HJ - Dennis Spragg Miller Historian

Dennis Spragg, the senior consultant of the Miller archive at the University of Colorado in Boulder, listens to a comment from the audience during his visual and audio presentation about the importance of 1939 in Miller’s music career. Although he had been working in music for years prior, that year is when his stardom began. (Herald-Journal photo by John Van Nostrand)

“The Wizard of Oz” is in movie theaters. Lou Gehrig retires from baseball. Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. Clarinda native and Big Band music star Glenn Miller found his sound.

It was 1939.

“America’s number one musician had a career that was unpredictable, unexpected, but inevitable,” said Dennis Spragg Friday, June 7, during the Glenn Miller Festival. Spragg, the senior consultant of the Miller archive at the University of Colorado in Boulder, gave a review of Miller’s momentum that led him to stardom in 1939.

Miller attended the university, but didn’t finish because of his drive to play music.

Ben Pollack’s band was popular in the mid 1920s and the band needed a trombone player. According to Spragg’s research, Miller was suggested by Ted Mack who knew Miller. Miller was hired. In 1926, Pollack’s band was recording Miller-arranged songs.

Spragg said Miller’s work was noticed because of Miller’s math like approach to writing music. Miller learned that from Dr. Joseph Schillinger. Other students included George Gershwin and pianist Oscar Levant.

“Miller’s early work with other bands included the Dorsey Brothers,” Spragg said.

Miller married Helen Burger, who he met while at the University of Colorado, on Oct. 6, 1928.

“She grounded the itinerant jazz musician,” Spragg stated in his handouts that accompanied the presentation. “She was a good judge of character,” he said about her influence on him, his work and their marriage.

“She was also a very perceptive and sensitive woman who counterbalanced his often stubborn personality,” he wrote.

Miller left Pollack’s band after marriage and continued his work in recording studios, radio and Broadway productions during the Great Depression.

Glenn and Helen pondered Glenn forming his own band although movie maker Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered Miller a positon to write in their music department

“Starting your own band is risky and expensive,” Spragg said.

Miller’s first band played May 17, 1937 in Boston. Other tour stops included New Orleans, Dallas and Minneapolis. Miller was upset recording contract agreements prevented him from playing New York City.

“He lost as much as $30,000 and was dissatisfied with his agency and the lack of radio airtime,” according to Spragg’s notes.

Tommy Dorsey loaned Miller some money and he found some new management.

“Tommy believed he owned Glenn. Glenn thought it was an investment,” Spragg said.

Health issues forced Helen to be hospitalized in late 1937.

“The band was on hold in 1937,” Spragg said. “It was not a failure,” he said about 1937. “It was time to change the dysfunction and it worked.”

Things looked much better in a new year. A Boston ballroom manager helped Miller payback Dorsey. Miller and the band played Boston and New York City. Miller signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. Spragg said Mike Nadorf, a talent agent, and David Mackay, an attorney, at the contract signing were important to Miller. Mackay eventually became legal counsel for the Miller estate.

The Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, was impressed by Miller’s sound and signed him to play the 1939 summer season. The Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, also wanted Miller to play.

“That was the break through,” Spragg said about Glenn Island. “Radio was becoming popular across the country. Miller came out of nowhere fast. He hit and hit fast,” he said.

Miller’s show from Glenn Island was a nightly feature on NBC radio. In late 1939, Miller replaced Paul Whiteman, the “king of jazz” on CBS’ radio show sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes.

The show is recreated during the Glenn Miller Festival.

The Andrew Sisters sang with the Miller band during the show’s first 13 weeks that started Dec. 27. Miller would continue with the Chesterfield sponsored show until Sept. 24, 1942, when he joined the Army for World War II.

“1939 had indeed been the year that he found the sound,” Spragg said.

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