Before Glenn Miller became one of the most influential big band leaders of all time, he was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder—for a little while, anyway. Born in Iowa, Miller and his family moved to Fort Morgan in the late 1910s, where he attended Fort Morgan High School. In 1923, Miller enrolled at CU Boulder, but because he was often traveling for auditions instead of going to class, he dropped out to focus on his career.

Over the next decade, Miller would play and record with the likes of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Charlie Spivak. But it wasn’t until 1938, when Miller formed the Glenn Miller Orchestra, that he truly saw success. The swing dance band consistently broke attendance records at live events, sold thousands of records, and performed in the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade.

In 1942, Miller joined the military and assembled the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. The group, which was sent to England to entertain the U.S. troops fighting in World War II via live and broadcast performances, was set to go to France, so Miller traveled ahead to finalize arrangements. In December 15, 1944, his plane disappeared (likely into the English Channel), and the military eventually declared Miller dead.

At CU Boulder, however, Miller lives on in library archives of more than 1,400 boxes of materials related to the late musician. Parts of the collection have been accessible to the public (or to students and staff for research), but most of the material is unorganized and uncatalogued. Library staff hope that will soon change, thanks to a recent donation from Deanna and Brewster Waddell, a CU Boulder alumnus and philanthropist. The couple donated an undisclosed amount to help the university hire an archivist dedicated to organizing the collection. We sat down with Megan Friedel, head of collections management and stewardship for the university’s Rare and Distinguished Collections, to learn more about what this gift means for CU Boulder and for our understanding of Miller and his place in the American big band scene.

Clippings from the Fort Morgan Times related to Glenn Miller. Photo courtesy of CU Boulder.
Clippings from the Fort Morgan Times related to Glenn Miller. Photo courtesy of CU Boulder.

5280: Where did the Glenn Miller Collection come from?
Megan Friedel: It came to us from a man named Alan Cass. He joined CU as a staff member in 1959; he was a stagehand at Macky Auditorium and eventually became the director. He went on to be the assistant director of the University Memorial Center in the ’70s. Around that time, he started to get really interested in Glenn Miller’s legacy. He started with a small display case at the student center, and it grew from there. Alan started collecting as much material on Glenn Miller as he could and eventually became the official curator of the Glenn Miller Collection. The collection has been at CU for decades, and it’s one of our biggest collections of materials, but trying to find anything in the collection is like trying to find a needle in the haystack.

What will the new archivist be tasked with doing to organize it?
The person in this position will be sorting through things by format. There are 70 different subgroups to this collection; each came from different donors. It doesn’t just document Glenn Miller, but that whole era of American big band music. There’s a lot that also documents the orchestra members he collaborated with. The archivist will be organizing the collection, creating a guide to make it accessible for research, and also drawing out some of those lesser-known stories. Glenn Miller supported a lot of Black musicians and musicians of color, and we really want to highlight those stories on social media. We’ll also be digitizing a lot of the collection to get this out to a wider group of researchers.

What’s the rough timeline for this project?
We just started the national search for the archivist and are hopeful we can hire within the next few months. Once that person starts, it’s a two-year project. That’s probably just about what it’s going to take to go through those 1,400 boxes. It’s a temporary position, but we hope the work on the collection will continue after that. There could be some really unique sound recordings, and they’re likely magnetic media, which is an at-risk media format. It would be great to preserve those recordings digitally after the project is over.

Why is organizing the collection so important to CU Boulder?
This collection is part of many archival collections that we co-manage with the College of Music’s American Music Research Center. That center is dedicated to documenting American popular music. With CU being such a hub for jazz studies, we really need to be able to bring this collection into the classroom so they can perform with some of this work and understand Glenn Miller’s place within the jazz scene. It’s going to bring these primary source materials to life in a really amazing way, so that students can bring life to this collection by playing these pieces and by engaging with Glenn Miller’s legacy.

Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and