"The clarinet lead, handsomely intoned by Wilbur Schwartz, and the swaying melody pinned to the first beat of each measure evoke a vanished age, even for those who never knew the age."
--Gary Giddins, on Glenn Miller’s original recording of “Moonlight Serenade.”
The Speakeasy’s grand opening was Saturday night, and as many readers probably already know, the Glenn Miller Orchestra played two sold-out shows. With only three “soft” work days under their belts, Brad, Lori and the staff at Speakeasy were setting the bar fairly high by hosting such an auspicious event so early in the game, and they performed admirably under extreme pressure. There were a few problems, but I think most in attendance understood the situation and gave the Speakeasy high marks for attempted difficulty.
Hang in there, guys.
There has been an authorized touring version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra since 1956. The 2007 edition is again being led by Larry O’Brien, who has been at the orchestra’s helm since 1988. The band’s members are youthful virtuosos, stubborn jazz aficionados, and graduates of music schools nationwide. On Saturday evening, O’Brien graciously showcased trombonist Chris Fortner, a Floyd Central graduate who brought his area fan club for the 9:00 p.m. performance. The veteran O’Brien observed that it was one of the few times that audiences were not bewildered by mention of “Floyds Knobs.”
Fortner merely played brilliantly.
Judging from the listing of tour dates at the orchestra’s web site, most of the band’s shows these days are in concert hall settings. The Speakeasy’s gig was described as a dance, and that’s considerably different. The music originally performed and perfected by big bands was designed to serve as entertainment in venues where drinking, laughing, eating and dancing were part of the expectation of those in attendance. In old air checks from the golden days, you can hear glasses clinking and conversations humming during the brief silence between songs. You can almost hear the cigarettes being smoked.
The atmosphere was like that at the Speakeasy for the Glenn Miller Orchestra on Saturday night, minus the tobacco smoke (malfunctioning kitchen vents are another story), and I was very happy for the informality of the evening. Formality would have been too much. Sunday was Father’s Day, and my dad, who died six years ago, was a Glenn Miller fan without equal. Obviously, to me, there can’t be one without the other, so here’s a bit more about the music in context.
Long before teenagers in suburban bedrooms played “air guitar” to Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen, there undoubtedly were “air trumpet” displays in the vicinity of crackling urban household radio sets, with young fans patiently waiting for the end of FDR’s fireside chat to listen for the sophisticated big band arrangements aired live from clubs and ballrooms, knowing by heart when the solos from Ziggy Elman, Bunny Berigan, Roy Eldridge and dozens of others would come blasting through the damp night, to be imitated and admired.
It was all the norm during the Swing Era, or the Big Band Era, or any other convenient phrase coined long afterward to describe a pervasive phenomenon whose zenith was long ago, short-lived and very far away from the present time of computers, terrorists and global warming. Thankfully, the art form is being kept alive today by sturdy traditional practitioners like the 25-year-old players and 74-year-old musical director currently inhabiting the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which does 300 road shows a year.
Many theories have been advanced purporting to explain the demise of the “big bands,” from transportation costs to technological and communications advances. Truth is, the world just went and changed, but one of the beauties of today’s niche-driven marketplace is that there’s still an audience for big band music, which is at its most vital performed live before an enchanted local audience.
These musical aggregations, which combine elements of small group improvisational jazz with the more formally scored tradition of symphonic bands, enjoyed their golden age in popular culture from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II. During the post-war era, big bands barely survived, being supplanted first by a greater emphasis placed on individual vocalists, and then later by various tsunamis of rock ‘n’ roll, pop and country, and the myriad cultural diversities of an ever smaller planet.
Big bands never really went away, but their pulse grew very faint as time inexorably marched, and generations of people who played the music or knew it as their own sadly passed from the scene.
To my mind, the “big band era” in America did not truly end until May, 1992, when Johnny Carson departed from the “Tonight Show.” He took with him Doc Severinsen’s “house” big band, which was the last regularly broadcasted link with the halcyon days of Miller, Shaw, Goodman, Ellington and Dorsey, a sound accessible weekly to any person with a television set and rabbit ears. During the fifteen years that have followed, big bands have gone from being an active memory for many in the populace to occupying a status somewhat in line with Civil War re-enactors, who are charged with making ghosts relevant and educating those who aren’t in the know.
How many people under the age of 50 know that Glenn Miller abandoned the music business at his band’s commercial peak and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942? That Miller subsequently organized a military orchestra that eschewed his trademark civilian arrangements for jazzy reworkings of stodgy marching band music, annoying hidebound military traditionalists and entertaining hundreds of thousands of Allied troops overseas? That Miller’s airplane mysteriously disappeared over the English Channel in December, 1944, with the wreckage never located?
The author is 46. I knew all about Glenn Miller, his music and the songs and stories of the big band era courtesy of my father, for whom these numbers and legends were the soundtrack accompanying his military service in the Marines in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1945. Growing up at the tail end of the baby boom generation, I spent countless Sunday mornings listening to long-playing 33 & 1/3 compilations of big band swing – “sweet” ballads, “hot” orchestral charts, novelty tunes, and the radio fodder of wartime.
It was almost more fun watching my dad listen, tapping his feat, with songs like “Sentimental Journey” or “String of Pearls” prompting stories and memories of the time in his life when he was a part of something far, far bigger than himself. He came back home after it was over, lived his life by his terms, worked six days a week, and relaxed on Sunday morning over sausage, eggs and Glenn Miller … and usually went back out for more farm work on Sunday afternoon.
That’s a hard habit to break (the music, not the fence mending), and the tradition lives on in the Confidential household on most Sunday mornings, albeit without children present for instruction. For this reason, I’m depending on readers to pass this information along to someone younger, and perhaps even join in listening to a few of the standards like “American Patrol,” “In the Mood,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000, or one of my signature songs for late at night, “Serenade in Blue.”
I can loan you the CDs.