Miller’s torch carried forth
If nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, then how do you account for the popularity of a big band whose founding leader has been dead for nearly 60 years? Or put another way, an orchestra made up of musicians (except the main man) who hadn’t been born when the original leader perished during World War II in 1944 in a flight over the English Channel.
What gives? It’s known as the Miller Mystique, folks, an aura that surrounds the Glenn Miller Orchestra now as it did in the past – though the past is now a part of the present.
“When people come to here the band today,” said trombonist/leader Larry O’Brien, who has directed the orchestra for 14 years “many of them are transported back in time to when they were dancing to Glenn’s music. I’ve seen people listening with their eyes closed and then watched tears stream down their faces when we play Glenn’s ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ Funny thing is, even though so many are swept up with the past, there have been a lot of other people tell me that my band is better than Glenn’s.”
Comparisons are relatively easy to draw, since the O’Brien edition is playing the Miller book that includes such staples as “Little Brown Jug,” “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “String of Pearls” and other songs that were mega-hits.
“We’re locked into playing songs exactly the way Glenn played them because that’s what audiences come to hear. We can’t even pare them down and play them as a medley. It just wouldn’t work with our audiences,” said O’Brien. “I can take the wraps off the soloists because Miller’s soloists went a different route each time they picked up their horns, but occasionally I still have to come down on a guy when he plays totally ‘outside the box.'”
Nevertheless, O’Brien, 68, who has led the Miller band longer than anyone else, including Miller himself, is digging into the vast band library (about 1,700 songs) these days to find jewels Miller rarely played. “There are things in the library like ‘Intro To Waltz’ and ‘I’m Thrilled’ that are wonderful songs Glenn probably should have played more. One of these days, I’d love to record an album of songs out of Glenn’s book that never had a chance to be hits for him because he didn’t play them that often.”
O’Brien also has made one significant change since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He has scrapped the tradition of closing a program with the Miller theme and has replaced it with ‘America, the Beautiful’ and invites audiences to sing. “For many, the evening has already been an emotional experience. And to end it all by singing such a wonderful patriotic song in a time when we’ve all been drawn closer to our country well, it seems only the right thing to do.”
O’Brien and his orchestra recently toured Japan and found most of the older Japanese were sympathetic to the U.S. war against terrorism. But much to the dismay of their elders, the Nipponese kids “kinda blew the whole thing off.” But he added, “That’s the sort of blase reaction you might expect from kids today, wherever they are.”
O’Brien should know a whole lot about young adults. The average age of his sidemen is mid-20s, even though the oldest, trombonist George Reinert is 44 and songstress Julia Rich is 40-something. And while he’s impressed with the young musicians’ ability to “read the spots right off a chart,” he’s also faced with teaching his charges how to play music some had never heard before joining the band.
“When Glenn needed a replacement, he could hire a guy who had experience playing the music of the day,” explained O’Brien, speaking by phone from Hartlingten, Texas while on tour. “I can’t do that. For most of the hires, it’s a whole new experience, and they have to be taught to have a feel for such things as tempo and the relationship of the lyrics to the melody. And just about the time I get everyone whipped into shape, someone will leave the band, and it’ll be time to start teaching a new guy what it’s all about. When I need a replacement, I always look for a musician with raw talent. If he has talent, the rest will come.”
When a person leaves the band, it’s usually because he’s had a taste of working in a big band – the long hops by bus, living out of a suitcase, the thrill of working in a section – and wants to further his or her education. “I’ve never heard anyone say they’re bored. I rarely repeat a program from one stop to the next, and I spread the solos around so everyone gets a chance,” said O’Brien. He keeps the band on the road 50 weeks a year. “They may suffer from fatigue at times, but never from boredom.”
There have been seven leaders of the Miller orchestra in the past half-century, but none, other than O’Brien, have been associated with the band on three occasions: first as a sideman in in the ’60s when Ray McKinley was at the helm, and twice as leader. O’Brien directed the 19-piece orchestra from 1981-1983, and began his current run as main man in 1988.
“Why am I still here after all these years? Well, it’s pretty plain I enjoy it. I like leading the band, I like having a chance to play as many solos as I want to, and I like to think I’m in the process of passing the torch to the next generation.”
Cam Miller is a free-lance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. Write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945.
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