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The Sound

Bringing Glenn Miller Home


The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs at the Des Moines Civic Center on Friday, June 27.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs at the Des Moines Civic Center on Friday, June 27.

It’s practically impossible to understate how big Glenn Miller was in his day. The Clarinda native wasn’t just the preeminent musician of the 1940s, he was the preeminent entertainer, full stop. He was already immensely popular all over the world before World War II. Then, after joining the U.S. Air Force Orchestra in 1942, General Jimmy Doolittle called Captain Miller “the greatest morale booster in the European Theater of Operations.”

Consider this fact: While there were many other leaders of big bands — most notably guys like Benny Goodman and the Dorsey boys, Tommy and Jimmy — none of the others created acts that carried on after their demise. Miller spawned five.

After Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel in 1944 en route to Paris, The Glen Miller Orchestra continued on as a “ghost band,” fronted by Tex Beneke. Today, there are officially sanctioned Glenn Miller Orchestras in the USA, UK and Europe, as well two bands within the United States Air Force.

“I’m sure there’s a mystique surrounding Miller’s death,” said current Orchestra musical director Nick Hilscher, discussing the bandleader’s lasting appeal. “But the magic was in the arrangements. He really wrote for the whole band.”

Indeed, Miller’s whole-band approach — focusing on a three-horn melody and harmony, as opposed to a soloist backed by four or five horns — resulted in some of the biggest hits of the day. Songs like “In The Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” are still instantly recognizable to even the most casual of listeners.

But Hilscher, who joined the band as a vocalist in 1998 and took over as musical director two years ago, doesn’t see the band’s role as simply that of a hit-playing tribute act. Hilscher considers himself a caretaker of Miller’s legacy and feels it’s his duty to ensure the music remains a vital, living thing.

Miller himself believed the band should be more than just one man. “A band ought to have a sound all its own,” he once said. “It ought to have a personality.”

To that end, Hilscher spends a good deal of time pouring over the original recordings of Miller’s Orchestra, bringing old songs to life through new arrangements.

“For me, since we’re 75 years removed from the original recordings; it’s not about trying to be an exact recreation,” he explained. “I’m building a tradition. It’s new players for old music.”

Those new players — 16 instrumentalists plus vocalists Hilscher and Natalie Angst — keep their noses to the grindstone; the Glen Miller Orchestra tours the country relentlessly, typically booking four to five shows a week. And when they’re not playing, Hilscher is often found playing historian.

“We have all of the original songs in score form, but not the original individual sheets,” he said. “So a lot of my time is spent with the original RCA recordings in a computer program, pulling songs apart.”

The show that Hilscher has put together is a clever, modern take on Miller’s original style. The band’s current iteration makes effective use of Angst’s vocal capabilities; Miller himself used several different female vocalists, while the modern band’s approach allows for a more uniform sound, without sacrificing quality. Because at the end of the day, that high level of quality is Hilscher’s truest calling.

“I’m not trying to re-write (the music) or do something totally new,” he said. “I’m trying to bring the spirit of what Glenn Miller did to new audiences.” CV

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