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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 80

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This is the memorial stone of Glenn Miller.

2016-05-07 11.53.20

Born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1904, Glenn Miller moved around the Great Plains in his early years, eventually settling in Fort Morgan, Colorado where he became a prominent high school football player. He picked up the trombone at an early age and became especially interested in the dance band music of the early 1920s adapted from jazz. He attended the University of Colorado, playing music more than attending classes. He dropped out and joined a series of bands. By 1928, he realized that he had a greater future as a band leader than a trombonist. He started writing and publishing his own music while playing in bands with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman to keep himself fed. He struggled to make his name as a bandleader He finally managed to have success in 1938 when he developed a new band around clarinets and saxophones that made his music standout compared to the other white jazz bands. By 1939 he was a national star. He got his own radio show sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, appearing three times a week until Miller joined the military in 1942. His biggest hit was his recording of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in 1942, which went gold. Despite making up to $20,000 a week in 1942, he wanted desperately to volunteer for the war. He was too old for a volunteer soldier, but he convinced the army to bring him on to develop military bands. He was very successful at this, bringing the military’s music into a post-Sousa era and creating another popular radio show around this music. He based his military band first in New Haven, but then in New York and London, where they performed over 800 times. After the Allies retook Paris, Miller planned to move his band there to continue supporting the fight against fascism. However, flying there on December 15, 1944, his plane went down over the English Channel, probably for mechanical reasons. His body was never found.

Miller appeared in a couple of films, Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 and Orchestra Wives in 1942. He was also a band member in the 1935 film The Big Broadcast of 1936. Of course, he was also famously portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story. Ray Daley also played him in the 1959 Melville Shavelson film The Five Pennies.

I suppose I should say something about Miller’s music. I personally don’t think it holds up real well and it’s hard for me to hear it, or that of the Dorseys and Goodman, that it’s a black cultural form completely bleached so white that even mid-twentieth century white Americans don’t feel threatened by it. Of course, he had a great sense of melody and the band was successful for a reason, but listening to Miller and then listening to Ellington or Armstrong, well, it’s hard to think so much of Miller.

Glenn Miller’s memorial stone is in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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  • Vance Maverick

    Long ago I remember being pleasantly surprised by something of Miller’s, probably String of Pearls. Listening to it now it seems excessively glossy and fatally draggy. (Doubtless 10x better than whatever it displaced from the dance charts at the time.)

    How many of these posts did you manage to cover with one visit to Grove Street Cemetery?

    • About 10 or so. I think I only have 1 left to do from that visit.

      • N__B

        You’ve been to Oakwood, in Troy, right? Some good pickings there…

  • efgoldman

    Thanks for this, Erik. I appreciate a musician being remembered.
    If you haven’t already and I missed it, may I suggest future posts on Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, and maybe Arthur Fiedler, Leonard Bernstein, and Toscanini (if he’s buried in the US).

    • Vance Maverick

      Apparently Toscanini’s grave is in Milan. Charles Ives, on the other hand, is in Danbury.

    • I have a couple of other musicians I have stumbled upon, but none of these yet.

  • Dilan Esper

    I’m not a gigantic fan of Miller’s music, though his radio shows were more inventive than most of his pop records.

    But dismissing Dorsey and Goodman as if they couldn’t matter because they are white is awful and, honestly, borderline racist.

    You know who really liked Goodman? Black musicians, great ones like Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, and Lionel Hampton. Goodman was an amazing clarinetist, the band he took to Carnegie Hall was stacked with talent, and he played the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to black audiences as well.

    And Dorsey is really a hugely important figure in the development of popular music in his use of mutes and phrasing and in giving the world Frank Sinatra.

    Dismissing these guys because they are white is like dismissing Clapton and the Stones.

    • Do you even understand the definition of racism?

      • Dilan Esper

        I do indeed. Unfairly dismissing white artists because of skin color and without regard to talent certainly qualifies.

        • Actually, it’s pretty clear that you don’t understand the definition of racism, but I see little use in extending this conversation

          • Dilan Esper

            Racists always deny their racism, Erik.

            As I said, you are dismissing a bunch of highly talented people because of their skin color. Borderline racist seems like a good description.

            • John Revolta

              Calling Loomis a racist is ridiculous and closer to outright trolling than your usual, merely annoying posts.

              That said, lumping Goodman in with Miller and the Dorseys is also ridiculous. People put all Big Bands that weren’t Ellington or maybe Chick Webb in a bag, fine. But Goodman’s small groups are IMHO his best stuff and also very important from a racial integration point of view.

              • efgoldman

                That said, lumping Goodman in with Miller and the Dorseys is also ridiculous.

