Milestone Recordings in American Music


Glenn Miller (1939)

In 1939, trombonist and bandleader Glenn Miller was struggling to gain recognition and keep his second orchestra together when he landed a regular spot on CBS radio. The national exposure proved invaluable and by the end of the year, Miller’s inviting brand of swing music had made his band one of the most popular in the U.S. While many jazz purists derided the band (and many still do) for its highly polished, highly rehearsed sound, the public absolutely ate it up. Over the next few years, Miller would absolutely dominate the pop charts, earning number-one hit after number-one hit. And while there is no denying that he catered to mainstream tastes, it is hard to argue that his success wasn’t deserved. He led a talented group that created some of the most remarkable records of the era, and he was as innovative in his own way as any other big band leader. As proof, here are some of the earliest and best records from his remarkable career.

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Little Brown Jug (Bluebird B-10286,1939)

Of all of Miller’s well-known hits, “Little Brown Jug” may be the one that least follows the Miller formula, sounding very much like something we would expect from Bennie Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. But that does not make it any less brilliant. Miller’s trademark precision is here in spades as the band moves like a well-oiled machine to play the main theme and back up the soloists. As a case in point, note the dramatic build-up between the first and second solos: a riff repeated three times by the ensemble, followed by a held-note crescendo by the trumpets, and then even greater urgency as the trombones join in. The solos sound very melodic and rehearsed, but they are also full of energy and backed by a driving drum beat, and the song never sinks into predictability even as it remains danceable to the end.

~ You may also like: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, “Anvil Chorus” (Bluebird B-10982, 1941)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
In the Mood (Bluebird B-10416,1939)

“In the Mood” is Miller’s most enduring hit, a fast-paced number that is both lullaby soft and irresistibly energetic. After a brief but noteworthy intro, the full orchestra jumps in and lays down one of the most memorable melodies in big band history. We are then treated to some soloing that expounds upon the theme in exciting ways without departing from it. But the most exciting part comes when the full orchestra returns. Once again, they play the main melody, but this time they play it softer and softer, with drawn-out pauses between each iterance. Finally, after one such pause, they return to full volume and build up to a glorious finale.

~ You may also like: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra featuring Ray Eberle, “Stairway to the Stars” (Bluebird B-10276, 1939)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Moonlight Serenade (Bluebird B-10214,1939)

“Moonlight Serenade” was Miller’s breakthrough hit, and little wonder as the song’s gentle melody is so sentimentally sweet that it provides a perfect vessel for whatever strong emotion the listener may be feeling. As the Great Depression wore on and the world headed towards war, “Moonlight Serenade” struck a chord with listeners. Indeed, it is a lovely song and even today is arresting in its simple beauty. The record almost exclusively features ensemble playing, but the highlight is a wonderful, mellow clarinet solo about two-thirds of the way in. With tenor sax playing a subtle, low countermelody in the background, the clarinet soars into the high notes and strips the song to its barest emotion.

~ You may also like the other side of the original single: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, “Sunrise Serenade” (Bluebird B-10214, 1939)


Inspired Swing (1939)

The following selections show swing music blossoming in terms of both style and substance. These records are among the best of their era for balancing mass commercial appeal and artistic integrity.

In other words, they are really, really good.

Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra
Tuxedo Junction (Bluebird B-10409, 1939)

Glenn Miller had a bigger hit with it in 1940 (Bluebird B-10612), but co-author Erskine Hawkins’ original is the definitive recording of this classic. The song gets its title from the nickname of a jazz club near the band’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, but this record transcends any tangible location to create a magical place all its own.

Although Hawkins was a gifted trumpeter (often called “the 20th Century Gabriel”), it was fellow trumpeter Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb that took the memorable solo on this record. An audible wave from Bascomb introduces you to “Tuxedo Junction,” and it’s such a welcoming place, you’ll want to stay awhile. After a relaxed introduction to the band and a hearty hello from Julian Dash on tenor sax, Bascomb returns to show you around. His trumpet solo is both rousing and endearing, filled with genuine warmth and joy. As it ends, one cannot help but feel that the song has passed its high point, and yet Haywood Henry’s clarinet soon proves that notion wrong, enthusiastically showing the listener another side of “Tuxedo Junction” – one that is every bit as captivating. Bascomb returns at the end to wind things down and say goodbye. Trust me, you will want to visit again.

