Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa, the son of Mattie Lou (née Cavender) and Lewis Elmer Miller. He attended grade school in North Plattein western Nebraska. In 1915, Miller's family moved to Grant City, Missouri. Around this time, Miller had finally made enough money from milking cows to buy his first trombone and played in the town orchestra. Originally, Miller played cornet and mandolin, but he switched to trombone by 1916. In 1918, the Miller family moved again, this time to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where Miller went to high school. In the fall of 1919, he joined the high school football team, Maroons, which won the Northern Colorado Football Conference in 1920. He was named the Best Left End in Colorado. During his senior year, Miller became very interested in a new style of music called "dance band music". He was so taken with it that he formed his own band with some classmates. By the time Miller graduated from high school in 1921, he had decided to become a professional musician.
In 1923, Miller entered the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he joined Sigma Nu Fraternity, but spent most of his time away from school, attending auditions and playing any gigs he could get, including with Boyd Senter's band in Denver. He dropped out of school after failing three out of five classes one semester, and decided to concentrate on making a career as a professional musician. He later studied the Schillinger technique with Joseph Schillinger, under whose tutelage he composed what became his signature theme, "Moonlight Serenade". In 1926, Miller toured with several groups, eventually landing a good spot in Ben Pollack's group in Los Angeles. He also played for Victor Young, whose Los Angeles studio orchestra accompanied Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, allowing him to be mentored by other professional musicians. In the beginning, he was the main trombone soloist of the band. But when Jack Teagarden joined the Pollack's band in 1928, Miller found that his solos were cut drastically. From then, he realized that, rather than being a trombonist, his future lay in writing music. He also had a songbook published in Chicago in 1928 entitled Glenn Miller's 125 Jazz Breaks for Trombone by the Melrose Brothers copyrighted in 1927. During his stint with Pollack, Miller wrote several musical arrangements of his own. He also co-wrote his first composition, "Room 1411", written with Benny Goodman and released as a Brunswick 78, 4013, credited to Bennie Goodman's Boys.In 1928, when the band arrived in New York City, he sent for and married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger. He was a member of Red Nichols's orchestra in 1930, and because of Nichols, Miller played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy (where his bandmates included big band leaders Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa).
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Miller managed to earn a living working as a freelance trombonist in several bands. On a March 21, 1928, Victor session, Miller played alongsideTommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Joe Venuti in the All-Star Orchestra, directed by Nat Shilkret. During this period, Miller arranged and played trombone on several significant Dorsey Brothers OKeh sessions including "The Spell of The Blues", "Let's Do It" and "My Kinda Love", all with Bing Crosby vocals. On November 14, 1929, an original vocalist named Red McKenzie hired Miller to play on two records that are now considered to be jazz classics: "Hello, Lola" and "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight". Beside Miller were clarinetistPee Wee Russell, guitarist Eddie Condon, drummer Gene Krupa and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone.
In late 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. Glenn was pretty dejected and came to see me. He asked, "What do you do? How do you make it?" I said, "I don't know, Glenn. You just stay with it."
Discouraged, Miller returned to New York. He realized that he needed to develop a unique sound, and decided to make the clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave. George T. Simon discovered a saxophonist named Wilbur Schwartz for Glenn Miller. Miller hired Schwartz, but instead had him play lead clarinet. According to Simon, "Willie's tone and way of playing provided a fullness and richness so distinctive that none of the later Miller imitators could ever accurately reproduce the Miller sound." With this new sound combination, Glenn Miller found a way to differentiate his band's style from the many bands that existed in the late thirties. Miller talked about his style in the May 1939 issue of Metronome magazine. "You'll notice today some bands use the same trick on every introduction; others repeat the same musical phrase as a modulation into a vocal ... We're fortunate in that our style doesn't limit us to stereotyped intros, modulations, first choruses, endings or even trick rhythms. The fifth sax, playing clarinet most of the time, lets you know whose band you're listening to. And that's about all there is to it."
