Killer diller, or thinking about big band music and my father’s WWII musical reveries

As introduction, during my 1990s salad days at the Public House, I maintained a collection of swing, big band and jazz CDs behind the bar, and played these tunes quite often. I’ve continued to advocate for themed musical nights featuring these genres, realizing that doing so tends to fall on deaf ears, but persevering nonetheless. Consequently, it is delightful to see my ideas implemented, even when occurring in absentia

The last surviving member of Glenn Miller’s famous stateside orchestra died in 2013 at the age of 95, and although I’ll concede that living memories of Paul Tanner’s period playing trombone with one of the swing era’s most fondly remembered bands have likely passed into history, this native Kentuckian’s musical career kept right on going into present times.

Tanner enjoyed a long career as a jazz educator at UCLA, and also invented the electro-theremin, which he can be heard playing on “Good Vibrations,” the 1966 hit by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Tanner’s final performance with Miller came in 1942, just prior to the bandleader’s decision to disband his civilian band and join the Army, where he formed a new aggregation of servicemen to play for the troops in Europe. Miller died tragically in a 1944 plane crash over the English Channel, and 22 years later Tanner made his encore appearance at the periphery of American pop culture.

I was 6 years old when “Good Vibrations” was released, and remember hearing it on the radio. But mostly I grew up listening to big band records like those of the trombonist’s former employer. They weren’t the original 78 rpm recordings, but featured on long-playing compilations that began appearing during the 1960’s as the original listeners grew into middle age, creating a lucrative market for nostalgia.

Nowadays this impulse is referred to as “classic rock.”

My father, veteran of three years in the Pacific during the war, had no musical aptitude of which I’m aware apart from singing Marine Corps boot camp anthems while mending barbed wire fences on the property, but it didn’t stand in the way of his favored weekly ritual of playing his cherished World War II-era songs on Sunday mornings.

Roger G. Baylor chose music, not church, with his all-time favorite being “Sentimental Journey,” performed by Les Brown’s orchestra with Doris Day on vocals. No single ditty better describes his customarily warm mood when looking back through the years, but most of all he adored Miller’s music. So did countless others of his wartime generation.

Glenn Miller was a veritable hit-making machine from the late 1930s into the war years, and has become synonymous with popular music of the era. At the age of 10, I could reel them off by heart: “In the Mood,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” “American Patrol,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Elmer’s Tune,” “Moonlight Serenade” and numerous others.

Miller’s biggest hit of all evoked a betrothal via a Tennessee-bound journey by train, of which his big band era counterpart Artie Shaw – an irascible, erudite and unrepentant curmudgeon who died at 94 in 2004 – once commented, “Glenn should have lived and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ should have died.”

Shaw’s bon mot reflected his own prickly character (he was brighter than musicians, and well aware of it) but also revealed an annoyance among jazz and swing purists that Miller’s work was overly commercial. Like Miller, the clarinetist Shaw led a military band into revealed the clarinetist’s own brand of dissonance; he, too, led a military band into harm’s way in the Pacific), surviving into old age as a universally respected but seldom revered legend.

As Shaw recognized, Miller never got to face the post-war shift in popular musical tastes, which already was eroding the popularity of big bands even before the war. In short, James Dean wasn’t the first American cultural icon to die young and stay pretty.

My dad cared not one jot. He merely sought a song to hum, in his own company.

For the longest time, I was unable to square his attachment to swing era music with those three years of duty as a Marine gunner aboard the USS Washington. How can catchy melodies elicit nostalgia when contrasted with the dangers of combat?

(His ship participated in numerous battles, including Guadalcanal, the Mariana and Palau Islands, the Philippine campaign, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and he underwent more than one kamikaze attack.)

What’s more, how could such sweet and seemingly innocuous music (at least to contemporary ears) ever have transferred psychologically to a battlefield in the first place? For soldiers in Vietnam to listen to The Doors, and during the Gulf War to be internalizing Metallica, makes a degree of sense to us – but “Moonlight Serenade”?

At some point, I finally understood that musical nostalgia like my father’s exists to help filter (and rationalize) what was bad or distasteful about the past, all the better to focus on what was good, at times with the assistance of selective memory. He and his comrades in arms sought to finish the job, get home alive, and use their allotted time for growing old. A soundtrack of big bands helped.

Later in their lives, nostalgia maximized the qualities afforded by youth, including strength, vitality and unlimited horizons. Those are the things they (and we) miss the most, especially once they’re gone.

I genuinely try to resist the temptation of like-minded nostalgia, and usually fail quite miserably. It’s clear that when more of one’s life lies behind you than ahead, there’ll be an understandable sense of reverie. These days the music spinning in my head as I try to make sense of my 1980s travels in the East Bloc, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall, is more than 30 years old.

At least my overseas expeditions came during a “cold” war. Could I have come close to doing what my father and his generation did? Truthfully, I doubt it. However, I still love their music.

The overarching point of these ruminations is to thank my decidedly non-musical father for his musical obsessions; because of them, I carry the legacy of the jazz, big band and swing era with me, and when I say “with me,” it’s more than metaphorical.

He couldn’t have known it (nor would I have been able to explain the idea coherently), but music has been a constant presence with me for as long as I can remember, since childhood, in spite of my not possessing a shred of vocal or instrumental aptitude apart from frightening the cats while singing while in the shower.

Unless whistling qualifies as music. That much I can do competently.

Music plays in my head every single day. Glenn Miller had a hit song called “Juke Box Saturday Night,” but with me, it’s “Juke Box All the Damned Time.” Music plays in my dreams, and the random song generator pops into place when I awaken. In my personal episode of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” it’s a given that when the music finally stops playing, I’ll die.

Thus, it’s axiomatic to me that the music … the show itself … always must go on.

At some point during my teens, there was a late summer’s night in Southern Indiana. The windows were open. It was warm outside but with a slight nip in the air, and leaves just on the cusp of turning were rustling amid a breeze in the surrounding woods.

The song popping into my head as I tried to fall asleep was “Manhattan Serenade,” in all respects a fairly forgettable pop number, circa 1942, as performed by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Jo Stafford on vocals.

For whatever reason, something just clicked. Surely it was a coincidence. Probably I was ready to contemplate mortality in some way I hadn’t considered previously, to imagine an anonymous song, a lost era, a pastoral scene and my own tombstone in a cemetery filled with hundreds of others – the whole, huge, meandering procession of history, then somehow grafting those wooden chairs lined up for decades during theatrical performances of “Our Town” onto my own too brief lifespan, the unfulfilled hopes and dreams, the fears and uncertainties arranged like books on a shelf, and basically, momentarily, glimpsing a small bit of the finality of death.

It was confusing, wistful and melancholy, and yet oddly it wasn’t debilitating.

Rather, it may have been my first exposure to the quality known as the elegiac, which by definition is a sacramental summary of what has passed, as offered by the living looking backwards. Much later in life, far closer to the end than the beginning, the whys and wherefores are no longer clear to me, but when I listen to big bands, swing and jazz today, pondering where I’ve been and where we’re going, with this wonderful music in my head all the while (thanks again, dad), the elegy gene is roused.

Moonlight Cocktail?

I may need a few … again.