ON THE BOOKS: Big Bands Recalled in “My Life”

The disc jockey was born in January 1935 when Martin Block, a $20-a-week announcer employed by New York’s WNEW 1130-AM, began playing records between updates in the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and murdering the airman’s son. Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne.

After five weeks, the trial was over; Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced. And WNEW debuted a new program called “Make Believe Ballroom,” in which Block “who had a voice like maple syrup…would have us all believe he was in a huge, four-stage ballroom, on which the best orchestras of the day were poised, waiting for him to spin the stage a quarter turn and reveal them.

The quote comes from David Miller, a retired marketing manager who remembers hearing Block when he was 8 years old. It’s found early in Miller’s just-released memoir “Close Encounters: Music in My Life” ($24.95 at swingindownthelane.com), which serves as a sort of summary of Miller’s remarkable romance with big band music.

It’s a loose, rambling, rambling book, informed by Miller’s undying love for its subject, and it would make an interesting addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of American popular song.

Those interested in 20th century big band music – especially that produced by musical ensembles of 10 or more pieces including saxophones, trumpets, trombones, rhythm section and sometimes vocalists who dominated the scene American pop music from the mid-1920s through the 1940s – will find it almost essential.

Miller’s interest in pop music blossomed early on, and he began collecting records and keeping a diary of his favorite songs when he was 8 years old. By the 1980s, he had amassed a collection of over 9,000 faces. They came in handy when in 1983 he began producing a weekly show devoted to big band music from his home studio in Little Rock.

At first, the show, then titled “A Sentimental Journey With David Miller”, aired on a commercial station, North Little Rock’s KAUL. When KAUL changed format in 1985, the show found its way onto Little Rock’s National Public Radio affiliate, KUAR 89.1 FM.

Then, in 1989, when the station received a cease and desist order claiming that a Florida broadcaster had copyrighted “A Sentimental Journey,” the show became “Swingin’ Down. the Lane with David Miller”. It now airs weekly on about 40 NPR affiliates across the country.

Although Miller was tutored by the original disc jockey, he was never content to simply spin records. It also provides background and commentary and interviews with musicians.

Much of the book consists of excerpts from interviews Miller conducted with everyone from singer Jo Stafford – who in pre-Elvis days (before 1955) had more record sales worldwide than any other female artist – to singer/black cowboy star Herb Jeffries to Big Phat Band frontman and arranger Gordon Goodwin.

“Close Encounters” serves less as an autobiography than as an account of Miller’s sentimental upbringing in the music he loves; he plans a vacation to bandleader Glenn Miller’s hometown of Clarinda, Iowa to attend an annual four-day festival and chat with the few surviving members of Miller’s various bands.

(Glenn Miller, unrelated to the author, was presumed dead when his plane disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944. Although Miller was in his late thirties and probably would not have been drafted for the World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps out of patriotism and perhaps because it would have been difficult to keep a band together in wartime.While he was in the Army Air Corps, Miller formed a 50-piece military band that recorded over 800 performances and recorded songs in German to be broadcast as counter-propaganda denouncing fascist oppression in Europe.)

Although probably more valuable as a primary source than as a critical analysis, Miller’s book is charming and highly digestible. He generously drops snapshots of his encounters with these artists, and his fanboy enthusiasm is somehow contagious.

The Swing era is now mostly (mis)remembered for dance culture and fashion – two-tone spectator shoes and sweetheart necklines – and some proponents of cool jazz and bebop might consider its detailed arrangements and reliance on written compositions (as opposed to improvisation) as training wheel jazz.

But there’s no doubt that Miller knows and loves it, and that combination of expertise and passion elevates “Close Encounters: Music in My Life” from the ranks of benevolent reminiscence typical of the successful person.

“Stained Glass, Blackboards and Cash Registers of Fort Smith, Arkansas” by Wayne Bledsoe, Jim Kreuz and John Lehnen
With those who pay for architectural services increasingly drawn to the economies of boxes and smooth surfaces, every city should arm its witnesses and raters with cameras to document the slide into mediocrity.

“Stained Glass, Chalk Boards & Cash Registers of Fort Smith, Arkansas”, a photographic survey of some of the western outpost’s most distinctive buildings, is such a melancholy record.

Retired schoolteacher Wayne Bledsoe, retired chemical engineer Jim Kreuz and John Lehnen, a self-described Fort Smithian, are the authors of this photographic tour of 129 ‘exquisite and ornate’ buildings that ‘survived the’ wave of progress “in the 1960s”. Their working thesis is that no other city in Arkansas contains so much architectural diversity; this book makes their case.

Most of the places documented in these pages were built before 1940, with Fort Smith National Historic Site, established around 1817, the oldest cataloged structure. More recently constructed entrances include a few mid-century bank buildings and public schools – Southside High School (1963) and Ramsey Middle School (1954).

Each entry is accompanied by a few paragraphs of explanatory text, and often there are stock photographs that provide context.

The authors say they’ve arranged the book as a hypothetical road trip, and almost – but not quite – apologize for not providing a map. (A map would have been nice, guys.) Use your phone, they say. Fair enough, I guess.

It is a kind of civic pride that these quirky old buildings are still standing, but the future is not promised. The newest entry is a two-page spread on the 98-year-old St. Scholastica Monastery at Fort Smith, which – barring some miracle – is set to be demolished very soon.

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