In September 1938, the Miller band began making recordings for the RCA Victor subsidiary Bluebird Records. Cy Shribman, a prominent East Coast businessman, began financing the band, providing a much needed infusion of cash. In the spring of 1939, the band's fortunes improved with a date at the Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and more dramatically at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. The Glen Island date according to author Gunther Schuller attracted "a record breaking opening night crowd of 1800..." With the Glen Island date, the band began a huge rise in popularity. In 1939, Time magazine noted: "Of the twelve to 24 discs in each of today's 300,000 U.S. jukeboxes, from two to six are usually Glenn Miller's." There were record-breaking recordings such as "Tuxedo Junction", which sold 115,000 copies in the first week. Miller's huge success in 1939 culminated with his band appearing at Carnegie Hall on October 6, with Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, and Fred Waring also the main attractions.
In 2004, Miller orchestra bassist Herman "Trigger" Alpert explained the band's success: "Miller had America's music pulse ... He knew what would please the listeners." Although Miller had massive popularity, many jazz critics of the time had misgivings. They believed that the band's endless rehearsals—and, according to critic Amy Lee in Metronome magazine, "letter-perfect playing"—diminished any feeling from performances. They also felt that Miller's brand of swing shifted popular music away from the "hot jazz" bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, and toward commercial novelty instrumentals and vocal numbers. For years, even after Miller died, the Miller estate maintained an unfriendly stance toward critics that derided the band during Miller's lifetime.Miller was often criticized for being too commercial. His answer to the criticism was, "I don't want a jazz band." Many modern jazz critics still harbor similar antipathy toward Miller. Jazz critics Gunther Schuller (1991) and Gary Giddins (2004) have separately defended the Miller orchestra for whatever deficiencies earlier critics have found. In an article written for The New Yorker in 2004, Gary Giddins says he feels that these early critics erred in denigrating Miller's music, and that the popular opinion of the time should hold greater sway. The article states: "Miller exuded little warmth on or off the bandstand, but once the band struck up its theme, audiences were done for: throats clutched, eyes softened. Can any other record match 'Moonlight Serenade' for its ability to induce a Pavlovian slaver in so many for so long?" Schuller, notes, "[The Miller sound] was nevertheless very special and able to penetrate our collective awareness that few other sounds have..." He compares it partially to "Japanese Gagaku[and] Hindu music" in its purity. Schuller and Giddins do not take completely uncritical approaches to Miller. Schuller says that Ray Eberle's "lumpy, sexless vocalizing dragged down many an otherwise passable performance." However finally Schuller notes: "How much further [Miller's] musical and financial ambitions might have carried him must forever remain conjectural. That it would have been significant, whatever form(s) it might have taken, is not unlikely."
Louis Armstrong thought enough of Miller to carry around his recordings, transferred to seven-inch tape reels when he went on tour. "[Armstrong] liked musicians who prized melody, and his selections ranged from Glenn Miller to Jelly Roll Morton to Tchaikovsky." Jazz pianist George Shearing's quintet of the 1950s and 1960s was influenced by Miller: "with Shearing'slocked hands style piano (influenced by the voicing of Miller's saxophone section) in the middle [of the quintet's harmonies]". Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé held the orchestra in high regard. Tormé credited Miller with giving him helpful advice when he first started his singing and song-writing career in the 1940s. Mel Tormé met Glenn Miller in 1942, the meeting facilitated by Tormé's father and Ben Pollack. Tormé and Miller discussed "That Old Black Magic", which was just emerging as a new song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Miller told Tormé to pick up every song by Mercer and study it and to become a voracious reader of anything he could find, because "all good lyric writers are great readers." In an interview with George T. Simon in 1948, Sinatra lamented the inferior quality of music he was recording in the late forties, in comparison with "those great Glenn Miller things" from eight years earlier. With opposite opinion, fellow bandleader Artie Shaw frequently disparaged the band after Miller's death: "All I can say is that Glenn should have lived, and 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' should have died." Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco surprised many people when he led the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the late sixties and early seventies. De Franco was already a veteran of bands like Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. He was also a major exponent of modern jazz in the 1950s. He never saw Miller as leading a swinging jazz band, but DeFranco is extremely fond of certain aspects of the Glenn Miller style. "I found that when I opened with the sound of 'Moonlight Serenade', I could look around and see men and women weeping as the music carried them back to years gone by." De Franco says, "the beauty of Glenn Miller's ballads [...] caused people to dance together."
