Alton Glenn Miller grew up in Colorado. He briefly attended university there but did poorly in music. He soon appeared, however, with a well-known local band, the Boyd Senter Orchestra. By the mid-Twenties Miller gained valuable big-band experience in Ben Pollack?s group, where he showed a knack for arranging (he later identified Roger Wolfe Khan as an influence, particularly in Miller?s scoring for strings). He was a member of Red Nichols?s orchestra in 1930 and, because of Nichols, played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy, where his bandmates included Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. The consensus there was that Miller was no more than an average trombonist-an assessment that remained for the entirety of his career.
More valuable band experience followed, including with the Dorsey brothers in 1934. Miller studied music briefly with Joseph Schillinger in ?35 and, later that year, he helped Ray Noble to assemble a big band for an opening at the Rainbow Room. By ?37 Miller had assembled his own unit, and it recorded six sides for Decca, though he had little success with them or leading a dance band.
Miller tried again with an orchestra in 1938, adding Tex Beneke and Ray Eberle, and using arranger Bill Finegan. This began Miller?s recording association with Bluebird and, while his early sides for the label weren?t instant hits, within a year or so the group became one of the most popular dance bands in the country.
The big break for the Glenn Miller Orchestra was its gig at the Glen Island Casino in summer 1939. The New Rochelle, New York, venue was extremely popular with teenagers, and it broadcast its dance concerts frequently on radio. By the fall the band got Chesterfield cigarettes to sponsor regular broadcasts, while it continued to record for Bluebird, producing such huge hits as "Moonlight Serenade" and "In the Mood". The latter, arranged by (ex-Count Basie bandmember) Eddie Durham, was probably reprised by more dance bands than any other tune.
By 1940 Miller hired another arranger, Jerry Gray. With his pick of supporting talent of all kinds, his continuing to record for Bluebird and then for Victor ("Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "String of Pearls" in ?41, and "I?ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" in ?42), and his appearances in the next two years in Hollywood films, Miller had the most commercially successful big band in the US at the outset of the country?s entry in World War II.
While never becoming a showcase for great soloists, Miller?s band perfected a hard-driving sound, which the tough but fair-minded leader strove hard for. Still, patriotism compelled him to enlist in late 1942, when he was already thirty-eight years old. He was commissioned a captain in the Army Air Force, directing the bands for the Technical Training Command. By summer 1943 this band, forty-five members all tolled (with vocalists and classically-trained string players) was broadcasting, coast-to-coast, a weekly show titled I Sustain the Wings. Still, Miller wasn't satisfied until, a year after the broadcasts began, he got his overseas commission.
The Army Air Force Band arrived in London while the city was being buzzed by bombs. After insisting that the RAF move the band to Bedfordshire, Miller got the band ready to play for US troops stationed all over Great Britain. After some months of this, Miller was anxious for his band to play for the US servicemen stationed on the continent. A six-week tour was planned for the musicians, who would be stationed in Paris. On December 15 Miller decided to scout Paris before his band took up residence. When all local English air traffic was grounded due to foggy weather, Miller went ahead with an uncharted plane. He and his aircraft were never heard from after takeoff.
The Army Air Force band played, over the next six months, in hundreds of European venues of every description, with many of its performances broadcast, live or in transcription, to millions of soldiers throughout the European theater.