.  Capitalizing upon his composing skills, he then penned several arrangements of his own.  Two years later, feeling more confident about his career when the band moved to New York, he sent for and married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger.

By 1930, Miller had become a member of The Red Nichols band, also based in New York City.  With Red’s help, Glenn was chosen to play in pit orchestras for Broadway musicals such as Strike Up The Band and Girl Crazy.   Some of the other musicians in the pit included Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.  And if you don’t know whose these esteemed musicians are, well, you’ll have to wait for future features from me!

In the years to follow his stint on Broadway, Glenn was introduced to the Dorsey Brothers and also assembled a band for Ray Noble.  As a member of Ray Nobles Band, Glenn branched out into Hollywood.  His first movie appearance was in The Big Broadcast of 1963, which starred Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Jack Oakie, and Bill Robinson.

When Glenn organized his own band in 1937, the group failed to distinguish itself and finally broke up.  Discouraged, Glenn Miller understood that in order to achieve success, he had to create a sound so unique that all who heard it would associate it immediately with him and his band.  Layering instruments over each other, Glenn decided to have the clarinet play a melodic line while a tenor saxophone held the same note.  Simultaneously, he had three other saxophones harmonizing within a single octave.  This signature sound finally put Glenn Miller on the map.  Into the bargain, it got a heck of a lot of people off their feet and boogying to this new, brassy, hot-cool music.

In the spring of 1939, Lady Luck smiled upon Miller and his band at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.  People so went wild for this swinging, danceable sound that Miller broke all records by attracting a crowd of 1,800 people to the casino.  Forever afterward, Glenn Miller would be known as the King of Swing.

Scoring a formal recording contract, The Glenn Miller Band began cutting platters for RCA Victor and Bluebird Records.  Their first Gold record was the lively Chattanooga Choo Choo.  As their popularity grew, Hollywood once again came knocking.  In 1941 and 1942, respectively, Glenn and his boys appeared in Twentieth Century Fox’s Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives.  These appearances helped make the films into box office hits and put Miller into the headlines.

As America was jitterbugging to Glenn Miller’s music, it was also plunging headfirst into the Second World War on December 7th, 1941.  Too old for the draft, Glenn offered his services to the U. S. Navy but was rejected.  He then wrote a letter to Brigadier General Charles Young, offering to lead a modernized Army band. He was accepted as an Assistant Special Officer, attached to the Army Air Force at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  There, he played trombone with the Rhythm Aires, a 15-piece band that performed at service clubs and recreational halls on the base.  Miller also made radio appearances on local stations.  He also made he made pro-Allies broadcasts for the Office of War.

Initially, the King of Swing formed a marching band in an attempt to modernize marching music within the military.  But this met with resistance from traditional career officers.  As Glenn’s weekly radio broadcast, I Sustain the Wings grew in popularity, he received permission to form a 50-piece Army band.   More like an orchestra, Glenn took his 50 musicians to England in the summer of 1944 to entertain the troops as well as some unlikely listeners.  Many of their songs were sung by Johnny Desmond and narrated by Glenn Miller in German, so that prisoners of war would also enjoy his music to the fullest.  One notable song was called Long Ago and Far Away, which in German translates, for any of our German readers out there, to “Vor langer zeit und weit weg.”

On December 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from the United Kingdom to Paris, France for the purpose of organizing entertainment for the troops that had just liberated that city from the Axis forces.  Aboard a USAAF UC-64 Norseman, Miller departed from the RAF (Royal Air Force) Twinwood Farm in Bedfordshire, English.  His plane went missing over the English Channel; the King of Swing had disappeared without a trace.  To this day, his military status remains “Missing”.  His surviving family, his wife and two children, accepted the posthumous Bronze Medal in his honor.

Those who grew up during the Big Band Era will never forget Glenn Miller. And those who did not would do themselves a favor to check out his music.  Miller’s signature recordings include Moonlight Serenade, In the Mood, American Patrol, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Tuxedo Junction, Little Brown Jug, and Pennsylvania 6-5000.

In summarizing Glenn Miller’s life, General Jimmy Doolittle stated that, “next to a letter from home, that organization [The Glenn Miller Band] was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”   And to steal a line from the late, great Jimmy Durante, I’ll just close with, “Good night, Glenn Miller, wherever you are.” 


That’s Swingin’!

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Brian Pastor is one of the premier trombonists in the universe.  He is the Principal Trombonist with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.  In 1994, as a vehicle for professional musicians to play big band jazz music and provide a showcase for great jazz soloists, arrangers and composers, he founded The Brian Pastor Big Band (BPBB), comprised of outstanding musicians from the Philadelphia/South Jersey area.  Included among his roster of musicians are saxophonists Kaj Hansen, Bob Apgar, Andrew Neu, Ed Etkins, Alan Kirschner, and Dan Muller; Jay Shanman, Paul Morris, and Mike Purday along with the Band’s founder and leader on trombone; and Rick Gazda, Chuck Gottesman, Kevin Rogers, and Peter Neu on trumpet.  Piano, bass, drums, and guitar are handled by Dave Kenney, Rob Cochran, Tony Vigilante, and Nick Bucci respectively.


The highlights of a BPBB concert include diverse arrangements and original compositions, a fantastic ensemble sound, unbelievable soloists, stratospheric trumpet notes and, of course, the supreme trombone master, Brian Pastor.


BPBB’s first CD Common Men was released in June 2006.  Some of the outstanding tunes on the CD are It’s Alright With Me, Fanfare for The Common Man, Little Henry, Midnight Buffet and Make Someone Happy (featuring a Brian Pastor vocal).


If you enjoy listening to a roaring and swinging big band, then get the Common Men CD and come to a BPBB concert where Brian will personally autograph the CD.  Currently, the band is performing at The Casino Deli in Northeast Philadelphia.  If you are interested, you can check the BPBB website.

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