Glenn Miller (1904–44) rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most successful band leaders of the big band era, during the 1930s and 1940s. At the pinnacle of his popularity, in 1942, he volunteered to serve as a band leader in the army. The music he shared with the troops was met with wide acclaim and described as better than a letter from home.
Miller’s music defined an era, and such hits as “A String of Pearls,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo”—the first-ever gold record—made him a household name. A talented musician in his own right, Miller was consistently ranked in popularity polls as one of the top five jazz trombonists of the era. Miller died in December 1944, after his plane disappeared over the English Channel on a rainy afternoon.
Born in Clarinda, Iowa, on March 1, 1904, Alton Glenn Miller was the second of four children. He recalled always despising his first name, preferring to be known as Glenn from an early age. His parents, Lewis Elmer Miller and Mattie Lou Cavender Miller, moved to different states during his childhood in pursuit of work and opportunity. At the age of five, Glenn moved with his family to Nebraska, then to Missouri in 1915, and finally to Fort Morgan, Colorado, in 1918. During these years, his father worked as a carpenter, a janitor, a railroad bridge foreman, and a homesteader. Mattie Lou typically served as a teacher, and if the Millers arrived in a town where there was no school, she would help build one.
The Millers were a musically talented family, and Glenn’s affection for music began at an early age. Mattie Lou played the organ, Glenn’s brother Deane played the cornet, and Glenn started his musical career on the mandolin. Glenn eventually settled on the trombone as his instrument and envisioned himself as a slick nightclub musician.
Miller in Fort Morgan
Miller spent his high school years in Fort Morgan and considered Colorado a large part of his identity. Both of his parents were buried in Fort Morgan. Later in life, when he spoke of home, he usually meant Colorado.
Miller’s early interest during his school years was playing football at Fort Morgan High School, where he was named to Colorado’s all-state team. Despite his athletic talents, his focus soon shifted to music. High school band leader Elmer Wells was one of Miller’s first musical influences. Wells cared deeply for Miller and wanted to see him succeed. Helping Miller also meant keeping him out of trouble. According to local legend, Wells once had to bail Miller out of jail and pay his ten-dollar fine for sneaking on top of the high school to play his trombone.
By the time Miller graduated in 1921, he had turned all of his attention to music. In fact, he missed his graduation because he was in Wyoming for an audition. Miller enrolled at the University of Colorado, but by 1923 he had dropped out to pursue his dreams of making it big in the music business.
Although he would later become a well-known icon of the big band era, Miller’s arrival on the music scene went largely unnoticed. He and his trombone bounced from band to band until he started arranging music. In 1924 Miller happened to cross paths with band leader Ben Pollack, who is credited with giving him his first big break. It was in Pollack’s band that Miller found the opportunity to further his career as an arranger. By 1928 Miller had left Pollack’s band, and he spent the next three years as a theater arranger in New York for Paul Ash.
Also, in 1928, Miller reunited with a former classmate from his university days, Helen Burger. Despite her family's objections that Miller would not be able to adequately provide for her, the two married in New York. Through financial hardship and their long struggle to have children and their eventual decision to adopt, they drew strength from each other. In 1954 June Allyson and Jimmy Stewart portrayed the partnership on film in The Glenn Miller Story.
In the mid-1930s, Miller worked as an arranger for the Dorsey brothers, but he also sought to make his own mark as a band leader. In 1935 he helped organize his first small band for Ray Noble. Two years later, he tried to form a larger band but struggled to find success. Financially strapped, Miller disbanded the group at the end of 1937. With the guidance and financial support of his friend Simon “Cy” Shribman, he got back in business by the spring of 1938. It was with this group that Miller first tasted success.
As a band leader, Miller was known for his exacting, perfectionist nature. Polly Haynes, the Millers' closest friend and confidante, was often credited with smoothing over the rough parts of Miller’s manner and served as his secretary for many years. Miller was a passionate man who could sometimes be stubborn about his vision for his band. Through a tireless schedule of performances, radio shows, and recordings, he plugged along for years trying to create the perfect balance of band, sound, and business.
Miller’s ideal sound, as he described it, was the velvet depth achieved when the entire band worked as one instrument. Miller’s bands often used a clarinet-led saxophone section in search of this sound, which is best realized in his most famous song, “Moonlight Serenade.” First recorded on April 4, 1939, the song became one of the most popular of the big band era.
From 1939 until his death in 1944, Miller’s records soared on the charts. During those five years, he earned as much as half a million dollars in record royalties. In addition to “Moonlight Serenade,” some of the Miller Band’s best-known hits included “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
In 1941 Miller made his film debut in Sun Valley Serenade, but a year later, at the peak of his career, he decided to enlist in the army and disband his successful band. In November he was commissioned as a captain at Fort Meade, Maryland. By early 1943, he had become director of Bands Training for the Technical Training Command for the Army Air Forces. He created the Army Air Force Band to rally the troops at a pivotal time in World War II. He hoped to revolutionize military music by combining the familiarity of the marches with the swinging rhythms of jazz music. This ambition was met with much hesitation by the military brass, but the new sound helped Miller sell millions of dollars in war bonds. After being deployed to Europe, he traveled and recorded with the band in England ahead of a long-awaited debut in Paris just before Christmas 1944.
Miller was scheduled to leave England for Paris on December 14, 1944, but bad weather delayed his departure for several days. A personal friend, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell, offered Miller a seat on a plane he had privately arranged for the next day. Miller was apprehensive but joined Baessell anyway. After takeoff, the plane and its passengers were never seen or heard from again.
Because of the private arrangements Miller had made for his flight, no alarm was raised in Paris when he did not arrive. When a large contingent of band members arrived in Paris a few days later, they expected to be welcomed by their leader, but no one could find him. Miller’s manager and military authorities scrambled to determine his whereabouts.
Official word that Miller was missing did not reach his family until late December 1944. At first Helen refused to believe that her husband was gone. She and Miller had recently adopted a son, Stephen, and a daughter, Jonnie, the latter of whom Miller had not met. In 1945 she accepted a posthumous bronze star on Glenn’s behalf.
Miller’s military band served in Europe until the end of July 1945. They were set to return to the United States briefly before shipping out to the Pacific front, but the war’s end changed their plans. Before disbanding, the Glenn Miller Army Air Forces Band performed for President Harry Truman and General Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, DC, and were thanked personally for their service.
In just a few short years, Miller influenced popular music in a dramatic way. With sixteen number-one hits in four years, he was the most popular big band leader of his time. His style of jazz influenced popular musicians such as Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong.
After Miller’s death, demand for his music by devastated fans was so great that Helen and Miller’s manager decided to continue Millers prewar band on a permanent basis. They worked tirelessly to ensure that Miller’s legacy carried on through his band and his music. They wanted him to be remembered as a demure, kind man who expected the best from his musicians but expected better of himself.
In 1984, the fortieth anniversary of his death, Miller was awarded a posthumous honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado–Boulder. In 2016, he was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.