In 1942, at the peak of his civilian career, Miller decided to join the war effort, forsaking an income of $15,000 to $20,000 per week in civilian life. At 38, Miller was too old to be drafted and first volunteered for the Navy but was told that they did not need his services. Miller then wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young. He persuaded the United States Army to accept him so he could, in his own words, "be placed in charge of a modernized Army band". After being accepted into the Army, Miller's civilian band played its last concert in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 27, 1942. His patriotic intention of entertaining the Allied Forces with the fusion of virtuosity and dance rhythms in his music earned him the rank of captain and he was soon promoted to major by August 1944.
At first placed in the United States Army, Miller was transferred to the Army Air Forces. Captain Glenn Miller served initially as assistant special services officer for the Army Air Forces Southeast Training Center at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1942. He played trombone with the Rhythmaires, a 15-piece dance band, in both Montgomery and in service clubs and recreation halls on Maxwell. Miller also appeared on both WAPI (Birmingham, Alabama) and WSFA radio (Montgomery), promoting the activities of civil service women aircraft mechanics employed at Maxwell.
Miller initially formed a large marching band that was to be the core of a network of service orchestras. His attempts at modernizing military music were met with some resistance from tradition-minded career officers, but Miller's fame and support from other senior leaders allowed him to continue. For example, Miller's arrangement of "St. Louis Blues March", combined blues and jazz with the traditional military march. Miller's weekly radio broadcast "I Sustain the Wings", for which he co-wrote the eponymous theme song, moved from New Haven to New York City and was very popular. This led to permission for Miller to form his 50-piece Army Air Force Band and take it to England in the summer of 1944, where he gave 800 performances. While in England, now Major Miller recorded a series of records at EMI owned Abbey Road Studios. EMI at this time was the British and European distributor for RCA Victor. The recordings the AAF band made in 1944 at Abbey Road were propaganda broadcasts for the Office of War Information. Many songs are sung in German by Johnny Desmond and Glenn Miller speaks in German about the war effort. Before Miller's disappearance, his music was used by World War II AFN radio broadcasting for entertainment and morale as well as counter-propaganda to denounce fascist oppression in Europe with even Miller once stating on radio:
"America means freedom and there's no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music."
There were also the Miller-led AAF Orchestra-recorded songs with American singer Dinah Shore. These were done at the Abbey Road studios and were the last recorded songs made by the band while being led by Miller. They were stored with HMV/EMI for fifty years, never being released until their copyright expired in Europe in 1994. In summarizing Miller's military career, General Jimmy Doolittle said, "next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations."
A 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune reported that, despite many theories that had been proposed, Miller's plane crashed because it had a faulty carburetor. The plane's engine had a type of carburetor that was known to be defective in cold weather and had a history of causing crashes in other aircraft by icing up. The theory that the plane was hit by a bomb jettisoned by Allied planes returning from an aborted bombing raid on Germany is discredited by the log of a plane-spotter that implies that the plane was heading in a direction that would avoid the zone where such bombs were jettisoned.
When Miller disappeared, he left behind his wife, the former Helen Burger, originally from Boulder, Colorado, and the two children they had adopted in 1943 and 1944, Steven and Jonnie. In February 1945, Helen Miller accepted the Bronze Star medal for Miller.
