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GENERATIONS: Art Lee: Glenn Miller is alive, and the band plays on

Alright, there's a touch of hyperbole in that headline (especially since Miller died in 1944), but there's also a touch of honesty too, depending on stretched interpretations of "a continued life."

Art LeeTurned out to be a surprising shock this past non-winter winter in Tucson when the local newspaper ran the headline: ‘Glenn Miller Orchestra To Play Concert At Fox Theater.’

Huh? Whuz this? He's gone! Died in ’44. Plane crash. Miller is ancient history. Ain't he?

The answer: Nope. He's still around. Turns out a Glenn Miller Band is still playing concerts today. The band was resurrected in 1954 after the movie "The Glenn Miller Story" hit the big screen (Jimmy Stewart played Miller). The film reawakened interest enough to form another Glenn Miller band, one still going strong today, with no letup in sight. This ongoing musical ensemble -- with changing players over the years, of course -- played over 300 performances last year, with plans to repeat those high numbers in 2019. That'll make it 65 years in a row!

The's the need here for a little background, especially for American youngsters not yet on Social Security. Seems that in U.S. pop-culture history, there's always a style of music that's especially appealing, primarily to young people, and to those who think they're still young. In the late 1930s and all of the l940s -- and even into the ’50s -- that most popular style of American pop music was Big Band Swing. And there were plenty of swinging big bands then that were deemed good enough to "make it big." Big bands were judged important enough to be the featured attraction at fancy nightclubs and in big hotel ballrooms and on the radio and in movies, too. The bands then were always named after their leader. A few of the top ones were Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey,  Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and of course Glenn Miller. Over the years, Miller's band always got very high if not the highest ratings among adolescents who were too poor or too cheap to buy his records. (That was my age group.)

It was impressive to be a teenager then (I was a ’49 high school grad) and get sucked up into all the hoopla of the Big Bands everywhere, dominating both the amateur local dance-halls as well as the top professional bands broadcasting on radio air waves. Daytime teen chatter regularly included time wasted among our own ilk, arguing which of the multiple bands were the best and which the worst.

Plane crash in ’44

Miller was born in Colorado and would eventually attend the university there for one year only.  He earlier attended local public schools and would play trombone in school bands but essentially he was self-taught and later would gain musical attention and well deserved fame, not as a performer but as an arranger. In the early 1920s, he bounced around, playing in several big bands and decided to form a band of his own in 1939, searching even then for a special sound that would make his band judged as better and far different from all the others. His musical-score arrangements would give more of the lead-melody in songs to the reed section and less to the brass players, i.e. clarinets and saxes over trumpets and trombones, resulting in listeners recognizing "the Miller sound" as distinctly his alone. It's immediately noticeable in his band's softer theme song: "Moonlight Serenade." Not that his band could not "swing," as obviously noticed in many of his favorite numbers like  "String of Pearls" and "Tuxedo Junction" and "American Patrol" and "In The Mood" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000." He could do it all.

Miller was at the height of his popularity when World War II broke out and he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 and soon was made the leader of the Army Air Force Band. In late 1944, his band was to fly from London to France and play concerts there. In preparation for the band’s arrival, Miller chose to go there one day earlier, despite the warnings of inclement weather conditions. Just he and the pilot of the small plane left London that morning. They never made it. Somewhere over the English Channel, the plane crashed. Miller's body was never found.

Miller in Tucson

It was a full house in Tucson's Fox Theater that night of the Glenn Miller Band concert. Let's just say that the age of this big crowd of fans there was "mature." In the area where my wife Judy and I sat, there were many grey and white haired folks around us, and also many no-haired men, too. Perhaps the youngest people in the theater were some members of the 18-piece Miller Band who played a two-hour show to a very receptive and enthusiastic audience, all attentive listeners who found it no problem to sing along. It was fun and the band was great! Even the band members seemed to be having fun, adding diverting hijinks during some numbers. Fun was still showing afterwards in the faces and voices of those attendees, including those with their canes and wheelchairs. For the audience there that night, it would be "a night to remember."

Indeed, Glenn Miller lives on!   

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