Glenn Miller Holiday Concert: The origins of an annual tradition

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Kane
  • Air University Historian

Local radio stations are already playing Christmas songs, a reminder that Christmas is just weeks away. For Maxwell Air Force Base and the River Region of Alabama, that means that the annual Glenn Miller Holiday Concert is almost here.

As in many past holiday seasons, the “Airmen of Note” of the United Stated Air Force Band will present this central Alabama tradition in December, marking the 76th anniversary of the first Glenn Miller Christmas Concert.

It was Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1942, and the United States had been at war for a year. To help ease the pain of War Department telegrams and empty places at the Christmas table the next day, Capt. Glenn Miller, well-known musician and band leader, now in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Forces and assigned to Maxwell Field, gave a concert to Maxwell’s service members that evening.

In 1982, the commander of the Air University band asked Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, then-Air University commander, a jazz enthusiast and Glenn Miller fan, about reviving the Glenn Miller concert on its 40th anniversary. Cleveland, in turn, proposed to then-Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar that Air University and Montgomery jointly sponsor a free concert to commemorate Miller’s 1942 Christmas Eve concert.

Select members of the Air University band, dressed in World War II U.S. Army Air Forces uniforms, performed music in the Miller style to a packed Montgomery Civic Center. This revival began an annual holiday tradition.

Miller, born on March 1, 1904, in Iowa, and his orchestra finally achieved commercial success and, by 1941, was the number one “big band” in the country. When war came to the United States on December 7, 1941, Miller wanted to use his musical talents for the war effort, and he managed to obtain a commission in the AAF in November 1942.

At Maxwell Field, his first assignment, Miller was assigned as assistant special services officer. He discovered that Maxwell had a dance band called “The Rythmnaires,” with Jerry Yelverton, a former member of Miller’s prewar orchestra, as one of its musicians. The band played five times during Miller’s five weeks at Maxwell, culminating with the Christmas Eve concert. Five days later, he was on his way to the AAF Training Command’s basic training center at Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In route to his new assignment, Miller stopped at the Headquarters AAF Technical Training Command, Knollwood Field, N.C., and convinced the commander to use former professional musicians, now assigned to the AAF, to form military bands at AAF installations. These bands would provide musical programs for the trainees and better utilize musicians’ talents for the war effort. By the end of the war, the AAF had formed over a hundred such installation bands.

From March 1943 to May 1944, Miller commanded the recently activated 418th AAF Band at the AAF training center at Yale University, consisting of top musicians from around the country.

After the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, Miller persuaded Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the AAF commanding general, to allow him to take a select group of band musicians to England to play for the troops. This band, officially organized as the Casual Detachment (Glenn Miller’s Band), arrived in England in mid-June 1944.

Glenn Miller’s Band gave 300 live performances in England and 500 radio broadcasts to Allied troops on the continent. In December, Miller, now a major, obtained approval to give live performances to the troops in recently liberated Paris. On Dec. 15, 1944, he departed England to make preliminary arrangements for the band. Tragically, the aircraft Miller was aboard disappeared over the English Channel, and Miller is still officially listed as “missing in action.”

Glenn Miller’s “Big Band” sound provided a holiday morale boost to the airmen at Maxwell Field for the Christmas of 1942, and a taste of home to thousands of American service members across the United States and Europe. In July 1944, Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the commander of Eighth Air Force, told Miller: “Next to a letter from home, Captain Miller, your organization is the greatest morale builder in the European theater of operations.” 

Since 1982, with the exception of 2013, the Glenn Miller Holiday Concert has commemorated Glenn Miller’s role in lifting the morale of American service members during one of America’s darkest hours. It honors the American service members who have served and still serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.