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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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