Band swings to Glenn Miller memories

May 09, 1994|By Janet Cawley | Janet Cawley,Chicago Tribune

Amid tearful and treasured memories, the singular sounds of the Glenn Miller band are once again reverberating through the ivied cloisters of Yale.

It's been exactly half a century since the trombonist leader of one of the most popular civilian dance bands of his time left Yale's home in New Haven, Conn., with his military band to entertain troops overseas. In December, it will be half a century since Miller's death in an air crash over the English Channel at age 40.

But for a brief, heart-stopping moment, he seems to be back, wire-rimmed spectacles and all. And not just Miller, who was an Army Air Corps major at the time of his death, but his entire band as well -- wearing the same uniforms the band wore in 1944, performing beneath the same 48-star flag Miller used during his concerts at Yale, playing the same music and even re-enacting the same radio playlets aimed at boosting enlistment.

Now, just like the original musicians, the band is about to leave for Europe -- in this case for concerts in England and France to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.

The instigator is 38-year-old Thomas Duffy, director of bands at Yale as well as professor of music, a teddy-bear-like dynamo who, defying all visual logic, transforms himself into an uncanny likeness of Miller. And the 70-odd undergraduates in the Yale Concert Band metamorphose into the members of Miller's original 418th Army Air Forces Technical Training Command Band, even assuming the names of some of the original musicians.

"I'm Vince Carbone," explained Elizabeth Branch, an 18-year-old saxophone player from Park Forest, Ill., as she posed for a picture wearing her military khakis. (Although there were no women in Miller's band, there are three in the reconstituted 1994 version.)

Miller's band was at Yale for 15 months in 1943-44, accompanying military cadets to the New Haven Green twice a day for morning and evening ceremonies, belting out such classics as "St. Louis Blues March" and "Buckle Down Winsocki" as they marched. At dances and other events on campus, they played other Miller tunes, such as "In the Mood," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," "Little Brown Jug" and "Tuxedo Junction."

When Mr. Duffy and his re-created band gave their first major concert on April 8 in Woolsey Hall, on the same stage where Miller performed and beneath the same flag, there was cheering and ovations. But the other sound in the vast hall was weeping as some now elderly adults broke down, engulfed by their memories.

The stories from that night were astonishing.

One was Mr. Duffy, the band leader, and his time-traveling transformation from 1994 to 1944. For the first half of the program, the Yale Concert Band, in formal clothes, played music from that earlier era, but not Miller's numbers. Mr. Duffy -- bearded, shaggy-haired and decked out in a tuxedo -- conducted.

He had his barber standing by, and at intermission she cut his hair short and slicked it back like Miller's and shaved the mustache and beard he had worn for 20 years. He donned an exact replica of Miller's olive-drab jacket, including the insignia, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses just like the ones Miller wore. When he reappeared to lead the military band in the second half, even his own mother didn't recognize him.

Perhaps the most remarkable incident to happen that evening involved the printed programs. The names of Yale's war dead are carved into the marble walls outside the concert hall, and Duffy had arranged to have pieces of paper, each bearing the name of an individual on the wall, inserted into programs at random to be recited by the audience at a certain point in the concert.

The next day, he reports, a very elderly lady arrived at his third-floor walk-up office. She explained: The night before, at the concert, she and her sister had looked at the name in their program and were speechless to see it was the sister's son.

" 'We never got a chance to say goodbye,' she said. " 'We never felt a closure. Last night we did. We really felt he was here.' "

"And," said Mr. Duffy, "I told her, yes, he was here, and he had one of the best seats in the house."

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