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Trumpeter Whitey Thomas, 92, is the last surviving member of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band. Last week, following my post on the band, I heard from his son, Scott, who encouraged me to give his dad a call. Whitey now lives in Bakersfield,Calif. When I called yesterday afternoon, his wife Mary Lou, who sang with Gus Arnheim's band, was with him.
Whitey is fond of playing the valve trombone, and he played a little for me. Don't be too critical," he said before launching into a few songs. Here's what Whitey remembers of his two years with Miller while the band was stationed in New Haven and then Bedford, England:
I was born June 29, 1920, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, near Raleigh. My father was an undertaker. In 1938, when I was 18 years old, I was playing trumpet in the Tommy Reynolds Orchestra when we wound up in Boston. Glenn Miller's civilian band was there at the same time playing at one of the big ballrooms. One night, one of Glenn's trumpeters got sick and I was asked to sub for him. There was no audition. I just sight-read the book, and Glenn was pretty impressed with that. The following night I returned to the Reynolds' band.
After World War II started, I went into the Army in 1942. I was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for a year and played with in the base's band. While I was there, Glenn came down and played at the post. I ran into him again at an event in Pinehurst, N.C. Glenn recognized me and said, 'Hell, I know that boy. I sure would like to have him in my Air Force band.'
The next thing I knew I got a call and was sent up to Atlantic City, where Glenn was assembling a big orchestra. Once he sorted out who he wanted, I was sent to the Army base in New Haven, Conn., with the rest of the guys he had selected.
It was clean work. We did mostly concerts and played while marching in parades and things. Then we started doing half-hour radio broadcasts from New Haven for CBS. My family listened to the broadcasts. Were they proud of me? They were a little bit proud, I suppose [laughs]. My older brother Charlie was a good tenor saxophonist. He played with Red Norvo and other good bands. I had a chance to have him sub in Glenn's band for a couple of days. He loved it.
On the weekends [in the summer of 1943], we went down to New York to broadcast [I Sustain the Wings] from the Vanderbilt Theater [at 148 West 48th St.]. We'd stay overnight Saturdays in a hotel and then take the train back to New Haven on Sundays.
Glenn was a nice man. He was a gentleman. There wasn't a nasty side to him that I could tell. And it was a pleasure playing those arrangements. I really loved listening to the Air Force Band while we played. All the guys did. There was something so uplifting about the music, and everyone was a joy to play with. I never missed a radio show or broadcast.
When we shipped off to England [in the summer of 1944], Glenn was already there because I remember he took a motorboat out to meet us just before we docked. After we arrived, the band went by train to Bedford, a small town [an hour and a half north of London] where we were billeted.
We played for troops, and they really loved the sound. They didn't applaud; they shouted and screamed. We were always polite, and the music reminded them of home. The boys appreciated it, and that was a good feeling.
Mel Powell [the band's pianist and arranger, pictured above] was a regular guy and one of the best musicians on the band. He didn't overdo his arrangements. They were just right. Johnny Desmond also was a good guy. My closest friend in the band was trombonist Larry Hall. He was from New York, but we had similar personalities. I suppose we were close because he didn't do anything to upset me [laughs].
I remember we played a lot of hospitals in the States and over there where wounded troops were bed-ridden and recuperating. Sometimes we played in small groups or the band would play in large auditoriums. Those concerts made you feel like you were doing something important. You weren't playing for dancers. It was to help wounded boys connect with home, to give them a feeling, and I could see from the stage their spirits pick up. That was gratifying, and you could see you were making a contribution and a difference.
I was one of the last guys to see Glenn alive. I had often flown on Glenn's plane when he traveled around England. The night before he flew out and was reported missing, Glenn was hanging around in the rec area where the band was billeted. He lived next door to where we were staying. It was a British Army post turned over to the Americans.
Late that evening, he walked to the door to go back to where he was staying and said to us, See you tomorrow." He never told us where he was going. You kept that stuff kind of quiet then. Don Haynes, the band's manager, saw him off the next mornng at the airfield.
We were crushed when we heard Glenn was missing. That kind of thing happened all around us every day over there. You hated to hear that news about anyone. I think we all just assumed Glenn would turn up eventually. But he never did. It was terrible. [Photo above of Glenn Miller at Thorpe Abbotts]
The Air Force Band was solid. We had some pretty good blowers and some great arrangers. But it wasn't simple music, as some people think [laughs]. Those arrangements were tough to play with just the right feel. That's why no one ever played them the same way.
The caliber of guys on the band could handle anything, really. You enjoyed playing the songs because of how much the music was appreciated and needed. It wasn't about us. It was about the soldiers listening who were wounded or might not come back. We put a lot into what we were doing because we knew we were giving them hope and encouragement. And a feeling of home."
JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny Desmond singing Long Ago and Far Away with Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band. Whitey Thomas is in the trumpet section. The arrangement is by Norman Leyden. Dig how the chart shifts smartly between peppy brass and sentimental strings...
Here's Whitey Thomas blowing up a storm recently with son Scott on drums...
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I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.