Early life and career
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 football team, 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, allowing him to be mentored by other professional musicians. In the beginning, he was the main trombone soloist of the band. But when Jack Teagarden joined Pollack's band in 1928, Miller found that his solos were cut drastically. He realized that his future was in arranging and composing.
He had a songbook published in Chicago in 1928 entitled Glenn Miller's 125 Jazz Breaks for Trombone by the Melrose Brothers. During his time with Pollack, he wrote several arrangements. He wrote his first composition, "Room 1411", with Benny Goodman, and it was released as a 78 by Brunswick Records under the name Benny Goodman's Boys.
In 1928, when the band arrived in New York City, he sent for and married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger. He was a member of Red Nichols's orchestra in 1930, and because of Nichols, he played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy. The band included Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Miller worked as a freelance trombonist in several bands. On a March 21, 1928, Victor Records session, he played alongside Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Joe Venuti in the All-Star Orchestra directed by Nat Shilkret. He arranged and played trombone on several significant Dorsey Brothers sessions for OKeh Records, including "The Spell of the Blues", "Let's Do It", and "My Kinda Love", all with Bing Crosby on vocals. On November 14, 1929, vocalist Red McKenzie hired Miller to play on two records: "Hello, Lola" and "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight". Beside Miller were saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, guitarist Eddie Condon, and drummer Gene Krupa.
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.
Miller made his first movie appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1936 as a member of the Ray Noble Orchestra performing "Why Stars Come Out at Night". The film included performances by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, who would appear with Miller again in two movies for Twentieth Century Fox in 1941 and 1942.
In 1937, Miller compiled several arrangements and formed his first band. After failing to distinguish itself from the many bands of the time, it broke up after its last show at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut on January 2, 1938.
Benny Goodman said in 1976:
- In late 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. Glenn was pretty dejected and came to see me. He asked, "What do you do? How do you make it?" I said, "I don't know, Glenn. You just stay with it."