Glenn Miller's legacy transcends music
In this Air University History office file photo, Glenn Miller, center, prepares for one of the more than 500 radio broadcasts in which he and his band performed as part of morale-boosting efforts in tihe Army Air Force.
Posted 12/2/2011 Updated 12/2/2011
by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs
12/2/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, AL -- As the holidays approach so does the 30th annual Glenn Miller concert at the Davis Theater in Montgomery at 7 p.m. Dec. 9. The concert celebrates both the heritage of the late big band leader and supports the Montgomery Area Food Bank.
Glenn Miller, the musical sensation turned Army Air Forces captain, not only boosted morale and expanded recruiting, he also wrote a new chapter in military music history, according to Bill Chivalette, curator of the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Hall.
"He was the rock star of his era. When he changed that sound, it appealed to so many people across the board, not just the youngsters but the older people as well. When the war kicked off, he ran to enlist and disbanded his civilian band," Chivalette said. "There was a difference back then. Patriotism ran deep to the core. Almost everyone that could joined the war effort. Miller's patriotic fervor was as strong as his desire to produce good music."
Miller, at 38, was too old to be drafted, so he joined the Army and served a short time before being transferred to the Army Air Forces toward the end of 1942. He began his career at the Army Air Forces' Southeast Training Center at Maxwell Field.
Launch of a legend
Getting his band off the ground was not an easy feat, but Miller and his band caught a break when Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, visited Miller's unit. Miller was called into his commanding officer's office, where Arnold was sitting. Miller's commander was getting ready to fire the band leader in front of Arnold when the general stopped him, saying Miller's music was "my kind of music." Miller responded by telling Arnold the band could play at a national level and even travel overseas, according to Chivalette.
"He wanted to bring his brand of music to the war effort, but not everyone liked that type of music," he said. "He had to fight a lot of prejudices to do his music. Obviously, things have to roll up the proper chain of command, but sometimes it helps when Hap Arnold likes your style." Chivalette said Arnold gave the band leader "free rein" in recruiting members for his new band - 38 of the nation's best musicians from 475 continental bases.
Miller and his orchestra toured nonstop during the war. During the 14 months the band was active, they played in 11 overseas countries, performed 505 radio broadcasts, gave 353 personal appearances and took part in 956 morale-raising activities to more than two million troops in combat zones and garrison areas, said Chivalette.
The effort paid off. "The band helped the war effort. It made people want to join. It helped with recruiting. They created the greatest orchestra of its time in the military. Their performances were wonderful. He truly had rock star status," he said.
"There were areas that they were sent to that were right up on the front lines," said Chivalette. "One particular show they played in England, bombs began to fall but they continued playing. They really boosted morale."
When discussing Miller's career, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, a commander and Medal of Honor recipient, said, "Next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations."
Miller's popularity stemmed largely from the dedication he had to his craft. He was known for his attention to detail and unrelenting rehearsal schedule.
"He was a perfectionist," Chivalette said. "While some perfectionists were hated, he was loved. He had the best product, and his perfectionism came out of the desire to put out the best music that he could. If you weren't willing to do that, you weren't in his band.
"His reputation got around. Because of his attention to detail and because of his perfectionism, he was very well respected among musicians. That respect carried over to everyone else."
Members of his band have remembered his perfectionism a little differently. Retired Master Sgt. Norman Leyden, who worked as an arranger for the Glenn Miller band, said in a recent Air Force video interview that Miller's criticism could be pretty scathing.
"Not everyone in the band was used to Glenn's strictness. He carried into the Army the strictness he insisted on as a band leader paying people, except he wasn't paying anyone here," Leyden said. "I remember one time where he chewed everybody out at one time. He got everybody together and went right down the roster and told everybody what he thought of the people. Black Monday it was called."
Despite Miller's perfectionism, playing with the band was an honor for the members. According to Leyden, there was never anything quite like that Glenn Miller sound.
"The Miller band had a romantic sound, and it also had a wonderful solid swinging sound to it. Glenn was putting those two things together, and Glenn was the one who invented that style, too. He was an arranger before he was a band leader. He carried that into his first ventures into bands," Leyden said. "He's the one that set the style."
A shooting star
Tragedy struck the band in December 1944 at the height of his popularity when Miller was declared missing in action. His orchestra heard the news on Christmas Day.
"It was his impatience that killed him," Chivalette said. "He had finally convinced Arnold to let him fly to France and bring the band. He was so anxious to get there, he flew in a sub-standard aircraft. This was a plane that could have made the trip in perfect conditions, but they took off in a fog. Anything could have happened."
The band continued playing for a short time after Miller's disappearance. In August 1945, the orchestra gave its last performance at the Washington Press Club for President Harry S. Truman, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Arnold. The band members received an honorable discharge shortly after, according to Chivalette.
"They were still a marvelous band, but they were missing Miller, and they all felt that," he said. "They were successful because of Miller. He was the star, he was the name; he had earned it. He was a shooting star. His was a short-lived career."
So many years after his disappearance, Glenn Miller's music continues to resonate throughout modern American history. His contributions to the war effort and to modern military music are immeasurable.
"His legacy continues today. Every year they have the Glenn Miller concert here, and it makes me so proud. I think he is a great American hero, and I never use that word," Chivalette said. "When he entered the war effort, the morale improved. The attention that he raised brought credence to the military. The Air Force will always eulogize him. As long as we're here, he will be too."