Paul “Lightnin’” Tanner
A Remembrance from the Glenn Miller Archive
Paul Ora Warren “Lightnin’” Tanner, Ph.D. passed away the afternoon of February 5, 2013 at his assisted living care facility in Carlsbad, California, and it was with great sorrow that the University of Colorado Glenn Miller Archive (GMA) announced the passing of our extraordinary friend, mentor, donor, teacher, advisor and GMA Honoree. In the days since the sad but anticipated news reached us, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of affection for Paul, particularly from his UCLA students and also the many friends he made among music lovers around the world. We wish to extend our condolences to Paul’s wife Jan (Jeanette Steele), her sons, his brothers, their families and Paul’s closest friend other than his beloved Jan, Egil (Gil) Oftedal.
As promised in our initial announcement on behalf of the archive and our benefactor Jonnie Miller Hoffman, following is a remembrance of “Lightin’” from our archive family. We have respectfully observed numerous well-intentioned but inaccurate or incomplete descriptions of Paul’s life. We wish to honor our colleague with details about his career and, in recent years, what he has meant to our archive family and friends. As they were growing up in Southern California, Jonnie and her late brother Steven Davis Miller knew Paul as “Uncle Paul” — a member of their father Glenn Miller’s organization who remained devoted to Glenn’s widow Helen and her children. Jonnie and Steve have had many fond memories of fun times and outings with “Uncle Paul”.
Paul was born October 15, 1917 in Skunk Hollow, Kentucky, the son of Archibald Elmer and Janet Rose Tanner. The direction and accomplishments of his life would take him very far from his birthplace but he would never forget where he came from. When Paul was six, his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware. His father was the superintendent of a juvenile detention facility. Paul studied piano and learned trombone by age thirteen. During high school, Paul met Alma “Bunny” Smith, whom he would marry. Their marriage ended with Bunny’s death in 1981. Paul married his wife Jan in 1984.
After striking out for musical success with his brothers, by the summer of 1938 the aspiring trombone player found himself having the good fortune to be playing in Atlantic City, New Jersey in a band with Marty Caruso and several friends from Chester, Pennsylvania. As fate would have it, Glenn Miller and his orchestra were appearing at Hamid’s Million Dollar Pier at the exact same moment. This was Miller’s second band that he had formed in the spring of 1938 after disbanding his first group in December 1937. Glenn Miller was looking for a trombonist. Someone, perhaps Caruso or one of Paul’s friends, suggested that Miller drop by the “Swing Club” where they were playing to check Paul out. That evening, while playing with a chorus line of young ladies who Paul would later recall “removed their clothing in a rhythmical manner in return for certain monetary considerations”, he spotted Miller and his wife Helen sitting in the audience and paying attention to him. He felt the handsome and classy couple appeared completely out of place in the “Swing Club”. When the band took a break, Miller motioned Paul over to his table. Glenn complimented Paul on his playing. Paul asked Glenn for a reference but Miller replied “You’re coming with me. How soon can you get packed?” The rest is history!
By the end of 1939, Following many one-night appearances, extended engagements at the Paradise Restaurant, New York; Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, Cedar Grove, New Jersey and the Glen Island Casino, New Rochelle, New York; ample broadcast exposure nationally over the NBC and Mutual networks and hit RCA records, the Miller band had become a major success. During 1940, prime-time network radio exposure on the CBS “Chesterfield Moonlight Serenade” series, more network remotes from the Café Rouge, Hotel Pennsylvania, New York, more RCA hit records and many performances across the country all helped to cement the Miller Orchestra as America’s number one dance band. Paul Tanner was there for virtually the entire run, playing trombone with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra for most of the existence of Miller’s second and successful band, from August 27, 1938 until September 27, 1942. Paul can be seen in the trombone section of the Miller band in the two 20th Century Fox films in which they appear, “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) and “Orchestra Wives” (1942).
It was Glenn Miller who nicknamed Paul “Lightnin’ from Skunk Hollow” right after he joined the band in 1938. The young, six foot, three inch tall Mr. Tanner seemed to move a bit slowly and awkwardly among the professional musicians. The nickname stuck with the members of the Miller band who became very fond of “Lightnin’”. Glenn Miller also strategically seated Paul as the trombonist closest to the side of the stage in all the band’s performances (see above photo). Miller felt that the tall, handsome and very friendly trombonist would be a hit with dancers and listeners who came up to the stage to visit with members of the band. Paul did not disappoint him and was an audience favorite, although he was a section player and was not featured on trombone solos.
When Glenn Miller broke up his band to join the Army, Paul went with the band of Charlie Spivak along with Glenn Miller’s entire trombone section (and Nelson Riddle). The Spivak band, one of three orchestras in which Miller had invested and were operated from the Miller business office, was managed by Don Haynes, Glenn Miller’s manager, During his time with Charlie Spivak, Paul can be seen in the trombone section during the 20th Century Fox Film “Pin Up Girl” (1943) starring Betty Grable.
After nine months with Charlie Spivak, Paul followed his old boss into the Army. However, Paul did not join Miller’s Army Air Forces Orchestra based at New Haven, Connecticut. Paul became the leader of a jazz band at New Castle Army Air Base, Delaware. He recalled that he promised to work for Captain Miller after the war in exchange for Miller not moving him to the Miller AAF unit and allowing Paul to be stationed close to home with Bunny. The Army, however, later crossed Paul up by forming a musical group to broadcast and record V-Discs in New York and transferred Paul to that unit (by then, the Miller AAF Orchestra had already been sent overseas). Glenn Miller, who had been promoted to Major, went missing and was presumed killed December 15, 1944 in the disappearance of an aircraft in which he was a passenger on a flight from England to France.
