Bandleader Glenn Miller saw his band as an institution, something that would outlive him. Since his death 73 years ago on Dec. 15, 1944, Miller’s band has continued. Why? Because the band, at the insistence of the Glenn Miller estate, has kept its “signature sound.”
That signature sound will be on display Wednesday at the Fox Theater.
In most big bands, jazz or swing, the first trumpet player “leads” the band, carrying the melody. But in 1938, Miller solved the problem of how to stand out from the legions of competitors by having a clarinet play the lead.
That sound was first created by saxophonist Wilbur Schwartz, who doubled on clarinet. For the last 20 years, it’s been reed man Kevin Sheehan’s job.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan explained that Miller arranged the band with the clarinet on top, one of two tenor saxophones doubling that melody an octave below, and the three remaining saxophones set in close harmony in between the two. That signature sound led to such hits as “Moonlight Serenade,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “String of Pearls” and, of course, “In the Mood,” and propelled Miller’s band out of the pack to be the most successful band of the big band era.
There are actually four licensed Glenn Miller Orchestras: one in the United Kingdom, one in Scandinavia, one in mainland Europe, and the last, which is coming to Bakersfield, that performs everywhere else.
That band, led by singer Nick Hilscher, currently plays between 200-220 shows a year, and shows no sign of slowing down. This is in large part because with or without Miller and any of the original band members — all of whom are long departed — the band still has that signature sound, which rests so strongly on that lead clarinet.
“The Miller sound is so distinct,” Sheehan said. “To emulate that style — the phrasing, vibrato, dynamics, etc., I had to study the way things were played at the time.”
Many musicians have said it is impossible to capture Schwartz’s sound, but Sheehan, who just celebrated his 20th year with the band, said he has worked hard to get there.
“When I first started playing with the band, sometimes someone would come up to me and say, ‘You missed this or that,’ or something like that,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan said it took about year to find the right combination of mouthpieces and reeds to get close to the right sound; the rest was learning how to produce the big sound necessary to be heard through four saxophones — much more powerful instruments — and the rest of the band.
Since then, he’s had nothing but compliments.
“You could just play the notes and be all right, but emulating the style is what makes the band successful,” Sheehan said.
The rest of the success can be found in playing what people want to hear: those immortal Miller hits. Miller was a prolific composer and arranger, and he had a small army of equally productive arrangers who worked with him, including such legends as Jerry Gray, Billy May and Mel Powell. Sheehan said the band carries some 250 arrangements on tour, from a rotating library of about 1,700, and around half of those tour arrangements feature the Miller Sound.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra, without Glenn Miller, was the first of what became known as “ghost bands” (what we now like to call them “tribute bands"). But the Miller band can be seen as something more after 73 years. It is an institution.
For Sheehan, 44, he didn’t plan on spending half his life with Glenn Miller Orchestra, but he’s glad he has.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a job,” Sheehan said. “For me, the job is riding in the bus.”