                Right. Goodman’s bands (the small groups in the 30s, especially) swung as much as any band of the time, black or white. You can’t listen to Sing Sing Sing from Carnegie Hall and not understand that. That his music later became homogenized by tribute bands (just as Louis Armstrong became something other than one of the great, seminal jazz trumpet players of all time) wasn’t his fault.
                Miller and the Dorsey brothers were great band leaders, but what they did wasn’t jazz.

          • John F

            It’s a bad look to get petulant and quit because you’re losing a debate to Esper.

    • LFC

      Goodman was an amazing clarinetist

      This x 1000.

      Goodman was a superb musician, as about 10 minutes of listening indicate, and his bands were usu. terrific.

      He’s definitely in the same general class as Ellington or Armstrong or Basie, despite their individual differences, and someone who pooh-poohs Goodman really doesn’t know what the f*** he/she is talking about. It’s a demonstration of musical ignorance.

      • efgoldman

        Goodman was a superb musician

        Yes. Good enough to have commissioned and played Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and to have played and recorded Mozart with the Budapest String Quartet and Boston Symphony, as well as pieces by Bartok, Leonard Bernstein and many more.

        • pusillnonymous

          My goodness. I had no idea. I’ll have to look those up; I think I’ve only ever heard jazz Benny Goodman.

    • Let’s compare and contrast

      Erik: (speaking of the music of Miller, Dorsey, and Goodman) it’s a black cultural form completely bleached so white that even mid-twentieth century white Americans don’t feel threatened by it.

      Dilan: dismissing Dorsey and Goodman as if they couldn’t matter because they are white is awful

      What Erik is doing is making a judgement about the music, one that need not be based in the belief that “white people couldn’t play jazz”. Rather, what he is saying is that this is music crafted for white audiences who might find music that was too “black”, overly threatening.

      You can agree or disagree. Personally I like a lot of this stuff, but I don’t think it’s “borderline racist” to point out that it was smoothed over to a large extent to widen its appeal.

      • John F

        I disagree, Dilan’s take on Loomis’ comment is far closer to the mark, Loomis is in fact “dismissing Dorsey and Goodman as if they couldn’t matter because they are white” and trying it hide it by making a Pat Boone/Vanilla Ice argument.

    • efgoldman

      That said, lumping Goodman in with Miller and the Dorseys is also ridiculous.

      Right. Goodman’s bands (the small groups in the 30s, especially) swung as much as any band of the time, black or white. You can’t listen to Sing Sing Sing from Carnegie Hall and not understand that. That his music later became homogenized by tribute bands (just as Louis Armstrong became something other than one of the great, seminal jazz trumpet players of all time) wasn’t his fault.
      Miller and the Dorsey brothers were great band leaders, but what they did wasn’t jazz.

      • efgoldman

        Dunno’ how this posted twice in two different places

  • paulgottlieb

    And yet, Louis Armstrong was quite an admirer of the smooth stylings of the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, and Charlie Parker enjoyed the way Jimmy Dorsey played the sax. Musical influence is a two-way street

    • Oh yeah, no one said these people lacked talent or influence.

    • LeeEsq

      I see you brought up the Elijah Wald thesis before I did.

  • LeeEsq

    Have you ever read How the Beatles Destroyed Rock N’Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald? He makes a good case that the situation was a lot more complicated than white musicians like Glenn Miller cultural appropriate Black music and make it safe for white audiences. For one thing, millions of African-Americans listened to white jazz musicians like Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo and purchased their records. Louis Armstrong apparently adored Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. There was a lot more cross-racial licensing and influencing going on than popular history holds.

    • Dilan Esper

      +1

      I mean, there are some unambiguous villains like Nick Larocca, but for the most part the history of jazz is very much a history of both black and white musicians collaborating and independently workimg to build on the original idioms created by blacks in the Delta. Very similar to the story of rock and roll. Declaring the white musicians don’t count or made bad music or were thieves because they were white is just a ridiculously reductive, and wrong, way of looking at things.

      • LeeEsq

        You don’t get rock n’roll without country music or ballads. Rock n’ roll is even more explicitly from African-American and European-American music cultures than jazz.

        The greater Elijah Wald thesis is that a lot of what people think about the history of poplar music reflects what the music critics think rather than what actually happened. He basically takes the line “A million Connie Francis fans can’t be wrong” seriously. A history of popular music must include what people actually licensed to rather than what the critics believed is important. So it wasn’t that the 1950s were filled with insipid ballads until Chuck Berry and Elvis shook things up because the kids who licensed to Elvis also purchased Perry Como records and loved both.

