“Star Dust” (1940) Glenn Miller with Tex Beneke and John Best

“Star Dust”

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael; arranged by Bill Finegan and Glenn Miller.

Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra on January 29, 1940 for Bluebird in New York.

Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D. McMickle, first trumpet; John Best, Clyde Hurley, Legh Knowles, trumpets; Paul Tanner, Frank D’Annolfo, Howard Gibeling, trombones; Hal McIntyre, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone and clarinet; Jimmy Abato, clarinet, and alto saxophone; Al Klink, Gordon “Tex” Beneke, tenor saxophones; J.C.”Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Richard Fisher, guitar; Rowland Bundock, bass; Maurice Purtill, drums.

The story:

By the time this recording was made, Glenn Miller was well on his way to great success. He had struggled as a bandleader through the years 1937 and 1938, come perilously close to bankruptcy, and then gradually through 1939, saw his hard work slowly begin to pay off. It was said that radio exposure for a band (see below) created public interest, and that led directly to people coming out to dance to that band’s music, coming to theaters where the band might be appearing as a part of a stage show, and buying its records. This was undoubtedly true. However, any successful band had to have a musical product that was attractive to audiences, and to achieve this, the person leading the band had to have many musical attributes. Glenn Miller had those attributes.

Although Glenn Miller was an excellent trombonist, he was well aware that his competitors on that instrument, principally Tommy Dorsey as a nonpareil melodic trombone virtuoso, and Jack Teagarden, as a great jazz trombonist, had talents that were so extraordinary as instrumentalists that no matter how good his playing might be, it would inevitably be judged as inferior to the playing of those two giants. Moreover, the public had become aware of them before Miller’s success. There were two other trombonists whose playing Miller greatly admired: Wilbur Schwitchtenberg, whose professional name was Will Bradley, and Jack Jenney. Miller’s regard for the playing of Bradley was as high as it was for any trombonist. He had worked with him in Ray Noble’s band in the mid-1930s, and as he sat next to him night after night, marveled at the things Bradley could and would do with a trombone. (Later Bradley, with drummer Ray McKinley, led a moderately successful band, but he spent most of his career as a highly successful New York studio musician.) Miller had encountered Jenney on various occasions in the New York radio and recording studios in the mid-1930s. Jenney was as good a ballad player on his instrument any anyone, but was taking the instrument into new territory with his rhythmically fluid playing. Miller listened, appreciated, and wisely continued to be himself as a trombonist.

But beyond Miller being an excellent instrumentalist, he had other musical talents. He had during his professional career always been very serious about his study and understanding of music. In addition to on the job training, which for Miller had started in the early 1920s, when he learned to arrange, he improved his skills in that area steadily. He studied in the mid-1930s with the teacher Joseph Schillinger. Schillinger (1895-1943) was a strong advocate of his various musical theories and practices, including his method of musical composition based on mathematical processes. Although Schillinger’s methods were controversial, he attracted a number of very talented students including George Gershwin,Oscar Levant, pioneering swing arranger Bill Challis, in addition to Glenn Miller. It is my belief that Miller benefited musically from his study with Schillinger, and incorporated some of Schillinger’s ideas into his own approach to music. But Miller was too strong an individualist to simply become a total convert to the Schillinger method, or indeed to any methods other than his own. (Above left: Joseph Schillinger – mid-1930s.)

What is most interesting about Miller as an arranger is that despite his own long experience in making arrangements, and his study with Schillinger, when it came time for his own band to enjoy its greatest success, Miller applied all of his musical knowledge and experience as editor-in-chief of the music to be played by his band, not as arranger-in-chief. This was yet another example of Miller’s very effective musical leadership. Although Miller’s editing and revising of the arrangements of his young and extremely talented arrangers (all of whom he had selected to work with him because he recognized their talent), brought him into conflict with some of them (particularly Bill Finegan, and later, but to a lesser extent Billy May), he, not they, had spent the previous fifteen years on bandstands with various bands playing music of all sorts trying to please the paying customers.That experience taught him what audiences wanted and liked. By 1940, Miller knew what would work best in a ballroom for dancers, on the stage of a theater, and on a sponsored network radio program. His young arrangers, despite their talent, were just beginning to learn those things. (1)

The audience gets up-close and personal with Glenn Miller’s band at the Meadowbrook, Cedar Grove, New Jersey – November 16 – December 6, 1939. From top to bottom: saxophonists Tex Beneke, Hal McIntyre, Willie Schwartz, Al Klink; trombonists Glenn Miller, Al Mastren, Frank D’Annolfo, Paul Tanner; vocalists Ray Eberle and Marion Hutton are seated in front of the saxophones. 

The year 1939 was a pivotal one in Glenn Miller’s career. At the beginning of that year, he was struggling to keep his band working and struggling to pay his bills. But by the end of that year, he had achieved a number of successes, and had secured a sponsored CBS network radio show for his band, this being a fifteen minute program sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, that was broadcast on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 to 10:15 p.m. On Monday, Friday and Saturday nights, his band was broadcast over NBC on a sustaining (unsponsored) basis from the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan, where they were ensconced for a three-month residency. As 1940 began, the Miller band was very busy.

