The band that carries on Glenn Miller’s musical tradition is back in Lumberton playing their brassy, jazzy tunes that made him one of the most successful bandleaders of the big band swing era.
Larry O’Brien’s trombone leads the band now on a grueling tour that lasts 250 dates a year. The band will play Robeson Community College on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
At the height of his career in popular music where he popularized an orchestrated form of jazz played with a large band of musicians, Glenn Miller stopped touring and joined the war effort, starting a new band that traveled Europe during World War II. A man who had 23 records in the top 10 in 1942 gave it up to play trombone in a military band. He never saw the end of the war. On Dec. 15, 1944, he was flying to France to play for troops but the plane he was in never made it to its destination.
After a movie about his life, where Jimmy Stewart played his part, renewed interest in his music prompted his estate to allow a band to form to carry on his musical legacy in 1956. That band, which is still touring today, has been one of the busiest bands in show business, said O’Brien. At one point, the band was playing 300 dates a year.
“We try to keep true to the tradition of that band,” O’Brien said. “‘Little Brown Jug,’ ‘String of Pearls,’ you’ll hear all of those.”
The band still plays some of Miller’s biggest hits, but they also pull things out of the archives that Miller rarely played or that band members wrote and never performed. Some works were written for his band when it played with a symphony orchestra — an indication of how much jazz had changed from its early days of New Orleans style jazz and ragtime.
Jazz had already been through several shifts in style and substance when the swing era came around. Born from the blues, jazz had turned the music world on its ear by deconstructing the complicated musical notation of classical music and emphasizing improvisation.
Swing jazz was once the rock and roll of its day — pop music of the ’40s. It dominated radio airplay and replaced the orchestral music that was popular in earlier eras.
Glenn Miller’s sound used a large band of musicians with the freewheeling spirit of jazz, but lost some of its improvisational nature. Music and solos were composed rather than improvised. But, it created a danceable, commercial sound that took over the radio airwaves.
The jazz musicians “had people seeking their autographs just like the rock stars of today,” O’Brien said.
Although Glenn Miller’s Band enjoyed stunning success, it wasn’t everyone’s favorite.
“I listened to all of the bands of the big band era. Glenn wasn’t my favorite by any means,” O’Brien said. “Tommy Dorsey was. Glenn wasn’t as good a trombone player as Tommy. He had a good band too, but it was a little more commercial than Tommy’s was.”
You wouldn’t know it today though. O’Brien has been the musical director of the Glenn Miller Orchestra since 1988, a prime post for a trombone player.
O’Brien came from a musical family. After seeing a neighborhood friend’s son play the trombone, he took up the trombone when he got to high school.
“I could borrow an instrument from the school,” O’ Brien said. “You have to be pretty much grown to play it anyway.”
His talent was evident. Inside a year and a half, he was playing with the NY all city orchestra. He eventually landed the gig that has kept him playing trombone for the last 20 years. The job has taken him on an exhausting touring schedule, and the band spends time touring in Japan every year because of the demand for Miller’s music in that country.
“We’re in sold-out houses every night,” O’Brien said. “It’s a ghost band that doesn’t disappear and reappear.”
The band is touring with vocalists who sing some of the songs Miller wrote. They all pull double duty. Some are instrumentalists in the band, and one, Julia Rich, is the road manager. With their talents, the band manages to pull off a show that brings back another era.
“The songs that were sung were about love and romance and the good stuff in life,” O’Brien said. “I think people are looking for a little ray of sunshine wherever they can get it.”