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Chattanooga Choo Choo
Saturday, the recent novel from Ian McEwan, has the hero Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon, musing on biography: "At times [Perowne] was faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages - bottled, like homemade chutney. And how easily an existence, its ambitions, networks of family of friends, all its cherished stuff, solidly possessed, could so entirely vanish."
McEwan's words apply well to Grudens' biography of Glenn Miller. The bandleader did 'entirely vanish', over the English Channel in December 1944. And these few hundred pages, 281 to be precise, do indeed have something of the homemade chutney about them. That is, they are familiar, made with love, tasty in parts, but with an ever-present amateurishness. In this instance, McEwan is right: it is faintly depressing.
Published (a tad late) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Glenn Miller's life and the 60th anniversary of Miller's disappearance over the English Channel in 1944, Chattanooga Choo Choo is a piece of popular sociology rather than a book about music. Written for Glenn Miller fans, not for musicians, the homemade characteristics are seen in slips such as the spelling 'Beethovan', the plural 'phenomena' used as the singular, 'Fazzola' (one zed too many), 'solo's' as a plural, and we are told that Mel Powell was 'bespeckled'. I think Grudens means bespectacled! There is consistent confusion between 'score' and 'parts'. Two pages from Glenn Miller's book on arranging are given, with instrument ranges and transpositions, the sort of thing offered in every textbook on big bands, nothing special to Miller. Miller's original arranging method contained a score of The Song of the Volga Boatmen, with a clever canon across the saxes and brass, one of the few examples of a true canon up to that time in the big band world. It should have been included; an opportunity missed. Illustrations in Chattanooga Choo Choo have a cheap appearance by being printed onto plain paper rather than glossy plates - common in American paperbacks.
Much of the content has the feel of a scrapbook. Reprints of the words of old songs, and posters, magazine articles and even record labels are reproduced. One article (unattributed) begins on one page in a minuscule point size - barely readable - then continues overleaf in a different font and larger print!
Glenn Miller has had a poor deal from critics and players, but Richard Grudens' uncritical account, though commendably enthusiastic, won't weigh heavily in righting that wrong unless it goes into another edition, with the benefit of expert editing. Go to Gunther Schuller's excellent The Swing Era (OUP, 1989) where, in fifteen pages on Miller, there is more information, comment and analysis on Miller's music and his sonoric assemblage than in the whole of Grudens' book. Schuller (a first rate musician) offers several short scores, no mistakes of spelling or grammar, and no bespeckled pianists. Less homemade chutney, more a string of pearls.
John Robert Brown
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