The Miller estate authorized an official Glenn Miller "ghost band" in 1946. This band was led by Tex Beneke, former tenor saxophonist and a singer for the civilian band. It had a makeup similar to the Army Air Force Band: it had a large string section. The orchestra's official public début was at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway where it opened for a three-week engagement on January 24, 1946.Future television and film composer Henry Mancini was the band's pianist and one of the arrangers. This ghost band played to very large audiences all across the United States, including a few dates at the Hollywood Palladium in 1947, where the original Miller band played in 1941. In a website concerning the history of the Hollywood Palladium, it is noted "[e]ven as the big band era faded, the Tex Beneke and Glenn Miller Orchestra concert at the Palladium resulted in a record-breaking crowd of 6,750 dancers." By 1949, economics dictated that the string section be dropped. This band recorded for RCA Victor, just as the original Miller band did.Beneke was struggling with how to expand the Miller sound and also how to achieve success under his own name. What began as the "Glenn Miller Orchestra Under the Direction of Tex Beneke" finally became "The Tex Beneke Orchestra". By 1950, Beneke and the Miller estate parted ways. The break was acrimonious and Beneke is not currently listed by the Miller estate as a former leader of the Glenn Miller orchestra.
When Glenn Miller was alive, various bandleaders like Bob Chester imitated his style. By the early 1950s, various bands were again copying the Miller style of clarinet-led reeds and muted trumpets, notably Ralph Flanagan, Jerry Gray, and Ray Anthony. This, coupled with the success of The Glenn Miller Story (1953), led the Miller estate to ask Ray McKinley to lead a new ghost band. This 1956 band is the original version of the current ghost band that still tours the United States today. The official Glenn Miller orchestra for the United States is currently under the direction of Nick Hilscher. The officially sanctioned Glenn Miller Orchestra for the United Kingdom has toured and recorded under the leadership of Ray McVay. The official Glenn Miller Orchestra for Europe has been led by Wil Salden since 1990.
In the mid-1940s, after Miller's disappearance, the Miller-led Army Air Force band was decommissioned and sent back to the United States. "The chief of the European theater asked [Warrant Officer Harold Lindsay] Lin [Arinson] to put together another band to take its place, and that's when the 314 was formed." According to singer Tony Bennett who sang with it while in the service, the 314 was the immediate successor to the Glenn Miller led AAF orchestra. The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band's long-term legacy has carried on with the Airmen of Note, a band within the United States Air Force Band. This band was created in 1950 from smaller groups within the Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and continues to play jazz music for the Air Force community and the general public. The legacy also continues through The United States Air Forces in Europe Band, stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Every summer since 1996, the city of Fort Morgan, Colorado, has hosted a public event called the Glenn Miller SwingFest. Miller graduated from Fort Morgan High School where he played football and formed his own band with classmates. Events include musical performances and swing dancing, community picnics, lectures and fundraising for scholarships to attend The School for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit dance, voice, piano, percussion, guitar, violin, and drama studio program in Fort Morgan. Each year, about 2,000 people attend this summer festival, which serves to introduce younger generations to the music Miller made famous, as well as the style of dance and dress popular in the big-band era.
Glenn Miller's widow, Helen, died in 1966. Herb Miller, Glenn Miller's brother, led his own band in the United States and England until the late 1980s. In 1989, Glenn Miller's daughter Jonnie purchased her father's house where he was born. The Glenn Miller Foundation was created to oversee the subsequent restoration. In 1953, Universal-International pictures released The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart. In 1957, a new student Union Building was completed on the Boulder Campus and the new Ballroom was named "The Glenn Miller Ballroom". In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Glenn Miller postage stamp.
In the United States and England, there are a few archives that are devoted to Glenn Miller. The University of Colorado, Boulder, has an extensive Glenn Miller Archive that not only houses many of Miller's recordings, gold records and other memorabilia, but also is open to scholarly research and the general public. This archive, formed by Alan Cass, includes the original manuscript to Miller's theme song, "Moonlight Serenade", among other items of interest. In 2002, the Glenn Miller Museum opened to the public at the former RAF Twinwood Farm, in Clapham, Bedfordshire, England. Miller's surname resides on the "Wall of Missing" at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. There is a burial plot and headstone for Major Glenn Miller in Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, D.C. A monument stone was also placed in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, next to the campus of Yale University. Miller was awarded a Star for Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. The headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe Band at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is named Glenn Miller Hall.
