...And it resides right here in our community. Meet the modern-day big band leaders who are sharing The Great American Songbook with new generations of music lovers.
Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. George Gershwin. All three men made music headlines and history decades ago, each becoming a legend in his own right. Today, they live on through top-notch big bands with roots right here in our area.
Glenn Miller was a trombonist, composer, and leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra – the most popular big band of the swing era. Today’s incarnation of the orchestra, led by Nick Hilscher, has been headquartered in Lake Mary since the late 1990s.
Tommy Dorsey, known as the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, was a trombonist, composer, and leader of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The modern Dorsey band has been based in Seminole County since the 1970s and is led by Terry Myers of Winter Springs.
George Gershwin was a prolific composer and pianist who got his start plugging songs on Tin Pan Alley in New York City. He went on to write music for Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Last year, Maitland resident and singer extraordinaire Michael Andrew launched a new orchestra with a retro look and sound: Michael Andrew & The Gershwin Big Band.
And as Michael points out, when an orchestra gets the Gershwin, Dorsey, or Miller imprimatur, the audience knows that “this is as good as it gets. It’s the best of the best.”
The Miller Legacy
The Baby Boom Generation and rock ‘n’ roll may go hand-in-hand, but many boomers also have a special place in their hearts for songs from the 1930s and ‘40s. Greg Parnell, president of Glenn Miller Productions, says that’s because big band music is what their parents loved. And no big band was more popular than the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“You play ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ and you see people in the audience crying,” says Greg, because it brings back treasured memories.
Trombonist Glenn Miller formed his orchestra in 1938 after launching an unsuccessful band the year before. The second time proved to be the charm, with the band cranking out a slew of hits, including “In the Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” At the height of the group’s success, the trombonist joined the Army, intent on modernizing its band and boosting soldiers’ morale. Soon, he was doing exactly that with The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
But in December 1944, tragedy struck. Miller boarded a transport plane to Paris, which vanished in bad weather over the English Channel. The bandleader was never seen again.
“He became an instant legend,” Greg says.
The Glenn Miller Story, a 1954 film starring James Stewart, further solidified the bandleader’s place in music history. The Miller estate relaunched the orchestra, which has toured every year since 1956. In 2003, Miller posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Today’s band is led with panache by vocalist Nick Hilscher, who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. The 18-member group is on the road about 46 weeks out of the year, Greg says, playing concerts across the United States, Canada, and Japan.
Greg knows firsthand how much the music means to audiences. He spent eight years traveling with the orchestra as its drummer and road manager.
“The swing era was the one time in our American history when jazz-oriented music was the most popular music of the day,” Greg says. “This was the music of The Greatest Generation. People look at it as a slice of Americana.”
To learn more about the band, visit GlennMillerOrchestra.com.
Tommy and Terry
Terry Myers, current bandleader of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, often tells people he has the best job in the world.
“It’s so simple,” he says. “I turn around and go, ‘One, two... one, two, three, four’ and listen to this wall of sound come out. I’m right in the middle of it, and it’s great.”
The original orchestra, founded by trombonist Tommy Dorsey, had 17 No. 1 hits during the 1930s and ‘40s. Frank Sinatra – Ol’ Blue Eyes himself – sang with the orchestra early in his career. Decades later, the big band still retains its cultural importance and resonates strongly with audiences.
“I like to think of what we play as America’s classical music,” Terry says. “It’s always going to be around.”
He has performed with the band since 1986 and has been its likable, respected leader since 2012. The 17-member orchestra swings at concerts across the United States and in countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Audience members sometimes approach Terry after a show to ask which of today’s band members played with Dorsey. The answer is: none of them did. Terry was a teenager when Dorsey died in 1956. The closest Terry ever got to the famous bandleader was watching the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra perform at a ballroom in Iowa.
Terry, a clarinet and saxophone player, began playing professionally when he was 12. When he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, it was being led by legendary trombonist Buddy Morrow. Buddy was Dorsey’s successor and the bandleader for more than 30 years. Carol Morrow, Buddy’s widow, still manages the group from her home in Seminole County.
As a bandleader, Terry considers himself a conduit between the musicians and the audience. He keeps his remarks informative, yet brief, so that everyone can get right back to enjoying hits like “Marie,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “Boogie Woogie.”
“I try to make it a fun, entertaining evening,” Terry says. “I want their toes to be tapping the whole time, and I want everybody to walk out of there with a smile on their face.”
To learn more about the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, visit BuddyMorrowProductions.com.
Even though George Gershwin wasn’t a bandleader like Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey, Michael Andrew believes that his jazz-infused music practically begs to be performed in the big-band style.
Gershwin was a composer and pianist who wrote extensively for Broadway shows and Hollywood films, producing a huge body of work.
“That music lends itself to the big band probably better than any music that’s ever been written,” says Michael, an acclaimed vocalist, bandleader, and actor.
Among Gershwin’s memorable compositions are “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris,” and the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” He frequently collaborated with his older brother, Ira, who was a gifted lyricist. George died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38. In 1998, he was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Last year, Michael formed an orchestra devoted exclusively to the Gershwin catalog. Michael Andrew & The Gershwin Big Band is modeled after the Count Basie Orchestra of the 1950s and ‘60s, more so than the big bands of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Last year, The Gershwin Big Band debuted with tours in California and the Midwest. The 19-member orchestra, including Michael and guest singer Michelle Amato, just wrapped up an East Coast tour that started in Florida and ended in New York. (The band’s pianist on the tour was none other than Lake Mary Life’s managing editor, Michael Kramer.)
Michael Andrew is so immersed in the traditional big band sound that he can’t understand why it isn’t more prominent on the music scene and airwaves like in bygone days.
“This music is extremely important. We can’t just look at it as an old art form,” says Michael, who is married with a young son. “We have to keep exposing our children to music that is evolved to its highest form and not just what’s popular now.”
And, pairing music such as Gershwin’s with a big band format is a match made in heaven.
“It’s like a marriage,” Michael says. “It is an ideal vehicle for presenting this style of music.”
To learn more about Michael Andrew and the Gershwin Big Band, visit MichaelAndrew.com.
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