15
Oct
09

The Glenn Miller Orchestra: America’s Musical Time Machine…

I found out late that the Official Glenn Miller Orchestra was to play for veterans at Toledo’s Stranahan Theater on this past Wednesday.  I had not had a chance to see the band in close to 10 years.  I had however placed a call to the band’s office several years back requesting Larry O’Brien, the Musical Director’s help in finding someone to refurbish my vintage 1938 King 2B trombone. 

Larry indeed did call me while in a hotel somewhere on the road.  He offered some advice, and I wanted to drop by to say hello and thank him for his kindness.  Of course Mr. O’Brien didn’t recall the conversation, and we had only met once before 10 years ago, but he was very kind, and offered to allow me to hang out backstage during his performance.

I was supposed to be working, but spoke to my boss who was gracious about letting me have the afternoon free to go see the band.  She is a wonderful person too.

So I ran home and grabbed my camera, got into a more comfortable shirt, and off to the theater.

I watched Mr. O’Brien put the band through its paces during the sound check.  He was calm and relaxed, and yet very deliberate in giving direction of how the band should be playing.  He is neither bossy, not mean, but rather very kind and respectful when issuing the directives.  He understands his musicians are people.  There was absolutely none of the “Band Leader mentality” that has been written of Benny Goodman and “The Ray” (A glare Goodman used with underperforming musicians.), or the military discipline of the orchestra’s namesake leader, Glenn Miller.

At the end of the rehearsal, Mr. O’Brien gave everyone a list of songs to pull out of the thick and overwhelming orchestra music books.  He introduced to the band an Alto Saxophone player from Detroit who was subbing for their own regular guy who had gone home sick. Last he thanked the orchestra members for their time and work.

At 2pm the band was introduced and the members piled on stage to their respective spots on the bandstand.  Larry O’ Brien entered the stage after the applause died down for the band members.  More applause for the “conductor”.  Then the band was off and running.

The saxes rise and play the Glenn Miller sounds of "Moonlight Serenade" as Larry O'Brien conducts.

The saxes rise and play the Glenn Miller sounds of "Moonlight Serenade" as Larry O'Brien conducts.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra has many incarnations over the years.  Immediately following World War II, Tex Beneke, star saxophonist and vocalist lead the band until a break-up with the Miller Estate.  The band lay dormant for several years until old friend and Miller colleague, as well as the man who fronted the USAAF Orchestra following Major Glenn Miller’s disappearance over the English Channel, was tapped to lead the band.  Than man was drummer Ray McKinley.  He had perhaps one of the most swinging version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra through the years.  Ray played great time on drums, and swung like crazy.  The band followed. 

After 10 years Ray settled down, and the Baton was passed to clarinetist Buddy DeFranco on the premise of the clarinet lead, he would be a good fit.  For a while, former Miller USAAF Orchestra clarinetist Peanuts Hucko led the band, Buddy Morrow did a stint before taking the reins of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the late 70’s, and that brought in trombonist Larry O’Brien.

Larry has always been a top notch trombonist, working in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra Jr., and many other headliners.  But Larry had also worked playing lead, and all the tough Tommy Dorsey trombone solo for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra directed by saxman Sam Donahue (who by the way also played trumpet, valve trombone, and all the reeds.)  Larry eventually worked for the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Ray McKinley.  This makes him uniquely qualified for his position as the current musical director.

Larry O'Brien is playing solo trombone on Johnny Mandel's "Easy to Love".

Larry O'Brien is playing solo trombone on Johnny Mandel's "Easy to Love".

 After the opening, Larry played four full tunes before addressing the audience.  FOUR!  Unheard of for most concerts, but this set the tone for the pace and flow of the show, which the leader has mastered.  One of my favorite pieces he played was Johnny Mandel’s “Easy to Love”.  It is a piece I’d been watching trombone great Bill Watrous play on You Tube the night before.  Larry played with great sensitivity…and his full broad, lush tone ringing in the hall was phenomenal on this lovely ballad. 

Larry is in a league with the likes of the greats such as Dick Nash, Buddy Morrow, Chauncey Welsch, Lloyd Ulyate, Joe Howard, Tommy Dorsey, and yes, dare I say Bill Watrous.  His high register ballad playing is unparalleled in today’s jazz scene.  He uses taste.  Vibrato as required.  And most importantly, as with the whole band, dynamics.  Something largely lost in today’s jazz and certainly in music as a whole.

Larry is no “baton swinging leader”!  He is always a man in motion!  He beats the songs off with crisp claps of his hands, and at the perfect tempo.  Constantly swinging his hips side to side (Which nearly got Elvis thrown off the television some years ago.), Larry taps a foot, make a face, or gives a look…and the band responds.  Only one other leader was able to do this so well, Count Basie.

Mr. O’Brien rolls side to side, and plays along whenever he feels the need!

The photo shows "the man in motion" fronting the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

The photo shows "the man in motion" fronting the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Larry also insists on showmanship, as did Glenn Miller.  Miller always liked the way the great Jimmy Lunceford’s band played and threw their horns in the air, twirling trumpets, and derby hats waving in front of the brass section bells.  This kind of showmanship has diminished, yet is synonymous with the Big Band Era!  The leaders were super heros, the sidemen were kept track of by fans like baseball players.  Who left whom to go to where, and is playing with what band now.