Following the war and his discharge from the service, Paul was committed to join the postwar Glenn Miller Orchestra, which was led by Tex Beneke. However, the band would not become organized until early 1946. Meanwhile, Les Brown, who needed a lead trombonist, hired Paul. After six months with Brown, Paul joined the Beneke-led Miller band after arranging for promising young trombonist Warren Covington to take his place. Paul would stay with Tex Beneke under the aegis of the Miller Estate for four years until 1950 and two years following. Paul and Tex remained close lifelong friends.
Paul had what he described as a “nagging desire to take advantage of the G. I. Bill to acquire a college education”. He chose to live in California and attend UCLA while he simultaneously landed a job as a staff musician with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). He served as first trombone for ABC in Los Angeles for 16 years. Besides “being the oldest freshman at UCLA” and juggling his work at ABC with his academic requirements, Paul received his bachelor’s degree in 1958, graduating magna cum laude. He was invited to join the faculty and accepted. Paul went on to earn his master’s in 1961 and doctorate in 1975. He carried a full teaching load and played a key role in starting the well-respected UCLA jazz education program.
During the “23 years I was happily associated with UCLA”, Paul “took advantage of all the publication opportunities that came my way”. He also found time to earn his masters and doctorate. His classes were very popular and often commanded long waiting lists. He invited musicians to visit with his classes as guests and the list of guest speakers became a literal jazz who’s-who, which probably did not hurt the popularity of the courses. Paul taught at UCLA in all four music fields offered by the university: performance, theory, musicology and music education. By 1970 his overflow classes averaged 1,600 students per week. Paul was awarded the title of “Distinguished Professor” and taught over 75,000 students in “The Development of Jazz”. One of his students was a rather tall basketball player who really enjoyed “The Development of Jazz”. The student’s name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
He composed many published works for trombone at varying levels from complicated double concertos to easy solos for young players. He wrote and composed a successful educational film for the Columbia Broadcasting System titled “Discovering Jazz”. During his years in the studios, free-lancing and with ABC, Paul performed with Leonard Bernstein, Neal Hefti, Walter Hendl, Henry Mancini, Zubin Mehta, Eugene Ormandy, Andre Previn, Nelson Riddle, Pete Rugolo, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, and many others.
Paul was the author of numerous books, including the most used textbook in the history of jazz, “A Study of Jazz” (renamed simply “Jazz” as of its seventh edition), “Every Night Was New Year’s Eve – On the Road with Glenn Miller”, “Sideman, Stories about THE Band” and many books on trombone methodology. Paul taught his UCLA courses with the aid of “A Study of Jazz”.
While working at ABC, Paul became interested in unusual musical instruments and avant-garde techniques, including the Theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1920. This instrument was used for quirky musical soundtracks to create a sound that worked well in science-fiction films. Paul noticed that musicians attempting to play the Theremin were struggling with the device. Paul had the idea to build an instrument that could replicate the sound of the Theremin but with a hands-on mechanical control for volume and pitch. With friend Bob Whitsell, they produced the “Electro-Theremin”. Paul played this instrument for recordings, movie soundtracks and television programs, including “My Favorite Martian”.
The popular musical group “The Beach Boys” approached Paul to play the electro-Theremin with them and one of the results was the recording of “Good Vibrations” which was a Number One Tune on the Billboard Hot 100.
Following his 1981 retirement from UCLA, Paul remained closely involved with the family of Glenn Miller, alumni of the Miller band, the GMA and our Curator Alan Cass. During these years, accompanied by Glenn Miller’s sister, Irene Miller Wolfe and Alan and Sue Cass, Paul traveled to the University of Colorado Boulder and Clarinda, Iowa, home of the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society. Paul became a fixture at the annual Glenn Miller Birthplace Society music and history festivals. He came in contact with literally thousands of Glenn Miller fans from around the globe and seemed to find time to personally befriend all of them. Working with Alan Cass, the premiere Miller historian Edward Polic, authors, collectors and musicians close to Glenn Miller and the big bands, Paul shared his recollections and excitement without fail year after year at the Iowa get-together.
Paul shared with the Glenn Miller Archive and the Miller family a deep desire to pass the sound and spirit of the big band era to future generations of young musicians and listeners. He and Jan directed that Paul’s collection of personal memorabilia, records and artifacts be preserved by the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado Boulder where his career and legacy are permanently honored alongside the property and legacy of Glenn Miller and many other leading artists, broadcasters, authors, producers and collectors. The Glenn Miller Archive is privileged and blessed to have known Paul Tanner as our advisor as well as our donor. In 2011 we were honored to name Paul as a charter Honorary Advisory Group member. During an August 2012 visit to California for a memorial service honoring Steve Miller, Alan and Sue Cass with Ed and Judy Polic along with Gil Oftedal were able to spend an emotional and moving afternoon with Paul at his assisted living home. In addition to the Miller, Cass and Polic families, Paul was also a close friend of Glenn Miller Archive donor and advisor William “Bill” Suitts, who we also lost in the fall of 2012.
If the devotion of the people he touched is the measure of his life, Paul will forever remain one of the most beloved and respected musicians, educators and historians who ever graced our presence. He was a true ambassador for his musical era and devoted educator for future generations of jazz and big band musicians and enthusiasts. Paul Ora Warren Tanner was a truly humble and gentle person who loved everyone and who in turn was truly loved. He will be greatly missed by all his many friends. The music, recordings, memorabilia, photographs, letters and other lifetime personal property entrusted by Paul with the Glenn Miller Archive will be preserved forever in his name with great care and devotion.
William “Bill” Suitts
Steven Davis Miller
The Perry Como Centennial
The Edward Burke Collection