Glenn Miller’s Struggle With Something Special.
Glenn Miller was a trombonist. Only Glenn Miller isn’t remembered for being a trombonist, is he? He’s remembered for that special something that is the Glenn Miller Sound. He always had more success as an arranger than as a musician. Taking tunes that sounded dull and hackneyed, bringing them back to life. Adding a little pepper and spice – a little zeitgeist shall we say? Now Glenn was good at this, and had the ear of the Northerner – because northerners think in terms of neatly lined homes, tidy hearths and steady jobs. Okay, not the latter in Glenn’s case. These are archetypes, they are not hard and fast rules. Even northerners get to play outside the box sometimes.
Unlike Louis Armstrong who struggled with playing from the score, Glenn slipped into it like a ship being launched. He settled himself down and enjoyed himself. Only, not quite. There was always a nag at the back of his mind. Something that he was always trying to write down but could never quite grasp. Somehow the As soon as his pencil meets the paper it had gone. In band practice someone will play something whilst warming up and his ears prick.
Then it goes again.
Held for that fleeting moment.
All the time, Glenn is aware of its presence. Because this is Glenn’s Muse. It puts him diametrically opposite to Louis Armstrong in everything he does. Because Louis never lost touch with the Muse. Louis only ever had problems when he couldn’t tap into her mercurial power. They are opposites because Glenn can’t play solos, doesn’t like it, Louis can’t stop himself no matter how hard he tries. Only Louis can’t write it down, can’t ever play the same thing twice. Glenn can’t really play anything differently – only this means he can put music to paper. Nail the butterfly to the collection board.
In being opposites, they attract. In being opposites they can help one another – augment each other. Underpin the other’s weakness and thereby help each other define their strengths. Jazz musicians at the heights that Louis and Glenn played were not common. Everybody at that level knows each other. Knowing each other means they shared ideas without a doubt.
Catching That Fleeting Moment
Because poor old Glenn is having one hell of a time with his solos. When he leaves the sheet, it goes limp. The notes are soggy damp and misty. He struggles with the need to be new, simply can’t grasp how to keep the butterfly alive when it isn’t pinned to the score. Only being a northerner means that he is playing to people who would share his inability were they in the same place. What’s more, for some strange inflexion of reasoning, their very inability means they don’t even like it. Just as Glenn doesn’t like playing solos, his audience don’t like it either. The very thing that baffled Louis is Glenn’s way of thinking.
For by now Glenn has mastered his problem with his solos. The audience didn’t like them anyway! So he writes them down and learns them!
The critics are horrified.
The audience love it.
Each time the audience gets the music just as they like it: just as it was last time. Well in our days of MP3s and Youtube you might wonder that it could be anyway else. Only Louis Armstrong had the very opposite problem. He couldn’t imagine music being chained down in that way. With no small bitterness, he concedes to Glenn’s wisdom. Only being Louis, he does nothing by half measures.
The Surprise Of The Breakthrough.
In this dynamism of opposites, it is the quixotic immediacy of happenings that baffle Glenn. He is never ready to be surprised. By the time he’t aware that it’s happening, it’s gone again. He’s struggling to reach the very thing that Louis can’t seem to get shot of. As with all such struggles, the gift lies in the struggle, not the goal. Goals are fixed ideals that northerners like to play with. They arrive at their destination not quite knowing how they arrived there. Southerners are so absorbed in their journey that they forget where they’re going. So it is that in struggling, Glenn begins to grasp at moments. His band has five saxes, not four. Again, the critics are unhappy that he breaks the rules that others have established.
It sounds better that way!
It is the middle of a practice session, the band is swinging happily. Glenn is bothered about the sound the muted trumpets are making, it isn’t quite the sound he wants. He continues the struggle. He won’t get anywhere if he isn’t at least reasonably satisfied with the performance – and he kids love it anyway. No problem. Get on the stage and blow your stuff. Enjoy it, and they will too.
Still, it just ain’t quite right.
It’s that tiny something that is missing.
Isn’t it always the way? It is never much, it is always something. It’s that special something that makes Glenn Miller Glenn Miller and not Tommy Dorsey. In the stories the trumpeter bites his lip. He can’t play with that, can he? Glenn’s in a fix. Well he thinks, a clarinet is in B flat, can play straight from the same score.
“Willy, what do you think about taking the trumpet line with your clarinet?” Glenn asks.
Willy Schwarz sets down his sax, lifts his clarinet from its peg. Strolls over and takes the center stage and plays the riff he knows so well yet hasn’t ever played.
And it sounds – sounds – yes.
It sounds that little bit like a muted trumpet, only it isn’t.
It’s Glenn’s breakthrough moment.
The mellow yet penetrating tones of the reed have that needed edge. There is a wholly different timbre to the clarinet that fills in the spaces that the other instruments leave in his compositions. He need do nothing more, the clarinet is the perfect instrument to complete this struggle: Glenn Miller has his Sound. Postscript:
One tiny thing was all it took. It did take finding. Everyone has that somewhere, no matter how small it is, and that goes for you too. This took me days to work over, think about and do a few sketches. Then I wrote this in around half an hour. That is my special something: telling stories. With thanks to Christopher Popa for telling his story of Glenn Miller, where I pinched the gorgeous piccie too.