"Are we going to talk about where we've been or where we're going?" inquired Larry O'Brien via telephone from somewhere in Louisiana. "If so, I'll have to pull out a schedule."
O'Brien is the leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. And it's no wonder he has to consult a schedule to confirm where he is, has been, or is going. The orchestra spends about 300 nights a year on the road. It just recorded a compact disc for a Japanese label. The Miller orchestra's 1983 "In a Digital Mood" has sold nearly 500,000 copies on the New York-based GRP label and will be reissued in a special gold CD edition this spring.
All this activity--including a performance tonight at the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Center in Port Hueneme--is occurring despite the fact that Miller himself has not been seen since his single-engine airplane disappeared Dec. 15, 1944, somewhere between England and France. A year later, the Army declared Miller dead.
From the late '30s until his death, Miller was the most popular bandleader of the swing era, with such hits as "In the Mood," and his signature, "Moonlight Serenade." In 1956, the Miller estate authorized former Miller drummer Ray McKinley to lead what's known in the industry as a "ghost band," a unit that revives the name and re-creates the style and repertoire of a leader who is no longer active.
O'Brien admits that his own attitude toward the Miller sound was somewhat negative, even when he toured with the group under McKinley.
"I thought they were beating a dead horse at the time; I couldn't see why the music was still around. But it wasn't that the music was inferior, I eventually discovered, it was that my own focus was too narrow. The validity of this music doesn't need me to speak for it, it speaks for itself."
For old-timers, he explains, the attraction is obvious. "The people who recall the music recall simpler times: their first date, when they got married, when their kids were born."
But, he adds, younger generations are also impressed by what is, in many cases, their first brush with an 18-piece big band. "In the first place," he said, "they're amazed that we don't have a guitar, and almost no electronics. We play with a lot of energy and verve. And we're still basically a dance band, and the kids enjoy that."
O'Brien said he keeps the members of the orchestra interested by constantly rotating the group's 1,700-song repertoire, allowing a certain amount of improvisation by soloists, and by occasionally adding Miller-styled arrangements of more recent tunes to the repertoire.
"The difference between musicians now and those in the old days is that the newer guys are better-schooled, but perhaps less intuitive. I compare it to flying airplanes. A lot of the old pilots flew by the seat of their pants. The pilots today are more learned." Still, he continues, "this is their grandparents' music, so I'm here to show them how it should be played."
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs tonight at 8 in the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Center, 575 Surfside Drive, Port Hueneme. All tickets are $18. For reservations or further information, call the box office at (805) 986-6598.