- Contributed by
- Nick Ross Orchestra
- People in story:
- Glenn Miller, Nick Ross
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 January 2005
Bandleader Nick Ross talks about the music of World War 2.
Music mirrors the measures of history, like some giant soundtrack to accompany the story of man, and in the sweep of those events there have been times when composers and musicians have seemed to be born to the occasion - none more so, of course, than the inimitable Glenn Miller who not only felt instinctively for the mood of wartime Europe but almost single-handed created the spirit with which we faced it.
The memories brought to life of this era span almost all the emotions of those times: comradeship, doubt, fear, loss and, most significantly, the hope in love. As we move into a new century, we might well be left with a silent gap, a void into which the younger people of today will have nothing of their memories to invest; that will leave the Big Band sound and the classic melodies and lyrics of another age little more than the trivia of nostalgia.
It is for this reason that the Nick Ross Orchestra continue to recreate the music of an era which might otherwise be so easily set to one side. Nick talks about the exciting new sound that was as much part of the 'American Invasion' as chewing gum, nylon stockings and liberal supplies of cigarettes and chocolate. He tells me that while even the most basic of items were rationed at home, that GI's had access to luxury goods including V-discs, phonographic recordings for military personnel, featuring the most popular Big Bands of the day. Familiar names like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and the voices of popular singers including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
The GI's and V-discs were soon followed when the most famous bandleader of all time, Alton Glenn Miller, stepped on British soil shortly after the D-Day deployment. War was still raging - it would be some time yet before victory in Europe would be declared - and Miller's Allied Expeditionary Forces Orchestra would form part of a key Allied propaganda initiative aimed at occupied Europe. 'The role that music played in the war is often overlooked' Nick says, 'The BBC would broadcast Miller's AEF Orchestra straight into the heart of enemy territory in an effort to shore up morale for the troops and to seduce the enemy with American culture in a game of mental warfare.' To listen to broadcasts in occupied Europe was a punishable offence, and he believes that as such, it probably made them even more attractive. 'A possible explanation why Big Bands are still enormously popular in Germany, Holland and Belgium' he concludes.
Here at home, we soon fell to the onslaught of Miller's unique sound, Nick smiles when I ask him the formula. 'A very disciplined and tight sound which notched Glenn Miller up over 70 top ten hits in a three and a half year period was a very clever union between melody on lead clarinet doubled an octave below by a tenor saxophone, surrounded by a tightly voices sax section, and supported by the signature 'do-wah' sound of muted trumpets and trombones.' It is that classic sound of 5 saxes, 4 trombones, 4 trumpets and a rhythm section which took wartime Britain by storm, and that sound which the Nick Ross Orchestra still so faithfully recreate today.
And the impact this sound had at home? Nick answers: 'You have to realise that morale was very low. The enemy was ruthlessly discarding the young lives of our soldiers while moving perilously closer, so the arrival of the American troops on British soil was welcomed. Towards the end of the war, just before D-Day, there were approximately two million Americans based in Britain. The infectious finger tapping and foot stomping sound of 'In the Mood' perfectly captured a re-invigorated moment in time when anything seemed possible, and that included beating the Nazi's.' He continues, 'to virgin English ears the sound was fresh and new, easy to dance to, and full of energy, and the BBC broadcasts no doubt contributed to its rise in popularity.'
'That popularity has endured through to today, the audience remain faithful' he says, 'and attending a performance evokes powerful memories of both good and bad times'. Hearing 'A String of Pearls' or 'Moonlight Serenade' often brings a tear to two, and he gets regularly told by audience members that a particular tune that he had played was 'their song' - one they first danced to, or shared that first lingering kiss to. 'It is witnessing that joy that makes it worth it' he says - after all it was the soundtrack to their youth.
Today we view that era with fond nostalgia but we can forget that this was also the time when some of the most memorable and uniquely distinctive music of the 20th century was produced. As we celebrate the courageousness of men and women fighting for the freedom and democracy we hold so dear today, we should be dancing to "Our Kind of Music" - the soundtrack to that war!
Kruger du Toit
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