The World Famous, Glenn Miller Orchestra, is the most popular and sought after big band in the world today for both concert and swing dance engagements. (Wikipedia)
Leading the legendary Glenn Miller Orchestra into the 21st century was no small task for music director Larry O'Brien. The accomplished classical and jazz trombonist, a native New Yorker and a big-band mainstay with the Dunes Hotel's Casino de Paris Orchestra in Las Vegas, has been playing in the shadow of music icon Glenn Miller since 1981. Now, the 77-year-old band leader says, it's time to step down as the orchestra's music director.
At the end of the 2010 music season, O'Brien will retire to the island of Hawaii with his lovely wife Judy. But he's not bowing out without sharing a few memories about a fabulous life playing the great Glenn Miller songbook.
In the beginning, before Elvis, before the Beatles, before Michael Jackson, before Madonna-there was Glenn Miller.
For the younger generation not in tune with the Greatest Generation, Glenn Miller was the 1930s-40s equivalent of an international "rock star". But at the height of his career, while wearing a U.S. Army uniform during World War II, he perished in a tragic December 1944 airplane mishap over the English Channel. At the time, the musician was the enlisted music director of the U.S. Army Air Force Band.
On a foggy December night, Miller left a British airfield enroute to a USO show in France when-according to a recent theory-high-flying allied bombers jettisoned active dam-buster bombs to save fuel. The jettisoned bombs are believed, at least by the theory's proponents, to have hit Miller's plane causing the crash. For others, Miller's death is still a mystery, not unlike the disappearance of aviator Amelia Earhart.
Regarding Glenn Miller's artistic legacy, O'Brien says he's honored to keep the maestro's World War II-era music alive. The orchestra still plays original arrangements of "In the Mood", "Pennsylvania 6-5000", "Girl from Kalamazoo", "Moonlight Serenade", Tuxedo Junction", "String of Pearls", "Little Brown Jug", and dozens of other 1930s-40s jukebox hits.
"It's a tremendous responsibility," O'Brien said. "But I am happy to play the music of our Greatest Generation. Many forget that Glenn Miller's popularity was just tremendous in its day."
O'Brien was in Vermont earlier this summer for a special performance with the G.M. Orchestra We caught up with him between gigs.
In Vermont, O'Brien joined 19 other members of the orchestra to perform at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland. After the one-night stand, the big red G.M. Orchestra bus departed the Green Mountain State to points south, west, then back east again-to our region-earlier this week.
On Aug. 25, as a bookend to the Vermont performance, O'Brien and company appeared on stage in Lake Placid, N.Y. By O'Brien's rough calculations, it was his 7,425th public performance with the Glenn Miller Orchestra since 1981.
O'Brien has a direct link to Glenn Miller.
He first performed with the reactivated Miller band in the early 1960s, when Ray McKinley was the leader. McKinley served in Europe with Miller's Air Force band and then acted as its unofficial leader after Miller's death.
For the average person, the gruelling daily travel demands of a Glenn Miller musician are impossible to grasp. In fact, few band members lead normal lives, according to O'Brien, "You have to really dig the music." O'Brien remained single until, at age of 70, he finally met the woman of his dreams-Judy-on a cruise ship. Now he wants to settle down, content.
O'Brien is best known for bringing Glenn Miller's big band music into the digital-audio age with his outstanding performance on the classic album "In the Digital Mood".
The compact disc, now in a gold edition with accompanying photo-history booklet, remains in print; the album earned O'Brien a coveted Platinum Record-an award given to a performing artist for the sale of a million album units. The Platinum award was created after the Gold Record award was popular and as the industry saw the sales of individual singles and albums reach one million units.
"Except for a hiatus of two and half years, I have been on the road performing with the Glenn Miller orchestra since 1981," said O'Brien.
The current incarnation of the G.M. Orchestra began in 1956 after American silver screens lit up with actor James Stewart portraying Miller in the sentimental Hollywood hit "The Glenn Miller Story". The generation that sorely missed Miller's music demanded the orchestra's return to the spotlight. The Miller family approved and the rest is history.
Despite the fan attention the orchestra receives, big band music is in a long decline.
"Great singers like Sinatra, Bennett, Fitzgerald all had big bands behind them," O'Brien said. "But there aren't many great singers left. And losing this music will make us all the poorer. We're not enriching our culture when we cast off this rich heritage. We throw everything away in this nation-our music, bottles, cars, even wives."
It's not hard to be downbeat when it comes to the future of big band music. Yet O'Brien plugs on. He is an advocate for school music programs as a means to keep the genre alive. Many youngsters are exposed to band music in elementary and high school.
"Studies show that children enrolled in school music programs get better grades, are more likely to stay out of trouble, and are even more likely to attend college," he said. "But school music program budgets are being eliminated. It's sad."
O'Brien's retirement from the big band scene after nearly 50 years may not appear as bittersweet as it sounds. The music director's planned escape to Hawaii with his wife Judy may unconsciously call to mind the whimsical, original lyrics of "Little Brown Jug", the post-Civil War tavern song updated and popularized by Glenn Miller:
Me and my wife live all alone
In a little log hut we call our own;
Ha, ha, ha, you and me,
Little brown jug, 'tis you and me.
Check It Out: The Glenn Miller Orchestra is alive and well on the Internet at www.glennmillerorchestra.com and on Facebook. Along with the Platinum "In the Digital Mood" CD, music director Larry O'Brien has recorded other albums with the Big Band Express. Finding some of its most ardent fans in our region, the G.M. Orchestra will return to Vermont and New York's North Country under a new music director in 2011. Stay tuned.