Playing on 

Glenn Miller Orchestra has endured since the bandleader’s death and brings big-band favorites to Armstrong Auditorium.

click to enlarge Glenn Miller Orchestra performs at Edmond’s Armstrong Auditorium May 10. - MICHAEL CAIRNS / WET ORANGE STUDIO / GLENN MILLER  ORCHESTRA / PROVIDED
  • Michael Cairns / Wet Orange Studio / Glenn Miller Orchestra / provided
  • Glenn Miller Orchestra performs at Edmond’s Armstrong Auditorium May 10.

They scored 11 Top 10 hits and starred in a feature film that year, but Glenn Miller disbanded his chart-topping orchestra in 1942 to enlist in the Army. As head of the Army Air Force Band, Miller modernized military music and played for troops in Europe during World War II, but two years later, on a flight from London to Paris in advance of a Christmas concert, his transport plane disappeared over the English Channel, never to be found. Almost 74 years later, the Glenn Miller Orchestra is scheduled to perform May 10 at Armstrong Auditorium, 14400 S. Bryant Road, in Edmond.

“So how’s this still going?” said Nick Hilscher, band director and lead male vocalist in the current iteration of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “I think the music was so popular that the band started playing without Glenn as the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1946, and apart from it not being in existence for a short period in the mid-1950s, the Glenn Miller Orchestra actually has been going all of these decades, presenting this music … touring about 48 weeks on average every year and still doing about five shows per week. So it’s a thing that’s been around for decades and keeps going.”

The orchestra, carrying on in the tradition of a band first founded in 1938, has gone through many personnel changes in the past 80 years.

“Though the music goes back to the late ’30s, early ’40s, it’s not a band that’s made up of World War II generation folks,” Hilscher said. “It’s made up of primarily 20- and 30-something-year-olds, and we present the music with that same kind of vivaciousness, the same kind of passion that those guys were doing when all this started. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why the band keeps going on.”

Currently, the musician who has played with the orchestra the longest is lead trombonist George Reinert III, hired more than 25 years ago. Hilscher, who first joined the orchestra in 1998 as a vocalist, was born in 1977 and grew up listening to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. He first discovered his love of big-band jazz and swing at the age of 11, when he saw 1954’s The Glenn Miller Story starring Jimmy Stewart. For Hilscher, Miller’s music is a way to connect to the past.

“I think that we are always going to interpret what we hear musically according to the time, the place, the culture in which we live,” Hilscher said, “but … with Miller specifically, who was recording actually a good bit of new stuff during that period, it is hard for me to separate myself though from the context of the Second World War when I hear a lot of his music because that is the time in which it was written. So, you know, I can’t just be singing ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ for example and only think about my current relationships. It definitely harkens back to that time period. A lot of those songs were love songs of the era, so there is that context. They expressed things a little bit differently than we do today, maybe even more poetically.”

Posthumous performance

Despite Miller’s death, the Army Air Force Band played its scheduled Christmas concert in 1944 and continued performing through 1945. Stateside, at the request of Miller’s widow Helen, the Glenn Miller Orchestra re-formed in 1946 under the direction of saxophonist and vocalist Tex Beneke, a founding member of the original band who sang lead on “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the world’s first gold record.

“Tex was there during the civilian years,” Hilscher said. “He was there in 1938, when Glenn started the band. He was there when Glenn broke it up in 1942, so I think he was doing things the way that Glenn did, but then, in 1956, when the band was re-formed under the direction of Ray McKinley, although Ray was there and was Glenn’s drummer in his Army Air Force band, Ray took it in the direction that I think big-band ensemble music was going. … The way that they actually approached the notes changed. … And then as we get into the 1970s, it started to go in a direction that, for me personally, I’m not crazy about, but it continued on to kind of take on the way that big-band music was going at that time.”

As the current director, Hilscher said he wants to give audiences something similar to the excitement and energy of the orchestra’s original performances.

“One of my passions is to go back and try to present it not as a copycat orchestra of the one that Glenn led, but trying to present it and capture what they were doing because what they were doing was new to them,” Hilscher said. “And I think that we’re now about three generations removed, four generations removed almost, you know, I have kids and it was their great-grandparents who were in their 20s when they were listening to this stuff. …  My kids certainly have a connection to this orchestra because it’s what their dad does, but most people are not born into this or teaching their kids about it. So I want the people that come to our shows and have never heard this to feel or hear something that’s a little truer to the way that it was originally.”

Approximately 75 percent of the band’s current set lists come from the songs the original orchestra played, Hilscher said, which includes hits such as “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “A String of Pearls” and “Moonlight Serenade.” The rest of the setlist is made up of era-appropriate big-band songs including songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. Since he first began singing with the orchestra 20 years ago, Hilscher said the average age of the audiences has changed.

“When I joined the band in 1998, I would say that 95 percent was World War II generation,” Hilscher said. “Now, it’s probably 5 percent, and the majority of people are Baby Boomers and younger. I’m usually pretty surprised that we have kids who were my age when I got into this, like 10-year-olds, and they’re fans and they’re coming and they want their parents to bring them. I just think that’s pretty awesome.”  

Location Details Armstrong Auditorium
14400 S. Bryant Ave.
Edmond, OK
Music Venue

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