“I Got Rhythm” (1942) Glenn Miller with Billy May, Al Klink and Skip Martin

“I Got Rhythm” 

Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Billy May.

Recorded live in performance by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra on January 1, 1942 in New York.

Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D. McMickle, first trumpet; John Best, Billy May, and Bobby Hackett, trumpets; Paul Tanner, Jimmy Priddy and Frankie D’Annolfo, trombones; Lloyd “Skip” Martin, first alto saxophone; Wilbur “Willie” Schwartz, alto saxophone; Al Klink and Gordon “Tex” Beneke, tenor saxophones; Ernesto “Ernie” Caceres, baritone saxophone; J. Chalmers “Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Bill Conway, guitar; Edward “Doc” Goldberg, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.

The story:

“Hollywood.” In the years immediately before World War II, and through the War years, that name evoked all kinds of pleasurable images for Americans young and old. At the epicenter of the Hollywood fantasy were the major film studios. The two biggies were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or M-G-M, or more simply “Metro” to Hollywood insiders, and Warner Brothers, or “Warner’s,” to denizens of the film capital. Metro specialized in escapist fluff, like the Andy Hardy movies, and The Wizard of Oz, and movies that included Clark Gable. But they occasionally produced more powerful dramas, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Spencer Tracy demonstrated heavy-duty acting chops, opposite the gloriously beautiful good/bad-girl Ingrid Bergman, and the beautiful sweet-as-honey good girl, Lana Turner. Warner’s made lots of money through the 1930s with gangster films starring Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, various woman-centered films starring the dynamic Bette Davis, and adventurous romps, starring Erroll Flynn. Humphrey Bogart was definitely a second-line actor at Warner’s in the 1930s, but his star began to rise around 1940 via films like The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra. By 1942, Bogie was on his way to major stardom, with the aforementioned Ms. Bergman, in Casablanca. Smaller studios, including Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Columbia, Universal and R-K-O all had their stars and their successes as well. From the late 1930s through the War years, Hollywood film studios were money making machines.

Money was a language that Glenn Miller understood. By 1941, his success as a bandleader was already substantial. The year 1941, with the help of Hollywood, made Miller’s success much greater. That year was the year the Miller band made the film Sun Valley Serenade for Twentieth Century Fox. That film, which is entertaining though hardly great cinema, presented the Miller band in sound and in images that are to this day very effective. Those sounds and images impelled Miller’s young fans to buy more of his records and to come out to see and hear his band when they appeared at theaters and ballrooms across the country. The Miller mega-hit “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” came out of that film. And all of this was further reinforced by Miller’s appearance on his own thrice-a-week network radio show. In short, if any bandleader during the swing era understood the concept of pull-marketing, Glenn Miller did. As 1942 began, Miller was in the middle of an almost unprecedented bonanza as a popular bandleader.(Above left: Glenn Miller in Hollywood – looking into the future – 1941.)

Unlike many Americans in 1941, Glenn  Miller was acutely aware of the increasingly dire situation the nations opposing Germany, Japan and Italy in World War II found themselves in. The news coming out of London was particularly disturbing. In addition, Miller began to notice that more and more young men in his audiences were wearing military uniforms. This was because on September 16, 1940, the United States Congress had passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for the draft. This was the first peacetime draft in United States history, and very soon millions of young men began to be drafted. Consequently, Miller began to broadcast a series of radio shows on the NBC radio network that he called Sunset Serenade, which had its first broadcast on August 30, 1941, from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. On this show, Miller continued his practice of dedicating songs to various military installations in the U.S., which he had begun doing some time earlier on his regular radio show broadcast over CBS, Glenn Miller’s Chesterfield Moonlight Serenade. (1)

Glenn Miller and his band perform on his CBS radio show sometime shortly before mid-1941.The audience is full of uniformed military men.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shook Glenn Miller. Before that, at least career-wise after 1939, it is likely he thought of little other than how to make his band more successful. By 1940, he and his management team had figured that out brilliantly. As 1941 was drawing to a close, all he had to do was maintain his band as an excellent performance machine, maintain his health, and continue to follow the pattern that had enabled him to be successful, and he could, seemingly, go on making great sums of money indefinitely.

Of course, to make that money involved a huge amounts of planning, organization, and hard work. And travel. Miller completely understood the ways to maximize the amount of money he could make in exchange for those things. But one large lesson he learned as a result of his experience making the film Sun Valley Serenade was that in addition to all of the marketing benefits explained above, when he and his band made that movie, they not only made a lot of money, they did not have to travel. And they got to stay for several weeks in a row in Hollywood. Miller, like many other bandleaders and musicians who spent years in the music business grinding out a living playing a lot of one-night dance dates across the country, was definitely bitten by the Hollywood bug in 1941. He and his wife Helen bought “a fifty-five acre ranch with orange groves during the filming of Sun Valley Serenade. The ranch was located off Fish Canyon Road between Monrovia and present-day Duarte. Miller nicknamed it Tuxedo Junction.”(2) Unfortunately, events conspired against Miller being able to enjoy his ranch very much.