This band still does the gymnastics of old, making a Catholic Funeral Mass seem like a leisurely walk in the park!  UP! DOWN, SWING LEFT, SWING RIGHT!

Sitting in their seat, the trombone section is about to get their workout!

Sitting in their seat, the trombone section is about to get their workout!

Upsy...daisy...gentlemen!

Upsy...daisy...gentlemen!

Look out saxes...here we come!!

Look out saxes...here we come!!

The momentum of the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s presentation has never been better.  Always moving forward.  Larry still talks to the audience, but the commentary is brief, but very pertinent to the music being played.  The the next song begins…and were moving along again.

Larry at the mic, taking another solo on the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn masterpiece "Chelsea Bridge".  This is a tour-de-force piece many trombonists have played through the years.

Larry at the mic, taking another solo on the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn masterpiece "Chelsea Bridge". This is a tour-de-force piece many trombonists have played through the years.

Above Larry is playing “Chelsea Bridge” from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn songbook.  This piece has been played by many trombonists over the years.  Bill Tole with the USAF Airmen of Note, an extension of the USAAF Orchestra Glenn Miller led during WWII.  A beautiful ballad piece, Larry plays with buttery smoothness.  Duke would be so proud of his music when played by great musicians, as on this occasion.

The “Girl Singer” of the Miller Band is Julia Rich of Nashville, TN.  She has a wonderful southern draw, and a mastery of singing almost anything.  She does a wonderful job on the Miller Band, and has for a number of years.

Songbird Julia Rich solos at the mic, eliciting memories of great "Girl Singers" like Helen O'Connell, Helen Forrest, Bea Wain, Connie Haines, and Jo Stafford!

Songbird Julia Rich solos at the mic, eliciting memories of great "Girl Singers" like Helen O'Connell, Helen Forrest, Bea Wain, Connie Haines, and Jo Stafford!

 Of late…the Glenn Miller Orchestra has been pulling out arrangements that have not been heard in many years.  On this occasion the tune was a surprise to even me.  The tune was originally played by the Will Bradley – Ray McKinley Orchestra around 1939 or so when their band was heavy into the Boogie Woogie sound with Freddie Slack’s deft piano playing.  Miller was not adverse to putting his spin on a novelty tune.  The tune was sung by Tex Beneke and the Modernairs originally.  This time sung by the Moonlight Serenaders. “Booglie Wooglie Piggy” is back in the band’s repetoir.

The Moonlight Serenaders singing "The Boogily Woogily Piggy", a great novelty tune.

The Moonlight Serenaders singing "The Boogily Woogily Piggy", a great novelty tune.

During intermission Mr. O’Brien was kind enough to sign the bell of my 1950’s vintage Getzen Super Deluxe trombone, along side Buddy Morrow’s signature.  We took the photo below, and his lovely wife offered to have me sit with her near the front of the stage for the second set.

DSC00820

 

Larry and his lovely wife Judy, who travels with the band.

Larry and his lovely wife Judy, who travels with the band.

On the second set, after thanking the sound man, the ushers, and the audience, Larry explained that this orchestra was an acoustic orchestra.  He asked the sound man to shut off all the mics, and launched into “Danny Boy/Londonderry Aire”.  Again, with the beautiful flugelhorn opening by the lead trumpeter, Ashley Hall, the band set about adding a soft tone with brass and saxes on this lovely old folk tune.  The solo originally played by Glenn Miller was played impeccably by Mr. O’Brien, showing his beautiful tone and fluid sound.  He wow-ed the audience with his mastery of circular breathing (Inhaling air from thecorners of the mouth, while still playing the instrument.  very difficult!) by holding and sustaining the last notes for seemingly minutes.
 
Being a sentimental slob that I am, I may have shed a tear or two at this point.  It was simply pure, and wonderful, and beautiful.  No amplification.  You could have heard a pin drop.  For me, this was the best of any playing a big band could do.
 
The band lunched into the old familiar “In the Mood”, a tune made famous by Miller.  It started life before Miller with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra under the name “Tar Paper Stomp” running some 7 minutes long.  Then Charlie Barnet and his Orchestra took a swing at it…but to no avail.  Miller being an arranger chopped out the “bad parts” to make “In the Mood” a big band staple.
 
Then off to the band’s theme “Moonlight Serenade” and two encore tunes for the crowd of veterans and their families.
 
The show moved forward at all times.  The band played with amazing dynamics, and at 77 years young, Larry O’Brien is daily giving young well trained musicians life lessons in music.  He has more energy than 3/4 of the band I suspect.  An amazing trombonist, leader, and orchestra…keeping the Music in the Miller Manner alive and strong.
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2 Responses to “The Glenn Miller Orchestra: America’s Musical Time Machine…”


  1. 1 John Cooper, LA, CA, USA
    October 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Very nice article and photos!

    “On this occasion the tune was a surprise to even me. The tune was played by the Will Bradley – Ray McKinley Orchestra around 1939 or so when their band was heavy into the Boogie Woogie sound with Freddie Slack’s deft piano playing.”

    What tune? Booglie Woogie Piggy?

    • 2 conductorjonz
      October 16, 2009 at 7:59 pm

      Yes it was “Booglie Wooglie Piggy”. McKinley told me in an interview he wanted to continue the Boogie Woogie “wave, but Will Bradley, an extrodinary trombonist, wanted to emphasis to be more on his ballad playing. Thus the Bradley – McKinley band met it demise.

      Thanks for checking in!


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