The Glenn Miller Orchestra Submitted photo

I was not alive when Big Band music was in its heyday, but I do remember my father listening to his 78s and me trying to look uninterested because there was something almost magical about the way that music would make you feel. At my age back then, the music of our parents was inherently un-cool, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I got the opportunity to chat with the musical director of The Glenn Miller Orchestra when they came up to Maine to perform back in the 90s.

I remember his enthusiasm, and it rekindled my fondness for this infectious genre. On Oct. 19 folks in this area can relive those powerful vibes as that orchestra returns to central Maine for a show at the Waterville Opera House. To that end, I got the opportunity to chat with the new musical director of this famed band, a gentleman by the name of Erik Stabnau, who I reached in Nashville when his group was on tour there. I began our chat by asking him how long he has been in this position with the organization.
Stabnau: I’ve been with the band in total five years now — since 2017 — but I’ve been acting as music director for just over a year now. … I began during the pandemic as music director in 2021, so just a little bit over a year.

Q: I had done an interview with The Glenn Miller Orchestra back in the early ’90s, I believe, and the guy I talked to was the musical director at that time — his name was Larry O’Brien.
Stabnau: Yeah, he was the director for well over 20 years, and our previous music director, Nick Hilscher, was around for about 10 years.

Q: In your opinion, what is the contributing factor for the popularity of this organization?
Stabnau: Yeah, a lot of folks wonder what it is about the Glenn Miller Orchestra that’s kept it touring all of these years later. I think there are maybe two reasons that I can give. I think the music that was written in that era was just great music. Nowadays pop music is really not the same as it was in the 1940s, back then there were great writers, great musicians performing great music all the time. But I think another reason is simply that this was the popular music of the 1930s and 1940s, so there’s going to be certain songs or certain musicians from each decade that make it into the lexicon of popular music, and Glenn Miller is certainly (responsible) for that kind of music from the 1930s and ’40s.

Q: Now, do I remember correctly that Miller and his orchestra were lost in a plane crash in the mid-1940s?
Stabnau: That’s correct. Glenn Miller was lost in a plane crash in December of 1944, it was in Europe. At that time he was stationed in London, he lead a great band there, and he was actually part of the military, and he went down in a plane, the rest of the band however did not, they were traveling separately so they continued after his disappearance.

Q: Now, as far as the current band goes, there must be quite a large repertoire of material to draw upon for your performances, right?
Stabnau: Absolutely, there is a huge list of songs that we can draw from. When the band was active from ’38 to ’42, before Glenn joined the military, we call that the civil band, there’s about 750 songs from that era alone. And, of course, the orchestra has been touring for all these years afterward so with more additions made with each passing decade there’s now more than 1,500 songs in the library catalogue, that’s a huge amount of music.

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Q: Wow, I guess so! It must be an undertaking putting together a set list.
Stabnau: Well, at every performance we might perform 20 to 25 songs. Now about half of those are going to stay the same each and every night, songs that people know and recognize like “Moonlight Serenade,” “In The Mood,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” things like that. So for folks coming to the shows who want to hear those big hits that they recognize, we’ll absolutely play those. And folks coming to the shows who might want to hear something a little different, we’ll always include new and different songs as well.

Q: But all from the same catalogue of the works that have been built up over the years?
Stabnau: Absolutely, yup. So some are from the original band, some are from the military band, and some are more additions from the ’50s and onward, there are always new songs being added, as well.

Q: Do you perform in the band? When I talked with Larry, he played trombone.
Stabnau: Yeah, I do perform with the group, I play the tenor saxophone and I sing, as well.

Q: Now, how many shows, on average, do you do in a year?
Stabnau: We do a ton of performance. In the normal year, a non-pandemic year, the band is doing over 200 shows in that calendar year. It takes us all across the U.S. and Canada, and we do a Japan tour every year, as well; so the band is on the road essentially full time the entire year, it keeps us very busy.

Q: And with the musicians touring and performing together must make for a very tight, cohesive sound, the camaraderie must be reminiscent of the way it was when it all started all those years ago.
Stabnau: Yeah, absolutely. And it is rare to play with the same group of musicians like this day in and day out, of course. Back in the ’30s and ’40s this was the popular music, and there were a lot of bands performing like this all over the country, so it wasn’t as rare back then. But nowadays the Glenn Miller Orchestra is really the last full-time touring big band, so it is rare to have the opportunity to perform the same music with the same musicians night in and night out.

Q: And after the pandemic shut everything down, it must be nice to get back out there again.
Stabnau: Yeah, there was a period in 2020 with months and months without shows. We’re not quite back to that full-time schedule that I mentioned. It looks like that will begin next year with those 200 and more shows, but we’re getting close. I think this year we’ll play about 150 shows in total. Things are opening up and we’ve seen a really nice response from audiences. I think that folks are just happy to go out and do something.

Q: Is there anything, Erik that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Stabnau: Yes, if folks are thinking about coming to the show but are not sure about it, I’d say give it a shot. There’s a lot of great music and a lot to love about these concerts, whether you’re a Glenn Miller fan, a fan of big band music, or not. These shows provide something for everyone: there’s instrumentals, there’s vocals, a guy (singer) and a girl (singer), there’s a vocal group that sings with us, there’s choreography, there’s a bit of history and background of the music between each song. I think music lovers of all kinds will find something to enjoy.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.