~ You may also like another mellow hit from Hawkins and company, featuring some wonderful piano playing by Avery Parish: Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, “After Hours” (Bluebird B-10879, 1940)

Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra
Cherokee(Bluebird B-10373, 1939)

Don’t let the overall smoothness of Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” fool you: this band is dangerous. They are razor sharp and full of attitude, and while you may feel enchanted by the irresistible melody, a closer listen reveals that they never stop hitting you. Listen to the way the saxophones strike with short, staccato bursts and the horns repeatedly give a wah-wah whine during the opening solo. The same brash assertiveness continues throughout, with every smooth main melody backed up with saucy attitude from elsewhere in the band. Among the smoother parts, Barnet himself is particularly alluring on tenor sax, with a polished playfulness that touches the line of squeaking dissonance without ever crossing it. This record is a true classic of the genre and an indispensible part of any serious swing music fan’s collection.

~ You may also like: Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra, “Skyliner” (Decca 18659, 1945)

Woody Herman and His Orchestra
(At the) Woodchopper’s Ball(Decca 2440, 1939)

“Woodchopper’s Ball” was Woody Herman’s triumph, a flawlessly executed record that sizzles excitingly throughout while going down soothingly smooth. The uptempo blues is almost a head arrangement built around a simple riff, but a high degree of coordination between the instruments yields an extra-polished finish. The solos are gems and each is given a good deal of time to develop: clarinet, trombone, tenor sax, trumpet, and finally a duet between piano and bass. The record built up a following slowly, but eventually became Herman’s biggest hit and – deservedly – vaulted him into superstar status.

~ You may also like: Chick Webb and His Orchestra, “Let’s Get Together” (Columbia 2883-D, 1934)

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Martha Tilton
And the Angels Sing (Victor 26170, 1939)

“And the Angels Sing” was the biggest hit of Martha Tilton’s career and another huge hit for Goodman. Tilton’s plush voice is heavenly, to be sure, and benefits from terrific lyrics by Johnny Mercer: “You smile and the angels sing / And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start / We kiss and the angels sing / And leave their music ringing in my heart.” If you listen closely as she sings, “You smile,” you can actually hear her smile in a wonderful bit of showmanship. But Tilton’s singing is only half the story. The orchestra itself provides tight accompaniment throughout the first half, and once the vocals end, Ziggy Elman (who wrote the music) bursts free with a tremendous trumpet solo. It begins with a fast, Yiddish-inspired dance interlude over a driving march beat, and then slows suddenly to end as a soaring, inspiring jazz solo as the full orchestra sweeps back in behind him. As heavenly as Tilton was, it is Elman’s trumpet at the end that truly represents the angels singing.

~ You may also like: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Helen Ward, “Goody Goody” (Victor 25245, 1936)


More Bonus Material (1931-1939)

As promised, I continued working my way through this blog to add suggestions for further listening to all of the entries. I previously completed the entries from 1890-1930, and I have now completed all of them through my last 1939 entry. Every recording I have written about now has an italicized entry at the end that says "You might also like..."

For example, you'll still find an entry for "Song of India" by Tommy Dorsey (Victor 25523, 1937) just as before, with a brief description of the reasons why it is a milestone recording (Bunny Berigan's trumpet solo, for starters). In addition, at the end of that description, you'll now find this recommendation:

~ You may also like yet some more of Berigan’s best: Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra, “Troubled” (Victor 24834, 1935)

There is no further detail given about the new recording; it's just a teaser to encourage you to further explore some great music. And while these new recommendations didn't make my final cut for full reviews, that's only because I had to draw the line somewhere. They are definitely worthwhile!

So if you've read those earlier entries already, you might want to go back and check them out again. Meanwhile, I will continue adding new entries and suggested further listening as time permits. I have a few more recordings from 1939 to cover, and then on to the 1940s!

Search This Blog