Alton Glenn Miller (March 1, 1904 – disappeared December 15, 1944) was an American big-band trombonist, arranger, composer, and bandleader in the swing era. He was the best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1942, leading one of the best-known big bands. Miller's recordings include "In the Mood", "Moonlight Serenade", "Pennsylvania 6-5000", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "A String of Pearls", "At Last", "(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo", "American Patrol", "Tuxedo Junction", "Elmer's Tune", "Little Brown Jug" and "Anvil Chorus". In just four years Glenn Miller scored 16 number-one records and 69 top ten hits—more than Elvis Presley (38 top 10s) and the Beatles (33 top 10s) did in their careers.
In 1942, Miller volunteered to join the U.S. military to entertain troops during World War II, ending up with the U.S. Army Air Forces. On December 15, 1944, while flying to Paris, Miller's aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
The son of Mattie Lou (née Cavender) and Lewis Elmer Miller, Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa. He attended grade school in North Platte in western Nebraska. In 1915, his family moved to Grant City, Missouri. Around this time, he had made enough money from milking cows to buy his first trombone and played in the town orchestra. He played cornet and mandolin, but he switched to trombone by 1916. In 1918, the Miller family moved again, this time to Fort Morgan, Colorado, where he went to high school. In the fall of 1919, he joined the high school American football team, the Maroons, which won the Northern Colorado American Football Conference in 1920. He was named Best Left End in Colorado. During his senior year, he became interested in "dance band music". He was so taken that he formed a band with some classmates. By the time he graduated from high school in 1921, he had decided to become a professional musician.
In 1923, Miller entered the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he joined Sigma Nu fraternity. He spent most of his time away from school, attending auditions and playing any gigs he could get, including with Boyd Senter's band in Denver. After failing three out of five classes, he dropped out of school to pursue a career in music.
He studied the Schillinger System with Joseph Schillinger, under whose tutelage he composed what became his signature theme, "Moonlight Serenade". In 1926, Miller toured with several groups, landing a good spot in Ben Pollack's group in Los Angeles. He also played for Victor Young, which allowed him to be mentored by other professional musicians.
In the early-to-mid-1930s, Miller worked as a trombonist, arranger, and composer for The Dorsey Brothers, first when they were a Brunswick studio group and when they formed an ill-fated orchestra. Miller composed the songs "Annie's Cousin Fanny", "Dese Dem Dose", "Harlem Chapel Chimes", and "Tomorrow's Another Day" for the Dorsey Brothers Band in 1934 and 1935. In 1935, he assembled an American orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble, developing the arrangement of lead clarinet over four saxophones that became a characteristic of his big band. Members of the Noble band included Claude Thornhill, Bud Freeman, and Charlie Spivak.
Although Miller was popular, many jazz critics had misgivings. They believed that the band's endless rehearsals—and, according to critic Amy Lee in Metronome magazine, "letter-perfect playing"—removed feeling from their performances. They also felt that Miller's brand of swing shifted popular music from the hot jazz of Benny Goodman and Count Basie to commercial novelty instrumentals and vocal numbers. After Miller died, the Miller estate maintained an unfriendly stance toward critics who derided the band during his lifetime.
Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé held the orchestra in high regard. Tormé credited Miller with giving him helpful advice when he first started his singing and song-writing career in the 1940s. Tormé met Glenn Miller in 1942, the meeting facilitated by Tormé's father and Ben Pollack. Tormé and Miller discussed "That Old Black Magic", which was just emerging as a new song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Miller told Tormé to pick up every song by Mercer and study it and to become a voracious reader of anything he could find, because "all good lyric writers are great readers."
In 1942, at the peak of his civilian career, Miller decided to join the war effort, forsaking an income of $15,000 to $20,000 per week in civilian life (equivalent to $238,000 to $317,000 per week in 2020), including a home in Tenafly, New Jersey. At 38, Miller was too old to be drafted and first volunteered for the Navy but was told that they did not need his services. Miller then wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young. He persuaded the United States Army to accept him so he could, in his own words, "be placed in charge of a modernized Army band". After he was accepted into the Army, Miller's civilian band played its last concert in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 27, 1942, with the last song played by the Miller civilian band being "Jukebox Saturday Night"—featuring an appearance by Harry James on trumpet.
Miller was due to fly from Bedford England to Paris France on December 15, 1944, to make arrangements to move his entire band there in the near future. His plane, a single-engine UC-64 Norseman, departed from RAF Twinwood Farm in Clapham, on the outskirts of Bedford, and disappeared while flying over the English Channel. Two other U.S. military officers were on board the plane, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell and the pilot, John Morgan. Miller spent the last night before his disappearance at Milton Ernest Hall, near Bedford. His disappearance was not publicized until Christmas Eve 1944, when the Associated Press announced Miller would not be conducting the scheduled BBC-broadcast "AEF Christmas Show" the following day; the band's deputy leader Tech. Sgt Jerry Gray (July 3, 1915 – August 10, 1976) stood in for him.
Miller left behind his wife and two adopted children. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, presented to his wife, Helen, in a ceremony held on March 24, 1945.