Although Friday, December 21, 2018 is the shortest day of the year, the audience of big band music lovers here at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts is hoping for a long evening of classic swing and holiday tunes performed by the incomparable Glenn Miller Orchestra!
Glenn Miller was America’s #1 best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1943, leading one of the best-known big bands in the world.
Miller was born in Iowa in 1904, but as a youngster, moved with his family to Missouri. By the time he was 11, Miller had made enough money from milking cows to buy his first trombone. After moving to Colorado, during his senior year of high school, Miller became keenly interested in a new style of music called “dance band music.” In fact, he was so taken with it that he formed his own band with some classmates and by the time he had graduated, he decided to make his mark as a professional musician.
After college, Miller went to New York City where he found work as a freelance trombonist with musicians including Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. After marrying his college sweetheart, Helen, in 1937, he started his own group; by 1938, however, the group had disbanded.
Discouraged, Miller created a new sound where he had a clarinet and tenor saxophone play the exact same part while three other saxophones played harmony together within a single octave. With this magical combination differentiating his band from all others that existed in the late 1930s, Miller signed with RCA Victor’s Bluebird Records and produced a string of hits which included “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which was awarded the first-ever gold record.
In 1942, at the peak of his musical career, Miller decided to volunteer for the armed forces. He formed a 50-piece Army Air Force Band, which he took to the UK in 1944 and presented over 800 performances. While flying from the UK to France to make arrangements to move his band there, Miller’s aircraft disappeared in 1944 in bad weather over the English Channel. His wife, Helen, accepted his Bronze Star medal on his behalf.
In 1946, the Miller estate authorized a band which was led by Tex Beneke; this edition of the band toured until 1950. After the release of the motion picture, The Glenn Miller Story, in 1956, the Miller estate authorized yet another band, the original version of the current orchestra that still tours today.
Inside the modern Grunin Center auditorium, a sold-out crowd of all ages eagerly awaits tonight’s holiday concert by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. There are adult children here with their parents, in addition to adult parents here with their children, many dressed in holiday attire — men in suits, boys in sweaters, ladies in dresses, and girls in skirts — providing a nostalgic nod back to a simpler time when swing was king!
Says Dom from Toms River, “I grew up with Glenn Miller’s music; it’s my era!” before adding, “Music is my passion — it’s a rare opportunity to see an orchestra like this right here in Toms River.”
The lights dim and the 16 musicians of The Glenn Miller Orchestra file in to take their seats on stage as bandleader Nick Hilscher bows and the orchestra begins the show with a rendition of their signature song, “Moonlight Serenade,” a number composed by Miller himself.
Although the group’s live performance sounds similar in nature to the Grammy-inducted 1939 recording of the tune, it is crisper, fuller, and even more alive! The old-time vibrato of the saxophones can be appreciated more than ever as the woodwinds contrast with the trumpets’ and trombones’ punctuating countermelody here in the comfortable Grunin Center listening environment.
Counting off a jazzy version of Roy Anderson’s holiday classic, “Sleigh Ride,” Hilscher directs the band to swing!
Featuring tip-top trumpet and trombone solos, the rhythm section — piano, string bass, and drums — percolates before the piece concludes with the famous trumpet “horse whinny” to great applause!
The band follows up with a rendition of Miller’s 1938 #1 hit, “Tuxedo Junction,” featuring the trombone section sounding low and rumbly and waving plunger mutes as the band swings.
Following avid applause, Hilscher greets the audience and introduces a song he says was written for the 1944 film, Meet Me In St. Louis.
Here, he and the orchestra perform a lovely rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” featuring Hilscher’s rich voice complimented by the group’s top-notch big band sound. The smooth mellow tone of Hilscher’s baritone vibrato — along with the live brass and woodwind instruments — fills the auditorium with Christmas spirit and puts everyone in a holiday mood.
Saxophones open “Little Brown Jug” — a rollicking swing version of the well-known 1869 folk tune — arranged for the band in 1939. In a perky rendition featuring a tenor sax solo, drummer Dean Schweiger plays bongos with his left hand as he drums with his right.
Female vocalist, Hannah Truckenbrod, is featured on a delightful arrangement of “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me.”
Truckenbrod continues to entertain the crowd with her lovely rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Her rich, full vocal is deftly supported by the orchestra — notably, by the trombone section which employs a nostalgic vibrato effect on their sound.
Miller’s 1941 #1 hit, “A String of Pearls,” is next — the glistening saxophones opening with that infamous melodic strain which is answered by the trombones. It’s followed by a playful arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman” — featuring trombone playing the melody — with multiple solos played by various orchestra members.
Moving on to Miller’s 1941 hit, “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” band leader Nick Hilscher — his hair gleaming with pomade — snaps and cues the band.
Listeners enjoy the wah-wah of the muted brass and the smooth sound of the woodwinds. Singing and swinging to the infectious melody, the audience cheerfully claps along.
The singing group, the Moonlight Serenaders — comprised of Hilscher, Truckenbrod, and three members of the orchestra who take a break from playing their instruments to sing — croon in five-part harmony, swinging up a storm.
The band stands as the singers clap and the audience joins in on this contagious feel good song!
“American Patrol” is a 1942 Glenn Miller tune which combines original themes in addition to well-known American melodies like “Dixie” and “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean.” Hilscher dedicates this number to all of the veterans in attendance at the Grunin Center who stand to be recognized. The crowd applauds for the veterans and continues to clap enthusiastically throughout this appealing number.
After Hilscher sings the old-fashioned “I’m Doing My Christmas Dreaming a Little Early This Year,” he asks the audience, “Are you having a good time?” to which they respond with an emphatic, “Yeah!”
