The Glenn Miller Orchestra

Just wanted to reassure all readers that this blog really is about photography and associated camera gear.  My current preoccupation with music is a passing fantasy (of being a professional musician).   Because there is a camera connection to this story, however tenuous.

As a kid I had an interest in Big Band Swing music of the 1930s likely because I’d be watching TV with my parents who used to tune into the Lawrence Welk show on a weekly basis.   Even at that age I recognized the heavy cheese factor of that show with a studio audience of advanced age that was as disturbingly and thoroughly White as the orchestra  – save the token Black tap dancer.   Then as champagne bubbles percolated in the background, the maestro would flog one of the show’s sponsors, Geritol – a dietary supplement for senior citizens.

In spite of all that, I still recognized the important role played by Big Band swing music, a precursor to modern jazz and rock music even during a period of great economic adversity.  And the music continued to lift the same despairing souls during the following decade of war.

My first exposure to the Glenn Miller Orchestra was this summer attending a D-Day memorial dinner at the fabulous Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario – an hour west of Toronto.   Dinner and the ceremonies went late and the band did not appear until after 10 PM for a rare appearance that involved dancing.  My wife and I danced to a few numbers on the crowded floor and had to call it a night.  They sounded terrific and I knew I had to revisit them when they returned to the GTA at Christmas.

Standing room only on the dance floor!    How would my parents react to news that I danced to the Glenn Miller Orchestra if they were still alive?  Most of the original fans of the band have long since passed meaning that their audience today is surprisingly diverse in age.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra was formed in 1938 after years of poverty and lack of professional success by band leader Glenn Miller.  He was trying to find a unique sound that would set his band apart from all the others and finally arrived on the formula of having the Bb clarinet play the traditional trumpet melody line with the other 4 saxes in the reed section harmonizing tightly within the same octave.    The band enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity and in its short four years made more hit and top ten singles than either Elvis or the Beatles!   At their peak they could be heard on CBS radio three times a week live and appeared in two movies as themselves.  Chattanooga Choo Choo sold 1.2 million copies and became the first ever gold record in the history of recorded music.  Miller enlisted into the US Army in 1942 when he was making nearly $20k per week  (adjusting for inflation that is a staggering $325k in 2019 dollars!) for the opportunity to form the Army Air Force Band and raise morale¹ for the Allied forces training for the great European invasion in Britain.  In the week before Christmas, 1944 he was en route to Paris when his plane is speculated to have crashed into the English Channel due to bad winter weather.

The civilian band was reformed in 1953 for the film biopic starring Jimmy Stewart in the lead role and became today’s modern day Glenn Miller Orchestra.  The band tours primarily North America 45-48 weeks out of the year with an annual foray into Japan and dates are fixed for 2020.

Nick Hilscher is the current band leader and he was in much more relaxed form this evening with a program that also included Christmas music.  With his hair styled with period correct pomade, the conspiratorial banter of Sinatra tailoring the show to a uniquely Canadian audience, and the cool abbreviated hand gestures with which he conducted and gave acknowledgement to solo performances – Nick also demonstrated his incredible singing voice on a few numbers.  He sang Judy Garland’s hit Christmas song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from the MGM 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis and also a famous Glenn Miller hit At Last which most people associate with the great but much later 1961 rendition by Etta James.

Nick singing “At Last”

I had my super compact m43 Yi M1 body with me, easily pocketed in my suit jacket with the lens removed.  In the other pocket was the Lumix 35-100mm f/4-5.6.  I was shooting from about the 10th row from the stage and I didn’t want to distract the performers so I shot from chest level while seated at ISO3200 and -1 EV.   Except I had forgotten to check if the camera had a memory card.  It did not.  So no images in the first half of the show.   At intermission I went back to the car and stole the micro SD card from the dash cam.

The trombones having choreographed fun with their extended slides in the Glenn Miller style and the trumpets using their derby hats as ersatz mutes to produce the distinctive “wah-wah”sound.
and more trombone antics near the end of “In the Mood”

To get a better explanation of this, check out the small clip from the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  If you watch the band members, you can see they were already behaving like modern rock stars before modern rock stars even knew how to!

One of the most poignant songs was sung by the orchestra chanteuse, Hannah Truckenbrod, and penned by local composer Norm Tufts.  “Jimmy is Missing Today” was inspired by the true life events of Flight Lieutenant James Virtue of Toronto who flew a Lancaster bomber from Moose Squadron RCAF.  His plane was lost with all hands after 50 sorties after being shot down by German night fighter.

Soulful Hannah sings the melancholy “Jimmy is Missing Today”.

The last song recorded by Glenn Miller before joining the Army was a special arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  The old 78 rpm records could only record about six minutes of music per side so the Introduction was cut to make it fit.  In the reed section, the musicians have to play 3-4 instruments, multiple saxes, clarinet and flute.


And finally, swinging Jingle Bells in the Glenn Miller style.  The lyrics go like this:

“Down in Meh-hico, we ain’t got no snow,”

“We ain’t got no snow, down in Meh-hico,”

“Sit around all day, hear the music play,”

“Every time we sing, Tequila glasses ring!”


The take away message is go see the Glenn Miller Orchestra if you have the opportunity.  And the Yi M1 is a capable camera even with an inexpensive lens.  Oh, and I got the face detect to work, when you have a face against a dark black background, a white square appears around it!

¹  The father of a good friend of mine recalls listening to the comforting strains of Moonlight Serenade, the signature composition of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, on radio during the Blitz, when Nazi planes dropped bombs on the city of London night after night.

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