A model of Miller’s home in California that somehow made its way to England in 1944. The young man looking at it is trumpeter Bernie Privin, who was a member of Miller’s Army Air Force band.

Because of the success of Sun Valley Serenade, Miller was offered a contract by Twentieth Century – Fox to make another movie in 1942, this one called Orchestra Wives. He and his band did make that film, reporting for work at the Fox studio in Hollywood on March 23, 1942. They continued working on that film until May 22, 1942.

But before they headed west to make that movie, the Miller aggregation played a one-week stand at the Loew’s-Capitol Theater in Washington D.C., running from March 5 through March 11. During this engagement, Miller  “…quietly contacted military officials to learn about potential opportunities to get more involved in the war effort.”(3) The next contact Miller had with the U.S. military was a meeting he had with Lieutenant Commander Eddie Peabody at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, where the Miller band performed on May 26, 1942. Word of Miller possibly joining the Navy appeared soon thereafter in Billboard magazine.(4) On June 20, Miller applied for an appointment as an officer in the Navy. That application was rejected on August 1, not because of any personal inadequacies, but apparently because of controversy that had arisen in the wake of “…Navy …officers (being) suspected of accepting bribes from persons in the entertainment industry in exchange for commissions to evade the draft,” (5) among other reasons. (Above left: Glenn Miller amid Navy men: He first sought to enlist in the Navy but was rejected. He then applied to the Army and was accepted.)

In the wake of this, Miller astutely changed course, in essence offering his services to the Army. In the letter he wrote to Army officials on August 12, 1942, he stressed that his current draft classification was 3A. He then said: “I mention this only because I want you to know my suggestion stems from a sincere desire to do a real job for the Army, and that desire is not actuated by any personal draft problem. …I hope you will feel that there is a job I can do for the Army. If so, I shall be grateful if you will have the proper person contact me an instruct me as to further procedure.” (5) Miller followed this up with a personal visit to Army officials on August 19. The next day, he reported to the Army Medical Board at 39 Whitehall Street in Manhattan for his physical examination. For the next couple of weeks, Miller’s application for service in the Army wended its way up the chain of command. Finally, “…(O)n September 8 the War Department announced Miller’s appointment as a captain in the Army Specialist Corps, serial number S-397. His orders were to report for duty with the Seventh Service Command (Special Service) at Omaha, Nebraska on October 7.” (6)

The telegram with which Glenn Miller was welcomed into the U.S. Army.

Now in the Army, Miller began immediately to unwind the commitments and organization that he has so painstakingly built up over the previous four-plus years. Although he had tried to keep secret all of his specific actions regarding enlisting, the men in his band sensed that something was afoot, and began asking questions. Immediately after he learned that his appointment as a captain in the Army had been completed, he called a closed-room meeting with his band members, told them of his appointment, and informed them that he would fulfill the commitments he had made up to and including a part of the engagement he had booked at the Central Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. That last gig would be on September 27. After that, the band would cease to exist. He asked that all of the band members remain with him until that last engagement had been played. Everyone in the band except one member, trumpeter Steve Lipkins, who was then in negotiations with Jimmy Dorsey about joining his band, remained until the last date. As he had before on a short-term basis, Bobby Hackett filled Lipkins’s chair in the trumpet section.(7)

The music:

“I Got Rhythm” was composed by George and Ira Gershwin in 1930 for the Broadway musical Girl Crazy. Almost immediately, it was embraced by jazz musicians because of its chord changes, which were seemingly an inexhaustible source of inspiration for improvisation.(8)

The four-note opening riff in “I Got Rhythm” bears a striking resemblance to a melodic fragment in the third movement of composer William Grant Still’s “Symphony No. 1,” subtitled Afro-American. That symphony was completed by Still in 1930. For many decades, this composition, and indeed much of Still’s music, was relatively obscure. (In the last decade, I am happy to report that the music of William Grant Still is being performed, recorded and celebrated much more than ever before.) Of course, Still himself knew what was in that symphony, and late in his life speculated that George Gershwin may have borrowed a snippet of his melody, and then transformed it into “I Got Rhythm.” In the 1920s, Still played in the pit orchestra for the musical revue Shuffle Along.(9) Gershwin was often in the audience for that show. Still suggested that Gershwin may have borrowed the melody from his improvisations in the orchestra pit of Shuffle Along, some of which he later used in his Afro-American Symphony. (A link to the third movement of Still’s Afro-American symphony appears at endnote. (10))

Glenn Miller’s involvement with “I Got Rhythm” stretched back almost to its genesis. In 1930, he was a member of the pit band that accompanied the performers onstage in the show Girl Crazy. That band was led by cornetist Red Nichols, and in addition to Miller, it included a couple of 21-year-old musicians who would later become a big part of the swing era: Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. In addition to playing trombone in the Nichols band, Miller also did a lot of arranging for that group, including charts for the songs in Girl Crazy. (Above right: Glenn and Helen Miller, at left, and Bobbi and Red Nichols, at right, have fun together at Palisades Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey in May of 1930.)