Miller had a staff of arrangers who wrote originals like "String of Pearls" (written and arranged by Jerry Gray) or took originals like "In The Mood" (writing credit given to Joe Garland)and arranged by Eddie Durham) and "Tuxedo Junction" (written by bandleader Erskine Hawkins and arranged by Jerry Gray) and arranged them for the Miller band to either record or broadcast. Glenn Miller's staff of arrangers in his civilian band, who handled the bulk of the work, were Jerry Gray (a former arranger for Artie Shaw), Bill Finegan (a former arranger for Tommy Dorsey), Billy May and to a much smaller extent, George Williams, who worked very briefly with the band as well as Andrews Sisters arranger Vic SchoenAccording to Norman Leyden, "[s]everal others [besides Leyden] arranged for Miller in the service, including Jerry Gray, Ralph Wilkinson, Mel Powell, and Steve Steck." In 1943, Glenn Miller wrote Glenn Miller's Method for Orchestral Arranging, published by the Mutual Music Society in New York, a one hundred sixteen page book with illustrations and scores that explains how he wrote his musical arrangements.
Miller composed individually or in collaboration with others at least fourteen songs that are available on recordings. He added lyrics to an additional tune. These and many other songs were recorded by Miller with his pre-war civilian bands and his Army Air Force band.
Many of the Miller musicians went on to studio and touring careers in Hollywood and New York after World War II. Musicians who went from the Miller bands to important reputations afterwards include:
Kay Starr (born 1922) became a pop, jazz and country singer in the post-war period. In 1939, Marion Hutton, the regular "girl singer", became sick and sixteen-year-old Kay Starr was flown in to replace her. Kay Starr's two recordings with Glenn Miller were two 1939 sides, "Baby Me" and "Love With a Capital You".
Artie Malvin (1922–2006), the baritone of the four-man vocal quartet The Crew Chiefs in Glenn Miller's AAF Band. After World War II and Miller's death, Malvin became heavily immersed in the popular music of the forties and fifties, being involved in everything from children's music to the nascent beginnings of rock to jingles for commercials. By the 1970s Artie Malvin was involved with The Carol Burnett Show, doing special musical material.
Some of the Army Air Force members went on to notable careers in classical music and modern jazz. Three such are:
Norman Leyden (1917–2014), an arranger from the Army Air Force Band later became a noted arranger in New York, composing arrangements for Sarah Vaughan, among other artists. His long career culminated with his highly regarded work for the Oregon Symphony, now as Laureate Associate Conductor.
Mel Powell (1923–1998) was the pianist and one of the arrangers in the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Gary Giddins comments on "[Miller's] splendid forty-two-piece Army Air Force Band's startling performance of 'Mission to Moscow.'" "Mission to Moscow" was arranged by Mel Powell, the former pianist for the Benny Goodman orchestra before he was drafted into the service and subsequently joined the Miller orchestra. "Pearls on Velvet" with the Air Force Band is also one of his compositions. "In 1949, he decided on a radical change of direction, setting aside jazz and enrolling as a pupil of the composer and teacher Paul Hindemith at Yale University." Powell started teaching at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1969. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1990 and was the founding dean of the music department at the CalArts.
George T. Simon (1912–2001) knew and worked with Glenn Miller from his early sideman days to the days of leading his civilian band and finally, worked with him when he was stateside with the Army Air Force band. Simon was a drummer for some of the Miller bands. He helped his friend Glenn Miller with personnel using the connections that Simon had as editor with the now defunct Metronome magazine. George Simon wrote the liner notes for eleven Miller reissues, among them: Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band, 1955, Glenn Miller On The Air, 1963, and Glenn Miller: A Legendary Performer, 1974. During a long career, he also wrote articles with topics ranging from Miller and Frank Sinatra to Thelonious Monk. In 1974, Simon won a Grammy award for his liner notes for the RCA record: Bing Crosby: A Legendary Performer.
Miller was a close friend of actor Harry Morgan. When Miller died in 1944, Morgan made sure that Glenn's wife was looked after. He, along with George Montgomery and Gene Krupaworked to keep Miller's memory alive.
Glenn Miller had three recordings that were posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."