Glenn Miller Orchestra Director Talks Band History, Music
I wasn’t alive when Big Band music was at its peak, but I remember my dad was listening to his 78s and I was trying to sound indifferent because there was something almost magic in the way the music made you feel. At my age back then, our parents’ music wasn’t inherently cool, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I had the opportunity to chat with the musical director of the Glenn Miller Orchestra when they came to Maine to perform in the 90s.
I remember his enthusiasm, and it rekindled my fondness for this contagious genre. On October 19, residents of this area can relive those powerful vibes as this orchestra returns to central Maine for a performance at the Waterville Opera House. To that end, I had the opportunity to chat with the new musical director of this famous band, a gentleman by the name of Erik Stabnau, whom I joined in Nashville when his band was on tour there. I started our conversation by asking him how long he had held this position in the organization.
Stabnau: I’ve been with the band for a total of five years – since 2017 – but I’ve been acting as musical director for just over a year now. …I started during the pandemic as music director in 2021, so just over a year.
Q: I had done an interview with The Glenn Miller Orchestra in the early 90s, I believe, and the guy I spoke to was the musical director at the time – his name was Larry O’Brien.
Stabnau: Yeah, he was the director for over 20 years, and our former musical director, Nick Hilscher, was there for about 10 years.
Q: In your opinion, what is the factor that contributed to the popularity of this organization?
Stabnau: Yeah, a lot of people wonder why the Glenn Miller Orchestra kept him on tour all these years later. I think there are maybe two reasons I can give. I think the music that was written at that time was just great music. Pop music these days really isn’t the same as it was in the 1940s, back then there were great writers, great musicians playing great music all the time. But I think another reason is just that it was popular music of the 1930s and 1940s, so there will be certain songs or certain musicians from each decade that will enter the lexicon of popular music, and Glenn Miller is certainly (responsible) for this kind of music from the 30s and 40s.
Q: Now, do I remember correctly that Miller and his orchestra were lost in a plane crash in the mid-1940s?
Stabnau: It’s correct. Glenn Miller was lost in a plane crash in December 1944, it was in Europe. At that time he was stationed in London, he was leading a big group there, and he was actually in the military, and he got off on a plane, but the rest of the group didn’t. , they were traveling separately so they continued after his disappearance.
Q: Now, as far as the current band goes, there must be quite a large repertoire of material to draw from for your performances, right?
Stabnau: Absolutely, there’s a huge list of songs we can tap into. When the band was active from 1938 to 1942, before Glenn joined the army, we call it the civilian band, there are about 750 songs from that time alone. And, of course, the orchestra toured for all those years thereafter, so with more additions made with each passing decade, there are now over 1,500 songs in the library’s catalog, that’s a huge amount of music.
Q: Wow, I guess so! It must be a business of building a set list.
Stabnau: Well, each performance we might perform 20 to 25 songs. Now about half of them will stay the same every night, songs people know and recognize like “Moonlight Serenade”, “In The Mood”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, things like that. So for people who come to the shows and want to hear those great hits that they recognize, we will absolutely play them. And people who come to concerts and maybe want to hear something a little different, we will always include new and different songs.
Q: But all from the same catalog of works that have been built up over the years?
Stabnau: Absolutely, yeah. So some are from the original band, some are from the military band, and some are other additions from the 50s and beyond, there are always new songs added as well.
Q: Do you play in the band? When I spoke with Larry, he was playing the trombone.
Stabnau: Yeah, I play with the band, I play tenor saxophone and I sing too.
Q: Now, how many shows do you do on average per year?
Stabnau: We do a ton of performances. In a normal year, a non-pandemic year, the band does over 200 shows in that calendar year. It takes us all over the US and Canada, and we also tour Japan every year; so the band is on the road basically full time all year, it keeps us very busy.
Q: And with the musicians spinning and playing together, it has to create a very tight and cohesive sound, the camaraderie has to be reminiscent of what it was like when it all started all those years ago.
Stabnau: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s rare to play with the same group of musicians like this day after day, of course. In the 30s and 40s, it was popular music, and there were a lot of bands performing like that all over the country, so it wasn’t that uncommon back then. But these days, the Glenn Miller Orchestra is really the last big band on full-time touring, so it’s rare to get the opportunity to play the same music with the same musicians night after night.
Q: And after the pandemic has stopped everything, it must be nice to come back there.
Stabnau: Yeah, there was a period in 2020 with months and months without shows. We haven’t quite returned to the full-time schedule I mentioned. It looks like it will start next year with those 200+ shows, but we are getting closer. I think this year we will play about 150 concerts in total. Things are opening up and we have seen a very nice response from the public. I think people are just happy to go out and do something.
Q: Is there anything Erik that you would like me to pass on to people reading this article?
Stabnau: Yes, if people are considering coming to the show but aren’t sure, I would tell them to give it a try. There’s a lot of great music and a lot to love about these shows, whether you’re a Glenn Miller fan, big band music fan, or not. These shows offer something for everyone: there are beats, there are voices, a guy (singer) and a girl (singer), there is a vocal group that sings with us, there is choreography , there is a bit of history and background music between each song. I think that music lovers of all kinds will find what they are looking for.
Lucky Clark, winner of the 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” award, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.