      • LeeEsq

        And many of those white musicians or dancers that acted as bridge between African-Americans and White America were Jews. Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, Arthur Murray, and Dean Collins (born Sol Ruddosky) were able to act as go-betweens because Jews were and are not exactly White in racial discourse. This allowed them to interact and learn from African-Americans without facing the same loss of face as a more Anglo-American would.

        • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

          A huge proportion of early rock n roll DJs were Jewish. And label and club owners, for well or ill.

  • ThresherK

    My late Mom passed on to me a taste for musical things that were way before my time, one of which is swing, and Glenn Miller.

    She spent her whole life, basically, within 30 miles of New Haven, and I’ll guess she never knew that Miller’s AAF band had a history in the Elm City, or else she’d have mentioned that.

    Next time I go to Wooster St. for pizza I’ll have a stroll over.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Those were the days.

    • Dennis Orphen

      That old LaSalle ran great, didn’t it?

  • David T

    It is totally unfair to blame Glenn Miller for not having a great jazz band. He never pretended to have one. As he put it, “I haven’t a great jazz band and I don’t want one.” He acknowledged that “A dozen colored bands have a better beat than mine.” He had a fine dance band with a unique sound (thanks mostly to the famous reed section). Of course we are used to that sound now–it has been background music for decades–but it’s really not hard to see why the opening of Moonlight Serenade was so magical to those who heard if for the first time. So far as I’m concerned, it still *is* magical.

    He even had some very good jazz soloists like Bobby Hackett–but he didn’t use them for improvised solos much (the famous String of Pearls being an exception) because that was not what his music was about.

    By the way, George Simon, a leading writer about the big bands, had the best review of *The Glenn Miller Story*: “June Allyson reminds me very much of Helen Miller. Jimmy Stewart reminds me very much of Jimmy Stewart…”

  • I thought Miller’s plane was shot down in a friendly fire accident.

    In my younger days I was disdainful of music that I took to be insufficiently authentic, and as a result resisted a fair amount of music that aspired to nothing greater than pop. Now I find that not everything has to be Ornette Coleman, which has broadened my appreciation enough to encompass Glenn Miller, and Billy Joel, and the Spice Girls, and a lot of other stuff that is good for what it is. Music that scratches a pop tunes itch is nothing to be ashamed of

    • Hogan

      A 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune reported that, despite many theories that had been proposed, Miller’s plane crashed because it had a faulty carburetor. The plane’s engine had a type of carburetor that was known to be defective in cold weather and had a history of causing crashes in other aircraft by icing up.[96] The theory that the plane was hit by a bomb jettisoned by Allied planes returning from an aborted bombing raid on Germany is discredited by the log of a plane-spotter that implies that the plane was heading in a direction that would avoid the zone where such bombs were jettisoned.[97]

    • John F

      music that aspired to nothing greater than pop.

      There’s some great pop music out there, every generation, and a ton of garbage too :-).

      I’ve been listening to old American top 40 broadcasts (70s and 80s) on satellite radio on the weekends. Every 5th or 6th song is one you go, “oh that’s a classic,” every 5th or 6th you go, “oh yeah that was good song, haven’t heard or thought of it in years” and everything else is filler that makes you think, this reached #11, seriously?”

      As a kid (age 5-8 or so) I vaguely recall being on vacation in the Catskills, and being allowed to stay up one night because the bar band was gonna play a [novelty] song I wanted to hear, about a dead skunk. This was totally forgotten memory until 2 weeks ago, when I heard Kasey Kasem (RIP) introduce the “Song Dead Skunk in the Road” (#13 week of March 31, 1973).

      I had totally forgot about the vacation, the band and the song (which is actually quite catchy) for some 40+ years.

      Just thought I’d share.

  • Caepan

    but listening to Miller and then listening to Ellington or Armstrong, well, it’s hard to think so much of Miller.

    In Ken Burns’ Jazz, Artie Shaw said that “Glenn Miller is swing music for Republicans.”

  • WhatToDo

    >>”Chattanooga Choo-Choo” went gold.
    Chattanooga Choo-Choo was, in fact, the very first gold record.

    >>…that it’s a black cultural form completely bleached so white that even mid-twentieth century white Americans don’t feel threatened by it.
    You can look at it another way. The “swing era” or “big band” form was pioneered by Fletcher Henderson and, to a lesser extent, Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn. Large, tight ensemble playing interspersed with solo improvisations, as opposed to the small, loose Dixieland groups popular (even with white people!) in the 1920s. Going to a dance in, say, 1937, and being confronted by a massive, high-volume wall of sound must have been incredibly exciting at the time. It was a whole new thing.

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