Death can be a good career move

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The Independent Online

All during the fuss over the manner of Alistair Cooke's departure from the airwaves, there has, by quite a coincidence, been a succession of radio programmes devoted to someone whose departure was stage-managed by Providence in a way which could not be improved upon, namely the late Major Glenn Miller.

Glenn Miller was born 100 years ago this month. Sixty years ago he vanished on a wartime flight over the Channel. In Gore Vidal's memorable phrase, his death at 40 was a good career move. His suave, swinging dance band style was at the height of its popularity when he vanished dramatically and heroically. If he had lived another 10, 20, 30, years, his popularity would surely have ebbed as the wartime sounds became dated. He would never have been portrayed in a film by James Stewart. But by dying in 1944, he ensured that his sound became an evergreen memory.

For everyone, that is, oddly, except for the jazz musicians who played for him. Because Glenn Miller came from the jazz world, it seems natural to broadcasters to turn to jazz people to pay him tribute, but jazz people have seldom had a kind word for Glenn Miller. It's like asking a bunch of novelists to pay tribute to Jeffrey Archer.

On Radio 3, for instance, Geoffrey Smith was talking to veteran American trombonist Nat Peck about Peck's memories of playing with Glenn Miller, and you could tell that for him it had been a completely uninspiring time, a treadmill of dreary dances, travelling and tedium. He had got sick of all Miller's tunes, he said. No-one in the band got much of a chance to improvise... Try as he might to remember his time with Miller in a golden glow, it came across more as a terrible endless package holiday.

He might have been gentler if Miller had been a more popular leader or a better musician. It isn't necessarily the job of a leader to be popular, but it is surprising how many of them were so disliked. The saxophonist Zoot Sims joined Benny Goodman's band for a tour of the Soviet Union, back in Cold War days, and someone asked him afterward what life was like in the USSR. "Look," he said, "Every job with Benny is like living in the USSR..."

Goodman may have been a nasty guy to work for, but at least he was a virtuoso. Glenn Miller was barely a competent trombonist and a dull soloist. But this is a perennial pattern. When I lived in London I used to play in an occasional jazz group in which most of us were writers or actors. One day the normal pianist was missing, and our amiable but erratic saxophonist leader found a real musician to replace him for one day only (I think he was the regular pianist with the Temperance Seven). During the first break the new boy said to me, sotto voce, "Isn't it amazing how the leader of the band is always the worst musician in it?"

There is a lot in this. Some bandleaders were obviously virtuosi, but quite often the front man of the band IS the worst player in it, as Glenn Miller was and Woody Herman was, and sometimes they were wise enough not to play anything at all, like Jimmy Lunceford, or Henry Hall, or ex-trombonist Ted Heath, or Joe Loss . . . They may have been the best organisers in the band, or PR men, or accountants, but musicians?

That explains, possibly, why Al Klink said what he did when asked to sum up Glenn Miller. Al Klink was, along with Tex Beneke, Glenn Miller's featured tenor saxophonist. He was there through the glory years. You can hear him on records like "In The Mood". He helped to bear the brunt of it all. And years later, when asked to encapsulate the Miller sound, Klink said: "Well, all in all, it might have been better if the man had lived, and his music had died."

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