The sound goes on for the Glenn Miller Orchestra

The Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Nick Hilscher, will be at the National Arts centre Dec. 23.

Some 75 years ago, the legendary big band leader Glenn Miller died in a plane crash. At the time, he was one of the biggest stars in the world with hits such as In the Mood. It was music that basically defined the era. Today Miller’s legacy lives on in the form of the orchestra coming to the National Arts Centre Dec. 23. ARTSFILE spoke with the current band leader Nick Hilscher about the man, the music and the history.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I saw the movie, The Glenn Miller Story, when I was 11. This was the first time I can recall being exposed to the music of the big band era. I immediately became a fan and started purchasing as much of his music as I could.  I was already a pianist and singer, and began to learn the vocal style of the great singers of that time, (Sinatra, Crosby, Eberle). After graduating high school, I started a Bachelor of Music degree in piano at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. My passion, though, was singing the music of the Great American Songbook. I made a vocal demo after my sophomore year and sent it to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The road manager contacted me, wanting me to audition with the band in a live setting. I was hired the evening of my audition and left school for a year to sing with the the orchestra. After returning to school and getting my degree, I went back on the road, singing with the band until 2005. 

After I left the Glenn Miller Orchestra, I continued to perform, starting a working relationship with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.  In 2011, I became the leader of the Dorsey band. At the end of that year, the Glenn Miller Orchestra contacted me and asked if would become the leader of the GMO, starting in January 2012.  I accepted the position, and here we are today.

Q. What is an Official Glenn Miller Orchestra? 

An “official” Glenn Miller Orchestra is one that has been approved as such by Glenn Miller Productions, the management company of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  There are several “licensed” GMO bands in Europe.  However, the band I lead is the band that has the storied history going back to 1956. 

Q. Where do the musicians come from?

A. It’s pretty amazing that the members of our group come from all over the United States.  I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.  Our lead trombonist is from Anchorage, Alaska. We have several members from the Chicago area. The rest of the band is from Connecticut, California, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alabama, Kentucky, and Maryland. 

Q. Where does you orchestra go?

A. The Glenn Miller Orchestra primarily tours throughout the United States and Canada, doing approximately 200 dates per year.  This puts the band on the road about 45 weeks each year.  The band also does an annual tour of Japan, and has done so since 1964. 

Q. Glenn Miller disappeared in a plane crash in 1944, 75 years ago. What kind of legacy did he leave?

A. A remarkable legacy: He had the No. 1 band in the (U.S.) from 1939-42, (starting in 1938, with 16 No. 1 records and 69 top 10 hits). In 1942 he also decided to join the war effort (at the height of his civilian career), leading the great Army Air Forces Orchestra until his disappearance on Dec. 15, 1944.  That band served such a great purpose, building morale during the war, with Glenn leading the way.  Since that period his music has been loved by consecutive generations and I’m honoured to be a part of that legacy.

Q. Does the orchestra play only Miller music or does it venture further afield? Does it commission new work?

A. Approximately 75 performances of our performances feature original Miller hits, (A String of Pearls, Chattanooga Choo Choo, In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade, Tuxedo Junction, Little Brown Jug), along with other arrangements the original band was playing. We have a remarkable library of more than 1,500 arrangements, (the first 900 or so being from Glenn’s own bands). I also will sometimes include some Sinatra, or our female vocalist may sing a song from the Ella Fitzgerald library. So, we have a variety of other things we do, but in a pretty similar style. 

Sometimes, the band will commission a new arrangement. The newest commissioned arrangement has been on the theme to Downton Abbey.

When we play Ottawa, we will perform Christmas/Holiday selections along with many original Miller hits. 

Q. The Big Band era was such a musical force pre and post-Second World War. But if you are a veteran of WW2 you are likely in your 90s. How does the form survive?

A. When I first joined the GMO at 21, (in 1998), I would say that 95 per cent of our audiences were from the Second World War era.  Now, they make up about five per cent of our audience. Remarkably, we still play to full houses with a more varied age range than I witnessed when I started with the band in the late ’90s/early 2000s. I’m happy that the following generations are enjoying Glenn’s music and our band. The music is unique and very special, and it still has relevance. Good music lasts. 

Q. Do you think recent interest in the anniversaries of the Second World War has helped maintain interest?

A. I do think that interest in the anniversaries of help to keep that culture, including its music, in our minds. I’ve found that there are many younger audience members who have taken an interest in the culture of that period and they want to hear the music live. That’s where we come in. I hope that interest continues on. 

Q. What’s you favourite Glenn Miller song? 

A. My favourite Glenn Miller song is I Know Why (And So Do You). It was recorded by Glenn’s vocal group, The Modernaires. It’s a lovely vocal by Paula Kelly and a very special recording from 1941. 

Q. Your concert in Ottawa is Dec. 23 Is that it for the holidays or is there more to come?

A. Our performance in Ottawa will be the last one of the 2019 tour.  We’ll all fly home on Christmas Eve and then reconvene around Jan. 11. 

The Glenn Miller Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Dec. 23 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.