Miller had made a good recording of “I Got Rhythm” in 1937 with his first band, the one that was not successful. That recording, a peppy outing to be sure, is excellent, and quite jazzy. The arrangement is by Miller, but has always reminded me of something Bob Crosby’s band might have recorded. A bit later, in 1940, Miller had his chief arranger Jerry Gray write up “I Got Rhythm.” For whatever reasons, that arrangement was not played very much. Still later, in late 1941, a loping, relaxed arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” was written for the Miller band by Billy May. That is the arrangement we hear with this post.

The introduction starts with the rhythm section, led in this instance by Doc Goldberg and his walking bass. They are picked-up by the horns, with Billy May himself on plunger-muted trumpet, in dialog with the saxophone quintet. Arranger May had fun with the meter used throughout this performance. Sometimes it is 2/4, sometimes 4/4, sometimes 2 and 4 together. This deceptively meaty introduction effectively sets the mood of the piece: hip, droll and swinging.

The first chorus spots the mix of cup and straight-muted trombones setting forth the melody, answered by the robust reeds for the first sixteen bars. On the bridge, the straight-muted trumpets state the secondary melody, underlined by the ascending reeds. The last eight bars of the first chorus spots the surging saxophones, with Skip Martin’s alto in the lead and Ernie Caceres’s strong baritone greatly enriching their sonic mix. May adds open brass highlights to this aural feast in the last few bars. It is obvious just from the first 1/3 of this performance that Billy May, then 26 years old, was already a masterful swing arranger. (Above left: L-R: Bassist Edward “Doc” Goldberg.)

There follows an interlude, during which May returns with the arranging devices he used in the introduction. The second chorus, which begins after a marvelous series of descending ensemble sounds, encompasses a vigorous 16 bar jazz solo by the very talented tenor saxophonist Al Klink. May allows him to improvise at first with a simple background of rhythm, and then against some swinging sounds provided by the open trombones. Skip Martin follows on his alto saxophone, gliding through his own 16 bars. In this sequence, May contrasts Martin’s singing alto saxophone sound with the softly played open trombones and murmuring, low register saxophones.

The next chorus has May playing his open trumpet for eight bars, his sound raw and hectoring, against a cushion of dense ensemble sonorities, and Moe Purtill’s heavy back-beats. There follows an up-and-down transition played by the sections of the band, taking the dynamic level down all the way to Doc Goldberg’s bass. (Above right: Miller sidemen – 1942: L-R: Jimmy Priddy, Frankie D’Annolfo, Bobby Hackett and Al Klink.)

The finale starts with the brass instruments, played open but into their metal derbies, setting up a a quiet riff atop the walking rhythm (8 bars). Drummer Purtill adds a bit of color with his sly snare and bass drum beats. Then the brass players lift their instruments out of their derby mutes and riff with them open, creating a warm brass sound at a medium dynamic level, while the saxophone quintet plays the melody in unison. (8 bars)  Then the dynamic level goes up as the instruments, now richly harmonized go into a higher register, and take the music to a bright conclusion. (Above left: L-R: Billy May playing his trumpet, Frankie D’Annolfo, Moe Purtill, GM and Willie Schwartz’s head.)

This is a great, colorful, well-paced arrangement, played with panache by the Miller band.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Glenn Miller Declassified by Dennis M. Spragg, (2017), 18. Hereafter Spragg.

(2) Spragg, 24.

(3) Spragg, 24.

(4) Billboard, June 13, 1942, 7.

(5) Spragg, 27.

(6) Spragg, 34.

(7) Spragg, 31-32.

(8) Here is a link to a wonderful early recording of “I Got Rhythm,” with great jazz solos from Benny Goodman on clarinet and Pee Wee Erwin on trumpet: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/09/09/the-birth-of-the-swing-era-part-1-i-got-rhythm-1935-benny-goodman/

(9) Shuffle Along is a musical composed by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, and a book written by the comedy duo Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. It was one of the earliest and most successful all-black Broadway shows. The show influenced development of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. It premiered at the 63rd Street Music Hall in 1921, running for 504 performances, a remarkably long run for that decade. It helped to launch the careers of Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Paul Robeson. (This summary is a condensation of information in the Wikpedia post on Shuffle Along.)

(10) Here is a link to a recording of the third movement of William Grant Still’s “Symphony No. 1.” You can determine from listening to it if the melodic “hook” for “I Got Rhythm” may have originated in this music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7ZOAVraaRU

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