In a funny way, Glenn Miller was more hip in his Army Air Force uniform than he’d ever been in a suit when leading his civilian band. Before he enlisted, he was the kind of guy who looked (in pictures) and sounded (on the radio) like a banker or a dull insurance salesman. And it hardly mattered because neither Miller nor his trombone playing was the main event. We all knew that. He was no virtuoso like Harry James on the trumpet or Benny and Artie on clarinet and never-ever could he compete as an instrumentalist with Tommy or Jimmy Dorsey. It was different. The gift of Glenn Miller was in his way of arranging those charts of his, like “Moonlight Serenade” and all the others. The band’s sound was defined by his arranging.
Anyway, that’s another reason why I ended up with goosebumps, a palpitating heart, and a dizzy spell on that Friday night. Because everything expected by me, and that audience in the RCA auditorium, well . . . everything was a surprise instead. I certainly never expected the show’s opener to be a red-hot, aggressive, brand-new arrangement of a tune that was four years old. But “Flying Home” was made new.
And the biggest surprise of all was that none of the predictable Miller tricks were in the chart. Not only did the band sound heavier, gutsier, freer, and way jazzier than Glenn’s civilian band ever did, it sounded more serious. Jesus, I hope that makes sense. I don’t mean serious like Mozart or Bach. I mean serious as in: Look out! When Miller counted off that opening number (and I’m not kidding: there was a peculiar something about the way that that guy, on the edge of being 40 or more, looked so suddenly hip in a military uniform, even though we all knew he was kind of a square from Iowa), there was no gradual introduction of anything. No one-at-a-time instrumental entries. No incremental introduction of themes or motifs. It was a monumental blast-blast-blast and a riff and a kick and a crash of the drummer’s cymbals that instantly raised high the roof, because everyone played all at once and not only at top volume. They also played with intense focus. They breathed together. Beautifully.
You gotta remember that with most of the charts by the bands of my era, you’d have a gradual accumulation of sounds. Things started a little bit at a time. All building up to the point where the whole band would play together at the end. But now it had all changed. Miller’s AAF version of “Flying Home” started out in fifth gear and it hit hard, right off the bat, and somehow managed to build from there. I wasn’t alone in reacting to this. You could tell from the whiplash way that folks looked at each other and from their instant clapping along and their howls and whistles that everyone’s batteries were being recharged. And the familiar melody—which after that blasting fanfare of an introduction came at us like a locomotive—allowed the sax section (without the predictable “clarinet lead”) to sink into a groove that was the musical equivalent of a hot bath, a cigarette drag, and sex.
And then this kid trumpet player—and I mean he was a kid: after the show, when I first met Jerry, he told me this kid trumpet player was only 19 years old—blew an extended solo that did more than cause other band members to shout; it also gave the audience permission to holler and wail and cheer him on. That focus. I could see it from my seat in the fourth row. The trumpet player did more than just concentrate, wholly commit and blow like a madman. He did his “proper breathing.”
His volume had a lot to do with it. The kid trumpet player, I mean. This skinny little guy was nothing to look at. His uniform was too big for him and even his trumpet seemed oversized. But the way he set himself . . . his focus . . . that stance he took, just a moment before he started to blow like Gabriel. He was really something. And his volume, like I was saying, that was key. After he took his first deep breath—and I could tell he knew what the hell he was doing because his shoulders did not rise up, but instead his elbows extended outwards a bit as he raised the horn to his chops, and I knew—I absolutely knew—that his gut was enlarging the right way.
Then the trumpet-playing kid cut through the whole damn auditorium with a tone and a volume and powerful solo as robust as the band at large. That had everything to do with why the crowd got crazy. It sounds exaggerated, I know. But the volume attained in that solo by Bobby Nichols (later that night, when I met Jerry and we took turns talking about all this, he told me the kid’s name; he’d already been written about in Metronome and DownBeat) was nothing like a typical horn solo in any of the bands. He set that place on fire, he did.
Within seconds I could see how he made it happen. His elbows gave him away. I knew as it happened that he was taking a proper deep breath before every four-bar phrase that he improvised and blew in his jazz solo. If you don’t know a thing about music and all that business about “bars” or “measures” (which are the same thing), something like this is no less effective. But it helped me to be able to see right away that the trumpet player’s deep-breathing pattern was the gateway to his pacing of the whole solo. And he started out hot and heavy and (like the arrangement itself) managed to dial it up and build and intensify his solo with each four-bar passage.
Behind the trumpet player’s wailing interval, the rhythm section just kept up a solid swinging pattern of support. And as a Swing Kid who’d spent the past several years with both ears glued to the radio and often with my eyes locked onto pages of both Metronome and DownBeat (those magazines were to our generation what Rolling Stone and Creem became for my son later on in the late 1960s and the 1970s), my excitement was enough to make me dizzy when I saw that in this hot new AAF Band there were players who towered above the OK-but-not-that-great players in Miller’s old-time civilian band. Right there, rocking the roof as Bobby Nichols improvised passage after passage of fiery swinging jazz, the rhythm section alone was stupefying: Mel Powell on piano was running lines and adding “fills” that he comped with total confidence, and why not? He’d become a star player in the 1941 Benny Goodman band, which was for a while as trailblazing and as innovative as the BG outfit that made history back in the 1930s. And right there, right in the moment paying close attention to the cadences and phrases that Bobby Nichols created on trumpet, drummer Ray McKinley kicked, accented, cymbal-crashed, and rebounded with much more drive and finesse than his predecessor ever did back in the Miller’s civilian band, which also made sense.
We all knew Ray McKinley from his years in Jimmy Dorsey’s band, which was steeped in everything from Dixieland to Swing. The drummer in Miller’s civilian band was mighty fine, but Ray McKinley took charge. And the same applied to the bassist. They nicknamed him “Trigger” for his chops. Anyway, speaking of chops—that’s a funny word in music circles; it means ability to play and how good or great or lousy you are (as in, “Gerry Mulligan’s got great chops on baritone sax,” but for horn players in particular, it also means their mouths) the other best thing about this gut-busting chart of “Flying Home” was that after Bobby Nichols ended his full two-chorus solo, the band and Mel Powell took over for a bit and each time the band finished roaring through a four-bar passage, Mel would come back at ‘em with four measures of jazzy piano. It was call-and-response time.
Then I looked behind me again. I mean, I could not see Mel’s hands at work on the keyboard; not from my seat and not from the way he was tucked back there in the rhythm section. So, as I heard his dizzying melodious riffs toward the end of the arrangement, I just naturally looked sideways and turned around and then laughed. There were more than a few couples making out. I mean it! And I laughed because this wasn’t a dark movie theater. This wasn’t a dive bar. The lights were not low. But the music was hot and the intensity of the performers set off a chain reaction. I thought I was seeing things at first, but I rubbernecked each time piano notes filled the air for a four-bar riff, and couples were smooching and making out all over the place. Most of them were couples with guys in uniform, so they got away with it.
And then I saw one unusually tall guy, standing alone. We looked at each other.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published by Heliotrope Books last October. He’s now completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)