Born March 1, c. 1909, in Clarinda, IA; disappeared over the English Channel while on an airplane flight from England to Paris, December 1944; son of Lewis Elmer and Mattie Lou (maiden name, Cavender) Miller; married Helen Burger, October 6, 1928. Education: Attended the University of Colorado, 1924-26. Trombone player, bandleader, arranger, and composer. Played briefly with Boyd Senter's band in Denver, Colorado, during the mid-1920s; played with other small bands c. 1926; played with Ben Pollack's orchestra, beginning 1927; helped Ray Noble organize his American orchestra during the early 1930s; formed and led Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1937-42; captain in U.S. Army Air Corps, beginning 1942. Appeared in films, including Sun Valley Serenade, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1941, and Orchestra Wives, Twentieth Century-Fox. Composer of popular songs, including "Moonlight Serenade.".
With his orchestra, bandleader Glenn Miller "synthesized all the elements of 'big band' jazz and gave a generation of young people the apotheosis of dance music: smooth, sophisticated, and with a patina of sentimentality," declared critic Ralph De Toledano in National Review. Miller's popularity as a music maker began in 1939, and, with standards such as "Moonlight Serenade," "In the Mood," and "Tuxedo Junction," lasted until he broke up his orchestra to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.
Miller was born on March 1, probably in the year 1909, in Clarinda, Iowa. His family moved around a great deal during his youth, to places including North Platte, Nebraska, and Grant City, Oklahoma. In the latter town, at the age of thirteen, Miller milked cows to earn money to buy a trombone. He did not, apparently, count on music to be his career, because he finished high school and attended classes at the University of Colorado for two years. During his time in college, though, he continued playing the trombone, and worked briefly with Boyd Senter's band in Denver. After that, however, the lure of music proved too strong, and Miller left the University to try his luck on the west coast of the United States.
The budding trombonist played with a few small bands there until 1927, when he joined Ben Pollack's orchestra. Shortly afterwards, Pollack and his musicians moved to New York, and Miller found so many opportunities there that he left Pollack's band. In addition to playing the trombone, he did arrangements for the likes of Victor Young, Freddy Rich, and others. Miller felt optimistic enough about his burgeoning career in 1928 to marry Helen Burger, a woman he had met at the University of Colorado.
During the 1930s, Miller helped Ray Noble start an orchestra, played for other bandleaders, and put together a swing band for Columbia Records. But he was already planning to have a big band of his own, and turned down a lucrative job with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company to work on the project. In 1937, Miller's dream became a reality when he put together musicians such as Charlie Spivak, Toots Mondello, and Maurice Purtill to form the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Though Purtill soon left to play with Tommy Dorsey--who at that time was better known than Miller--the orchestra carried on for the rest of the year, playing one-night stands in various cities.
In 1938, however, Miller temporarily suspended the band. Purtill's absence brought about problems with the orchestra's rhythm section that continued to plague its leader, and Miller felt the need to reorganize from the ground up. He did so, using only a few of the band's original members. Later that year the Glenn Miller Orchestra added singer Marion Hutton to its roster, and by 1939, the band had made it big, playing to standing-room-only crowds in New York City.
Miller's orchestra was famous for its well-blended, balanced sound. Critics have noted that it was not a vehicle for star soloists, but rather that emphasis was placed on the output of the entire band. Miller was known to discourage musicians who stood out from the rest of the orchestra, and praise those who combined well with their fellows. The Glenn Miller Orchestra was acclaimed by a large variety of fans because it played many different types of big band music--everything from hot jazz to popular ballads. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Miller and his band gifted audiences with classic hits such as "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," and "A String of Pearls."
In 1942, while it was still extremely successful, Glenn Miller decided to break up his orchestra in order to accept the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was on a routine flight over the English Channel when his plane disappeared. Like that of other orchestra leaders of the big band era, Glenn Miller's music has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, and his orchestra is considered by critics to have been one of the best of its time.
by Elizabeth Wenning
Glenn Miller's Career
- Selective Works
- Singles; on RCA "Moonlight Serenade," 1939.
- "Falling Leaves," 1940.
- "Johnson Rag," 1940.
- "In the Mood," 1940.
- "Pennsylvania 6-5000," 1940.
- "Tuxedo Junction," 1940.
- "The Booglie Wooglie Piggy," 1941.
- "Chattanooga Choo Choo," 1941.
- "Elmer's Tune," 1941.
- "Moonlight Cocktail," 1941.
- "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," 1942.
- "A String of Pearls," 1942.
- "Little Brown Jug."
- Glenn Miller: The Popular Recordings, 1938-42 (three compact discs), RCA, 1990.
- Down Beat, September 1989; June 1990.
- Look, August 13, 1940.
- National Review, March 5, 1990.
- Newsweek, January 15, 1940.
- People, March 13, 1989.