Glenn Miller: Army Air Force Band


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Yesterday was the anniversary of D-Day, which always makes me think of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band (1943-44). The band—though short-lived with Miller at the helm—was one of the finest of the period and strangely among the least-recognized today.

Perhaps the appeal for me rests in the home-sick sweetness of the band's strings and the modern cool voicings of the brass. Or the fact that this band is so often heard on soundtracks of World War II documentaries. If your dad was in the service during this period, the band probably will remind you of him as well.

Miller's Army Air Force Band was more than a swing band. It featured brass and strings, and carried superb musicians who later would become prominent. The list includes John Carisi, Peanuts Hucko, Mel Powell, Carmen Mastren, Ray McKinley and Trigger Alpert. Most of the band's musicians had played in other major swing bands before winding up in the service. But the Army Air Force Band's real strength rested with its arrangers, including Powell, Jerry Gray and others. [Pictured above, from left: Glenn Miller, Ray McKinley and Mel Powell]

The story of the band begins in 1942, just months after America entered the war. At age 38, Miller was too old to be drafted but still wanted to enlist. So he wrote a letter to Army Brigadier General Charles Young asking to be put in charge of an Army band. His request was granted, and Miller's civilian band performed its last concert in late September.

After his induction, Miller was transferred from the Army to the Army Air Force, evidently to motivate enlistment where it was needed most. Miller began his service by playing trombone in a 15-piece dance band at a training center in Alabama.

In 1943, Miller was transferred to Atlantic City, N.J., where many soldier-musicians received basic training. The musicians Miller cherry-picked for his next band were sent to Yale University in New Haven, where Miller rehearsed them between March and May.

In New Haven, Miller at first formed a marching band, but swing versions of military songs were frowned upon by the brass. According to George Simon writing in The Big Bands, when the New Haven camp commander said to Miller, “We played those Sousa marches pretty straight in the last war and we did all right," Miller reportedly replied, “Tell me Major, are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war, too?" [Photo above: ROTC artillery instruction at Yale during World War II]

A short time later, Miller was assigned to host and perform on a recruitment radio show called I Sustain the Wings, which was broadcast from New Haven. After the show was moved to New York, Miller was granted permission to form a 50-piece band that included a string section. Arrangements were written by Powell, Gray, Norman Leyden, Ralph Wilkinson, Perry Burgett. [Photo above: Glenn Miller at Yale in 1943]

The radio show lasted a year, and in the spring of 1944 Miller's expanded band was sent to England. According to Simon, the orchestra that shipped out included 20 string players, five trumpets, four trombones (not including Miller), a French horn, six reeds, two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, a guitarist, three arrangers, a copyist, five singers, two producers, an announcer, two administrators and two musical instrument repairmen.

The band gave 800 performances in the months after D-Day in 1944. Then in December 1944, Miller decided to fly to Paris to make arrangements for the band to play in the French capital, which had been liberated by the Allies that August. But Miller's plane never arrived, disappearing while flying over the English Channel.

Upon re-listening to many of the Army Air Force Band's recordings today, one is struck by its taut efficiency, nostalgic swing and polished orchestrations. This was no jazz band in the traditional sense, but it was mighty regal and pretty—shifting smoothly between emotionally moving passages and up-tempo swing with a military crispness. There also was a more future-forward sound to the arrangements compared with those written for Miller's civilian band.

For example, Begin the Beguine and Stompin' at the Savoy  are arranged smartly with the Miller voicings and military precision—yet still manage to pay tribute to the bands that made them famous. The ballads are particularly heart-felt, and include Speak Low, Star Eyes and Now I Know. Johnny Desmond is the male vocalist here and his intonation was quite a bit fresher than the civilian band's Ray Eberle. [Pictured: Glenn Miller with Dinah Shore in September 1944]

Of course, the band's magnum opus was was David Rose's Holiday for Strings, arranged by Jerry Gray, and Poinciana, featuring the band's Crew Chiefs vocal group [pictured].

The sound of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band will instantly transport you to an era when this country was united behind a common cause, and sacrifice for the greater national good was everyone's job. As elegant a sound as the big band era would produce, with arrangements as sharp as a pleat.

JazzWax tracks: There are several excellent compilations of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band. The best is the 2001 remastered four-CD box, Glenn Miller: Army Air Force Band. You find it here. There's also a “best of" CD of the same material for less here.

If you want more, I recommend The Glenn Miller Story Vol. 17-18, which is made up of touching I Sustain the Wings radio broadcasts and other live dates between 1943 and 1945, when Jerry Gray led the band. You'll find it here.   Finally, Miller made a series of propaganda radio transcriptions at London's Abbey Road Studios in October 1944. On these, Miller speaks in German and Johnny Desmond sings in German. They were used to broadcast to German radio audiences to undercut their resistance to Allied advances. A fascinating document and a superb recording. You'll find Glenn Miller: The Secret Broadcasts here.

JazzWax clip: Here's footage of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band in England in July 1944. The music is dubbed from the concert, but at least you get a sense of what the band looked like...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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