Soon they would get busier. In addition to its already demanding performance schedule, they opened a two-week stand at the Paramount Theater on Broadway, New York’s premier big band showcase (and a place where a lot of money could be made in a hurry), on February 28 where they played multiple shows each day. But the band opened at the Paramount without Miller. He was in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital with “…a bad case of grippe, plus a sinus infection and complete exhaustion.”(2) He missed the first few days of the Paramount stand, but returned in less than completely recovered condition, and led his band. He was not going to let anything interfere with his new-found success, or his opportunities to build on that success. (See photo below.)

For the first thirteen weeks of the Miller band’s run on the Chesterfield radio show, they shared the program with the Andrews Sisters singing group. But for various reasons, the sisters departed after thirteen weeks, and Miller had the show to himself for the next two years and eight months.This sponsored radio show, Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, was the cornerstone of Miller’s ever-increasing success, something he understood completely, and exploited brilliantly. Indeed, Miller was so skillful as a radio personality and producer of content for his Chesterfield show, that he created ongoing opportunities for himself and his band throughout his entire run on that program. 

The music:

By the time this recording of “Star Dust” was made, this edition of Glenn Miller and His Orchestra had been in existence for about two years. Over that two year period, Miller had strengthened the band one performer and one arranger at a time. Although a couple more personnel changes would soon take place, this band was already playing at a very high level.

The recording opens with the signature Miller reed section sound, led by tenor saxophonist Al Klink and clarinetist Willie Schwartz playing the melodic lead in unison, with Schwartz’s clarinet an octave above Klink’s tenor. There is no introduction. Miller wanted this arrangement, from the downbeat, to say musically to all listeners, this is Glenn Miller’s band.  Of course Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” was a standard by 1940, so when this band and that song were put together, good music, in the Miller style, was going to be the result. (Above right: Miller brass early 1940: L-R front: Paul Tanner, Tommy Mack, Miller, Frank D’Annolfo; bassist Rolly Bundock; back: Legh Knowles, John Best, Dale McMickle, Clyde Hurley.)

When Miller’s reed section plays, one is struck by not only the lovely sound they make, but by their smooth, fluid phrasing. Their playing can be described as horizontal. In contrast, the brass playing, while impeccable in the technical sense, is somewhat stilted as a result of the at times almost staccato way they play. I am not criticizing the musicians in the brass section because I am certain that they are playing the music as it was written. Their playing can be described as vertical. And I am certain that the music was written that way because Miller wanted it to be played that way. Miller’s brass continued to play this way, more or less, for the next two and a half years. When trumpeter John Best joined the Miller band a few months before this recording was made, he noticed this. “When I joined (Miller) after leaving (Artie) Shaw, he told me ‘I want you to play like you played with Artie.’ I tried, but the band had a set way of phrasing. Everything was set, and that was how it was played.”(4) It was played that way in the ensembles. In his solos, Best played differently. (See below.)

The brief transition on piano is played by Chummy MacGregor, Miller’s closest associate in the band. The warm tenor saxophone solo is by Tex Beneke, who excelled at this sort of improvisation on ballads. (Above right: Miller, ashen and gaunt after leaving the hospital prematurely, poses with fellow bandleaders who led his band at the Paramount Theater while he was hospitalized. L-R: Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa; GM; Tommy Dorsey, Dick Stabile.)

The highlight of this performance however is the superb trumpet improvisation of John Best. Best had come up in the mid-1930s through a number of bands before making a name for himself in Artie Shaw’s band in the period from 1937 to August 22, 1939, when he left Shaw to join Miller. (4) In addition to playing fine solos, Best was also a very capable first trumpeter. Best’s solo style was a very personal distillation of Louis Armstrong and Bunny Berigan influences. Here his playing, though unmistakably that of John Best, is particularly Beriganesque. His phrasing is relaxed, his ideas are exciting. (Below right: trumpeter John Best.)

The arrangement on Glenn Miller’s version of “Star Dust” is attributed to Bill Finegan and Glenn Miller. I am sure that Miller assigned this arrangement to Finegan, and that Finegan delivered his arrangement in due course to Miller. What happened after that is not certain, unless the original score for this arrangement still exists among the archived Miller documents. If it is, I strongly suspect that it will show exactly how Miller revised/edited Finegan’s work. Whatever those revisions might have been, the result is a marvelously cohesive and memorable swing era ballad performance of a great song.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

(1) It should also be noted that after Miller’s band became successful, he become so busy that he scarcely had time to sit down and write arrangements. He not only appeared with the band at all of its performances, led rehearsals, acted as de facto musical producer and director of his radio show, he also traveled extensively with the band to all road dates, and engaged in a multitude of promotional activities for his band.

(2) Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, by George T. Simon, (1974) 207.

(3) Ibid. 181.

(4) Best joined the Miller band at the Capitol Theater in Washington, D.C., probably on August 27, 1939. This information comes from the book Moonlight Serenade…a Bio-Discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band, by John Flower, (1972) 85.

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1 Comment

  1. I always look forward to your articles as they are more than just a laundry list of players and dates and times etc. This article as always, gives the reader an inside look into how all great music develops and especially the effort needed to create great music in a big band format. The focus on Glenn Miller’s diligence in expanding his own knowledge while spotlighting his openness to the possible contribution of others is a lesson for anyone with the ambition to become a band leader. Of all the vocalists who would later have hit records with this great song, my favorite will always be Nat “King” Cole.

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