The challenges of keeping a big band together; Glenn Miller Orchestra relives memories . . . 50 weeks a year
Hempstead, N.Y. — The bandstand was set up at the end of a vast asphalt parking lot next to a playground. By as early as 6:30 p.m. a few people had set up lawn chairs front and center to get a good view of the band. And by 8 p.m., as bandleader Larry O'Brien gave the down beat for the opening theme, the lot had been transformed into a veritable sea of faces, eagerly waiting to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
As the evening progressed, it was clear that they got what they wanted. Those who remembered when Miller himself was around smiled with satisfaction as the band launched into old favorites like ''Tuxedo Junction,'' ''String of Pearls,'' ''Pennsylvania 6-5000,'' and, naturally, Miller's famous theme, ''Moonlight Serenade.''
Vocalists Colleen Miller (no relation) and Gary Martin and the Moonlight Serenaders (patterned after the Modernaires of Miller's day) sang faithful renditions of tunes like ''Someone to Watch Over Me,'' ''Serenade in Blue,'' and ''Kalamazoo.'' Before the first set was finished, dancers had popped up all over the parking lot, in the aisles, along the sides, and in front of the bandstand.
''You almost have to dance to this music!'' O'Brien said. Larry has been directing the band for about a year now, succeeding Jimmy Henderson, who took over the leadership from Buddy Morrow. Other leaders of the Glenn Miller Orchestra have been Ray McKinley -- who was its first director when the band was formed again 12 years after Miller's disappearance during World War II on a flight between England and France -- and clarinetists Buddy DeFranco and Peanuts Hucko. Larry has spent most of his life playing trombone in bands, and this is not his first experience in the Miller band, either -- he played for a short time 20 years ago under Ray McKinley.
''I consider myself primarily an instrumentalist,'' he says. ''I wouldn't take a job where I couldn't play.'' At this outdoor concert, he played several fine solos, among which was a lovely ballad entitled ''Red Bamboo,'' which he dedicated to his father, who was sitting in the audience.
O'Brien takes his leadership seriously. ''I'm responsible for the musical integrity of the band -- that's my main job. I had played under McKinley and I had a strong feeling that the Miller music should be played as Glenn played it. Whenever it will fit, we try to use the Miller style -- the clarinet-tenor lead, the doo-wop brass, and all of that. I think when you have something that's a winner that you should stick with it, and not be subject to the whims of any current fad that comes along.''
Even though there is what O'Brien calls a big-band ''mini-revival'' going on, things are definitely a different kettle of fish than they were back in the '30s and '40s when the big band was king. Not only is it hard to find places to play, but, as O'Brien pointed out, ''There are no new bands coming up. Count Basie, Woody Herman -- they're all getting on in years.''
Despite the problems of keeping a big band working, the Miller band enjoys tremendous popularity and manages to do 50 weeks of one-nighters every year. This is great for the Miller image, but, once again, it's no easy task to keep a large group together -- perhaps even more difficult now than it was back in the big-band era. Life on the road is a hard row to hoe for many of the players who join the band.
Asked if there was much turnover in the band, Larry answered, ''Yes -- more than I'd like, more than I care to even talk about. It's a sign of the times. People are hopping around to different jobs like crazy. People don't stay on one job for more than two or three years. And not only that, this is a hard existence. Some people can take it, some can't.''
Road manager Dick Gerhart, who has been with the band 14 years, playing tenor sax as well as taking care of the business end of things, added, ''We try to hire good players, but it takes a couple of months to get them in the chair the way you want them, and you never know how the road is going to agree with them. We do 50 weeks a year -- it's very difficult. So you enjoy them while you have them - that's about all you can do.''
Referring to the leadership of the Miller band as ''a formidable challenge,'' O'Brien said he sometimes finds the band members, whose average age is 24, a bit of a problem. ''Kids have no manners nowadays,'' he complains. So he keeps a tight rein and is strict, expecting courtesy and good behavior from the musicians under his direction.
But the kind of dedication he feels, both to the band itself and to the music Glenn Miller made famous, is not always matched by the younger members, who sometimes have quite different reasons for joining up. One player said: ''Guys come on and stay on as long as they feel they have to to get something out of it. They want to tour Japan, or make a record, or make connections with other bands. We're paying dues. We're here to learn things, but it's not like when Glenn Miller had the band. That was the music they wanted to play. That was their music, but with us, it's a nostalgia trip, it's something you can learn something from.''
Several members complained that the pay is too low, and trumpeter Joe Rodriguez, who had been with the band for seven weeks, was especially vocal about this:
''It's low pay, and hard hours.'' He added that he dislikes traveling on the bus, but said he wants to stay until after the Japan tour in February. ''What makes it worthwhile are the other players. They are excellent musicians.''
But most of the musicians seem content with their lot -- several have played with the band before and have come back for another go-round, and some are college students who want to return to their studies. Others expressed appreciation for O'Brien -- his musicianship, and his faithfulness to Glenn Miller's music. Groaned one member who had played under a former leader, ''Then we had disco versions of 'String of Pearls' and 'In the Mood!' ''