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It's Miller Time: An American Elegy

By Robert McHenry - November 11, 2005 12:00 AM

My father was in the service during World War II, though not in a combat role. In fact, he enlisted in 1940, after the war had begun in Asia and Europe but more than a year before the United States entered. I was born just as the war was ending in Europe and have always happily considered myself Not a Boomer. My father loved jazz, up to the point where it began to go all strange on him, say about 1947, and my mother was a movie fan. So I grew up knowing and loving, far more than my slightly younger Boomer friends, the music and films of the 1930s and '40s.

"Their song" was Artie Shaw's incomparable recording of "Stardust." Those who know it can forgive dear Judy Agnew, who, while her husband was running for Vice President in 1968, was asked by a journalist about her taste in music. It ran, she said, to "semi-classical pieces," and she gave "Stardust" as an example. Naturally, I was early taught to recognize Hoagy Carmichael in his various movie roles, always the laconic piano player deeply suspicious of anything happening outside whatever dive he happened to be working. I learned at my mother's knee that at 14 she had identified entirely with Judy Garland singing "You Made Me Love You" to a picture of Clark Gable, and at my father's that Muggsy Spanier was the most reliable of the neo-Dixieland (aka Chicago Style) trumpeters.  

I indulge in all this reminiscence, or trivial pursuit, if you insist, only to establish some degree of standing before making my proposal, which is this: Let us declare, by Congressional resolution if possible, that the Glenn Miller Orchestra's recording of "Moonlight Serenade" is the official and eternal elegy for the generation that fought and endured both the Great Depression and World War II. Let it be played at veterans' funerals, at commemorative services, at Arlington National Cemetery, wherever and whenever we pause to think of and thank those millions, our fathers and mothers and grandparents and great-grandparents and, I suppose, great-great-grandparents (I'm losing track of the generations), whose lives and experiences and wisdom are slipping away so quickly.  

Jazz, and more particularly that only half-acknowledged offspring Big Band Swing, is affixed, cinematically perhaps but for good reason, in our collective memory as the soundtrack of the war. GIs took it with them wherever they were ordered, and the USO toured to recharge their morale in every theater of operations. The recordings made by the bands of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, and various others, both before and during the war, remain with us as a unique cultural achievement. (Dad was, "Stardust" notwithstanding, a firm Goodman disciple, and thanks to him I can whistle pretty much the whole of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.)  

Miller was not the superlative instrumentalist that Shaw and Goodman were, and he may not have been the trombonist that Tommy Dorsey was. But he had an unsurpassed ear for arrangements that defined the dance band genre and that are played to this day, and not only by the resurrection band that uses his name. He stood out from the rest of the band leaders in one other important way: He joined up. As Capt. (later Maj.) Glenn Miller, U.S. Army Air Force, he organized and led the AAF Band as a way of bringing the familiar music of home to the troops. His contribution to the martial tradition in music, not to mention Allied unity, is best suggested by an anecdote.  

When I was twelve or thirteen my family attended a "Searchlight Tattoo," a sort of military variety show, at the White City stadium in London. There were regimental brass bands and bagpipe bands, drill teams on horseback and motorcycle, a reenactment of some famous British commando assault, and so on. Everything was well received and heartily applauded by the audience. Late in the program came a guest appearance by the U.S. Third Air Force Band. They strutted onto the field playing "The St. Louis Blues March," a rousing Ray McKinley arrangement of the classic W.C. Handy tune that had been recorded by the AAF Band in 1943. Somehow the massed airmen (some playing, could it be? Yes! Saxophones!) marched in syncopation. You might be blind, or you might be deaf, but you knew in an instant that these were the Yanks. The stadium went bananas. The crowd were on their feet, they cheered, and there were tears, many tears.  

So, "Moonlight Serenade." The band recorded it in April 1939, and it was such an enormous hit that it became their theme song. Miller wrote the music, based on an exercise he had composed for a former teacher. Mitchell Parish wrote the words, but unlike his lyrics for "Stardust" they are banal and, in any case, the recording in question has no vocal. For that matter, the melody is pretty, but not in the "Stardust" class. It is the arrangement that propels it into and beyond the first rank of popular music. It features the signature Miller touch -- harmonized saxophones and clarinet -- that yields a piercingly sweet but never cloying sound. The reeds take the melody line at a slow, even tempo. The brasses add a counterpoint that in the first two choruses merely hints at and then in the third and fourth insists on a swing beat, as if to say, after their initial reticence, Yes, we were the Yanks. Both the chorus and the bridge rise to climaxes. In the second rendering of the bridge the solo clarinet soars up and falls back, and then in the closing figure it rises and ends on a high note. Thomas Gray, contemplating that churchyard, was not more elegiac. It is said that the civilian Miller band closed its last performance in 1942 with "Moonlight Serenade" and could not finish it.  

I have no idea how to promote this idea of an official elegy, apart from writing about it. Is there a congressman willing to take up a cause that has absolutely no pork or other mischief in it? A veterans' group? Tom Brokaw? It's getting late; another ten or fifteen years will see the end of this generation that only lately got its memorial in Washington, D.C. For this we don't need building permits or an environmental impact statement, just some good will. Who's with me?  

By the way, I can think of no particular reason why my generation, if we are one (Gen-W, the War Babies?), should ever be granted a song of our own, and if it were to happen it would be on the motion of a younger cohort. But just in case someone is ever so inclined, let me leave you with a thought. I'm thinking "Roll Over, Beethoven."  

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).
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