Few bands combine history and popularity like the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Miller was a star of the ’30s/’40s, churning out hits like “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Moonlight Serenade.” He started the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1938—but his life was cut short in 1944 when he went missing in action during World War II.
The band continued under the watch of Miller’s estate—and is still going today, touring up to 48 weeks out of the year. The band is headed to the Coachella Valley for a show at the Palm Springs Cultural Center at 7 p.m., Monday, March 13.
“The band has to be, almost without a doubt, one of the busiest bands in the whole world,” said Erik Stabnau, the current music director and bandleader, during a recent interview. “Pre-pandemic, this band was playing well over 200 shows every single calendar year, and that took us around the U.S., and took us around Canada; we do a Japan tour every year as well. Now, since coming back from the pandemic, we’re getting back to that full-time schedule. I think last year, we probably played somewhere between 150 and 160 (shows). It’s one of the busiest touring bands you’ll find anywhere.
“I think that’s one thing that musicians hope to do at some point in their careers—have a chance to tour, play different theaters and see the country or see the world. This band is unique in that it’s the same group of musicians from show to show. We travel by tour bus, stay in a different hotel almost every night, play in a different city almost every night—and the thing just keeps going year after year.”
Stabnau and the orchestra don’t play the exact same setlist every night.
“We’ve got a two-hour concert, and about half the music that you’re going to hear is Glenn Miller’s big hits—songs like ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ ‘In the Mood’ and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo,’” he said. “We play those every night. … The other half of the setlist is a variety of songs from the Glenn Miller songbook, which is so extensive. When Glenn Miller was a bandleader, which was for just a couple of years, I think they had, like, 750 songs that they wrote and arranged for the band. In the years and decades following, there have been another 750 or more added, so the numbering system in our libraries is over 1,500.
How does the band decide which songs to play?
“It sort of depends on the personnel of the band,” Stabnau said. “We’ll do some vocals. I do the male vocals, and we’ve got a gal named Jenny (Swoish) who sings the female vocals. We have a vocal group as well—that’s me and Jenny and a few guys from the band who sing backup harmonies. We’ll do some different vocals; we’ll do some different instrumentals. It may depend on where the show is. A lot of the music in the songbook is kind of regional music, like ‘Georgia on My Mind’ if we’re in Georgia, and we might play ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ when we’re down South. It just sort of depends on the performance.”
Stabnau explained how he came to be part of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“I grew up playing saxophone throughout grade school, and I went on to study saxophone in college, at the University of Rochester,” Stabnau said. “I always loved big band music; I always liked music of the ’30s and ’40s, and I knew that the Glenn Miller Orchestra was still around and still touring, but that was about it. In 2017, one of my good friends from Rochester joined the orchestra, and a couple of months later, he told me about a tenor-saxophone spot that was opening. I auditioned, and sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I joined up with the band. … At that point, I just played tenor sax with the group. A while later, I started singing with the vocal group, and over the pandemic, there were some changes in personnel here and there, and that’s when I stepped in front of the group as the music director.”
Today, Stabnau is well-versed in the band’s history.
“In between most songs, I’ll kind of emcee the show, and I’ll introduce the next song we’re playing, and maybe tell a short bit of history about it,” Stabnau said. “You get to hear a good bit of the history of the original band, and at the same time, I’ll introduce the musicians onstage for the current band.”
He said audiences enjoy learning about the classic music.
“It’s now over 80 years later, and we’re still playing the same stuff,” Stabnau said. “… It’s just kind of amazing how popular that group was back then, and how significant they were leading into World War II. This was the music of a generation, so it’s just really cool to know the history.”
Obviously, the band’s audience and personnel have both changed over the years—yet the band and its music remains popular.
“Years ago, the audience was made up mostly of the Greatest Generation,” Stabnau said. “Nowadays, there’s a bit more variety in the audience. We have a lot of children of the Greatest Generation. They may not have grown up with Glenn Miller, but they grew up with a family that played that music in the house, because their parents liked it. I think more recently, in the last couple decades, the swing-dance revival has really brought around a new interest in this kind of music. We play a lot of vintage events, which are hugely attended.”
The Glenn Miller Orchestra will perform at 7 p.m., Monday, March 13, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $34. For tickets or more information, visit glennmillerorchestra.com
Is there a dance floor at this venue?
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