Glenn Miller Orchestra leader finds young in the mood

August 20, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Larry O'Brien doesn't worry that the audience for big band music is dying out. As the leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the 60-year-old trombonist sees too many young people swaying to the likes of "String of Pearls" and "In the Mood" to think that.

"We've always had our share of young people, but they seem to be more in evidence now," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Nags Head, N.C. "Last night we played a dance for the Big Band Preservation Society here, and we had a bunch of young people -- maybe 20 or 30 that were between 20 and 30 years of age. I think our audience base is broadening."

Nor does he have much trouble finding enough younger musicians to keep the Miller band swinging almost half a century after its founder's death (Glenn Miller disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944). But he does admit that there's one thing the younger generation doesn't always understand about the Miller songbook -- the difference between jazz and swing.

"It's difficult to get the concept across," he says, explaining that back in the swing era, band leaders understood the difference between dance music and the sit-and-listen stuff.

"The way I look at it is that the jazz band is kind of the glamour of this era; the dance band was the band that paid the bills," he says. "Most of the people of that era didn't go to listen. They went to dance. Even as fine a jazz band as Woody Herman's, also had a dance book, a separate book that they would play so that the people could get out on the floor and trot around."

Not only did the two types of music serve separate functions, but each demanded its own distinct approach to rhythm. "Jazz bands traditionally have played behind the beat," O'Brien explains. "Swing bands played on the beat." It's a subtle difference, but one which swing era fans notice immediately.

Trouble is, most of the kids in jazz education programs these days don't listen to swing bands. "They listen to jazz bands," says O'Brien. "They don't listen to Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, bands like that. They don't learn this other concept. So when they come aboard my band, I have to teach it to them."

Swing rhythm isn't the only area in which O'Brien takes care to preserve a vintage sound; there's also the matter of volume.

"A lot of the places we play today are not designed that well, so we do have to make a lot of adjustments," he admits. "We do

have to occasionally pump up the bass a little bit, we do have to put a microphone into the piano. Sometimes we even put microphones on the saxophone section. We don't like to, but sometimes we have to."

What he prefers, though, is to play unplugged -- something big bands did long before MTV turned the concept into a catch phrase. "Back then, when you played a ballroom or something like that, that was designed for an acoustic band to play for

people to dance," he says. "It had a wood floor, it had a lot of properties in it that made the music resonate and have a life of its own after it left the horn. You didn't need artificial amplification, electronic amplification, if you will.

"I like to boast that we are an acoustic orchestra. I also like to say that's the way it used to be and that's the way it ought to be."

(And that, O'Brien adds, is the way it will probably be at Pier Six. "Actually, if I remember correctly, the acoustics there were pretty good," he says.)

Yet for all the changes that have taken place over the years, one thing remains constant -- the quality of the Glenn Miller songbook. As O'Brien is proud to point out, the Miller band was always famous for its arrangements, and to this day he marvels at the ingenuity that went into some of those charts.

"They're magnificent, some of them, just magnificent," he says. "I keep going back to the library and pulling out old things. We just started doing last night an arrangement of 'A Million Dreams Ago.' It's a beautiful old tune. Nobody does it."

Sadly, "nobody" often includes his own band -- particularly when it's sharing the bill with other swing era acts. "We'll be playing the million-sellers that the people come to hear," he says of those shows. "That's what the people come out to hear -- 'In The Mood,' 'String of Pearls,' et cetera.

"But if they would come to hear us when we play our own concert, with no other acts included, they would hear things like 'It Must Be Jelly 'Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That,' and 'Oh So Good,' and stuff where we really have a chance to feature a lot of these guys in the band."

Glenn Miller Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave.

Tickets: $28.50 reserved, $19.50 lawn

Call: (410) 625-1400

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