TERRE HAUTE — Sixty-five years ago, Army Air Force Maj. Glenn Miller disappeared in a UC-64 Norseman over the English Channel. At the top of his career as a Big Band leader and arranger, Miller was on his way to France to entertain the American G.I.s who had liberated Paris.
Although Miller himself is still listed in U.S. military records as “missing in action,” his unique musical sound has never been lost. Through careful management by his estate — and because his one-of-a-kind sound still attracts music lovers of all ages — the Glenn Miller Orchestra lives on.
On March 23, the official Miller orchestra will make a rare stop in Terre Haute, performing in no less an appropriate venue than the restored Indiana Theatre. Hors d’oeuvres and a wine bar at 6 p.m. precede the show, which starts at 7 p.m.
After being led over the decades by several great musicians, the Glenn Miller Orchestra has been under the baton since 1988 of Larry O’Brien, a trombonist like Miller. Big Bands and O’Brien have been synonymous throughout his long career. Among the bands and orchestra with which he has performed are those of Ray Eberle, Les Elgart and Sammy Kaye. He also was the featured soloist/lead trombonist with the Sam Donahue/Tomy Dorsey Orchestra.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra originally was formed in 1937 by Miller, who wanted his crew to sound different from all the other bands of the time. The distinctive Miller sound is created by a clarinet and tenor saxophone playing melody, combined with three other saxophones playing harmony. Trombones and trumpets support the reeds instead of dominating them.
Miller is known for the dreamy ballad, “Moonlight Serenade,” and he was emphatic that he was never interested in conducting “a jazz band.” But the Miller versions of such songs as “Tuxedo Junction” and “The St. Louis Blues March” can swing as hot as any Big Band of his or the current era.
Glenn Miller’s hits comprise some of the all-time classics of the Big Band repertoire, including “In The Mood,” “A String of Pearls,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “I’ve Got a Gal In Kalamazoo.”
After the disappearance and presumed death of Miller in December 1944, the band was reconstituted under the direction of Tex Beneke, its lead tenor saxophonist, singer, and one of Miller’s closest friends. The Miller estate hired Ray McKinley, principal drummer in Miller’s Army Air Force Band to reorganize a new “ghost band” in 1956.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary in June 2006. The musicians travel more than 100,000 miles each year, performing almost every night for 48 weeks. With some 300 playing dates, the orchestra estimates it performs live before more than a half-million people annually.
The Miller band’s stop in Terre Haute will reconnect the spirits of two great musicians of their era. In the late 1930s, before Miller had managed to organize his own band under his own name, he was given the task of forming an American-staffed orchestra for the British bandleader, Ray Noble. Among the stellar musicians Miller recruited for the Noble U.S. orchestra was pianist, composer and orchestra leader Claude Thornhill, who was born and raised in Terre Haute.