Act I ends with a performance of 1939’s “Pagan Love Song” where Dean Schweiger’s drums set a quick and breezy tempo for trombone and tenor sax solos before Schewieger plays an impressive drum solo.
During intermission, we take a moment to chat about the performance thus far with several audience members including Annie and Ron from Egg Harbor City.
Comments Annie, “There’s nothing like Glenn Miller’s music — you feel it and you get caught up in it!” Noting, “This is the third time we’ve seen the group,” Annie recalls, “I’ve enjoyed it ever since I was a kid — I’m hooked!”
Ron agrees, stating, “I’ve loved it my whole life! You can tell when it’s Glenn Miller’s music in just one note!” before adding, “I even listen to it when I’m working — I have 12 hours of 78 rpm music on my phone!”
Act II commences with a dynamic and jazzy version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” and is followed by a nostalgic rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont.” Featuring the true Glenn Miller styled and classic vibrato sound, the number features all of the band’s talented wind players on saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.
Saxes bow and trombones sway on a swinging version of Miller’s 1940 Top 5 hit, “Pennsylvania 6–5000,” complete with telephone “rings” on the cymbals and the audience vocalizing the title in rhythm along with the entire band.
Hannah Truckenbrod follows up with a joyful rendition of the Christmas classic, “Let It Snow.”
A highlight of the evening is Truckenbrod’s exceptional version of the ballad, “I’m Glad There Is You.” Sounding sweet and resonant on this lovely composition, Truckenbrod is expertly accompanied by Hilscher and his world-class orchestra.
Sleigh bells introduce the next number, a Glenn Miller arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” which starts with a swing rhythm and then transforms into a Latin feel as Hilscher sings lyrics including, “Down in Mexico/We don’t have no snow!”
Following enthusiastic applause, Hilscher announces that tonight’s performance is the last concert of the year for the orchestra and that, after the show, four band members will be leaving the group. To honor the quartet, the band plays a rousing version of Glenn Miller’s 1940 effort, “Oh So Good” on which all of the musicians shout to them in unison, “Oh so good — so good!”
Hilscher’s warm vocal is spotlighted on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”
Then, the audience enjoys yet another highlight of the evening’s musical feast with the band’s performance of one of Glenn Miller’s signature songs — his 1940 hit that topped the charts for over three months — “In the Mood.”
Putting everyone in the mood as they clap along to the big band sound, an older couple in the crowd starts to dance down front. As audience members hoot and holler for them, a younger couple jumps in and starts dancing, much to the delight of the crowd!
Following huge applause, Hilscher and the Orchestra conclude tonight’s stroll down Memory Lane with a reprise of “Moonlight Serenade,” as band members rove about the stage playing to each of the four musicians who are leaving the group.
The audience leaps to its feet for a standing ovation, and Hilscher and Co. return for an encore of a Glenn Miller song about which he says, “Back in the day, you couldn’t dance to this song — you simply had to stop and listen to the band,” before noting, “That’s what may have added to its popularity.”
Here, he and the group perform “Bugle Call Rag,” a brisk piece which features a fast and furious drum solo by Dean Schweiger that not only electrifies the audience, but inspires Hilscher and the band to conclude this rapid-fire number with style and showmanship!
As audience members make their way out of the Grunin Center auditorium, we take a moment to chat with two of the audience members who couldn’t help dancing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s live rendition of “In The Mood.”
Explains Grace from Collegeville, PA, “I’m a big fan of Glenn Miller! My grandfather listened to his music, and I’ve been a huge fan of it, especially since I started playing jazz alto sax in high school.”
Declaring, “I think the Glenn Miller Orchestra is even better live then they are on recordings,” Grace continues, “The energy coming from the stage is invigorating — it’s just amazing to see and hear it in person!”
Her dance partner, Joe from Royersford, PA agrees, remarking, “I’ve never heard anyone play like that!” before adding, “and that drummer was astounding!”
We also get a chance to chat with two members of The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
First, we talk to drummer Dean Schweiger, who hails from Marlton, NJ. Asked what it’s like to be back in the Garden State after performing all over the world, Schweiger exclaims, “It’s like playing at home!”
And to prove the point, many of Schweiger’s family members — cousins, uncles, sisters, and brothers, and more — are here to support him.
Recalls Schweiger’s aunt, Sarah, from Columbus, “As a kid, Dean was a drummer,” explaining, “He loved Little Ricky, who played the drums on the I Love Lucy television show.”
When asked to share her opinion of tonight’s concert, Sarah contends, “I would come to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra even if my nephew wasn’t in the band — I love them!”
Reveals Schweiger’s mom, Annette from Marlton, “Since Dean was three years old, he’d play his toy drum, and I would have to constantly tape it up so he could play it again.”
Continuing, “He played drums throughout high school,” Annette recalls, “He’s been saturated with music ever since he was a kid. His dad is a trumpet player. We used to play Glenn Miller’s music at dinner when Dean was little, and he was mesmerized by it. Little did we ever imagine that he would wind up playing in the Glenn Miller Orchestra!”
Lastly, we take a moment to chat with vocalist Hannah Truckenbrod who tells us how much she’s enjoyed singing here at the Grunin Center this evening. States Truckenbrod, “It’s great whenever we’re in the home state of one of our band members,” before she concludes with a smile, “Performing with the Glenn Miller Orchestra is always tons of fun!”
To learn more about The Glenn Miller Orchestra, please go to glennmillerorchestra.com. To find out about future events at Toms River’s Grunin Center — including Rickie Lee Jones on February 22, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn on April 5, and John Pizzarelli on April 26 — please go to grunincenter.org.
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