Nick Hilscher’s affinity for big band music began as an 11-year-old, when he discovered the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Tommy Dorsey. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, he began his professional career in his teens, playing piano and singing. His passion for the genre continued throughout adolescence and into college, eventually leading him to perform with both groups.
In 1998, he became the featured male vocalist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. He took a year off from college to work with the band, and completed his degree in 2000. He returned to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, performing an average of 300 shows a year until February 2005. In 2002, he recorded his first solo album, Nick Hilscher sings with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
In April 2010, he released another solo album, Young and Foolish, featuring the music of Hank Williams Sr., Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Roger Miller, Nat “King” Cole and Cole Porter. Hilscher arranged and orchestrated all of the songs. Later that year, his holiday concerts included a tribute to Frank Sinatra. In addition to his work as a solo artist, he became the featured vocalist for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, taking over as director for 2011. In January 2012, he began his new position as music director of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
In this 2010 interview, Nick Hilscher discussed his love for big band music, techniques he uses for arranging orchestration and vocals, and the songs’ timeless qualities.
What was it about big band music that caught your attention as a child?
First and foremost, the swing rhythm. It was something different for me, and it moved me like no other music. The harmonization and the saxophone, especially with Glenn Miller’s orchestra, he had five sax players and one clarinet and it was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever heard. The use of four trumpets and four trombones and the rhythm section, piano, bass and drums was different from what I’d listened to up to that point. It was an instrumental thing at first. I was playing piano, and the actual music knocked me out. Then I heard Sinatra and I fell in love with singing this kind of music. I worked on singing alone in my bedroom, and the next thing, I was doing it pretty well.
How much did you catch from your peers regarding your musical tastes? And who’s laughing now?
That’s a really great question! Actually, I did not get any flack from anybody my age. I was in middle school, and if you’re going to get messed with, that’s the time it’s going to happen, but that was also the time when New Kids On The Block were the big thing and the girls were into that. No guys were into that, and the girls who were into that weren’t interested in those guys, so I had a pass at it. By high school, we would have assemblies with entertainment, and it came to a point where I would write out Dixieland tunes and perform them with a couple of brass players from the school band. I wrote their solos and scores. People respected what I was doing and thought it was neat.
What were the steps that led you to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and what does it take to cut it in that gig?
I went to college as a piano major in Birmingham. Right before my junior year, I came home for break, and my dad and I talked about doing a demo tape. I went to a studio and recorded six tunes. Of all the strange connections, my mother’s cousin is from a small town in South Carolina, and back in the 1960s she lived in Las Vegas and became friends with the current leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We sent my demo to my cousin, who wrote a letter to the bandleader. I got a call from their road manager around November of my junior year in college. She said, “We want you in the band, but we want to make sure you did not Pro Tools your voice. We want to audition you in person. We will be in Macon in two months.” I did the audition, and they had a singer at the time for five more months, so they signed me on as their next singer. I left school after my junior year and joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a year. My first gig with them, they flew me in, I got on the bus, went to the first gig, did a soundcheck and performed with them. It worked out well and made for a very good relationship with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I left after a year to finish my degree in piano, and then I did another five years with them.
How does working with a full orchestra differ from being a solo artist, both in the studio and onstage?
I write and transcribe arrangements of a lot of the music in my show. That is definitely where the piano and music theory come in. The only difference is that I run the show instead of being hired, but I don’t do a lot of solo or me in a small group. Everything I do is a big production. I like working with a lot of people and having them onstage working with me. In a lot of ways it is very similar to working with the Miller and Dorsey orchestras. The music is similar and that’s my forte. I write arrangements, and I included an Elvis song in big band style. In getting back to your original question, there’s not a lot of difference except that it’s my band and I run the whole operation.
In your blog you talk about the importance of arrangements and how “a great arranger has the ability of using an eraser.” Is this one of those valuable lessons that musicians often neglect?
Absolutely. As an aspiring arranger, you usually want to throw everything you know into that one arrangement, and it’s too much information. The whole rule of “Keep it simple, stupid” is so important. You have to back away. The main thing you’re trying to do with arrangements is give a different spin on a song that’s already written. For me, if the arrangement doesn’t glorify the song that, for example, Cole Porter wrote, and I’m just showing off my skills, I’m not doing much service to that song. My album was recorded in Orlando and I worked primarily with a group of Orlando musicians. I live in Atlanta and I drove to Orlando. We had one rehearsal a month before the recording sessions and we ran through some of the songs. I heard the things I did and I thought, That doesn’t help my voice stand out. I erased huge sections and rewrote them. It was a learning experience for me. The baritone player came up afterward and he told me that quote about the eraser. I went home and spent days editing and rewriting, and I was actually very happy when I got to the sessions. You’ve got to help the singer along, even if the singer is yourself.
What did you learn from playing with both orchestras?
I originally spent six years with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, 48 weeks a year on the road. We’d do three months, take a week off, three months and a week off. I was dating the person I met in college and we got married in March 2005. I got off the road in February 2005 and I needed a break, so I devoted my life to her for four months and then I began getting calls. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra had heard about me through my Glenn Miller connections. I started working with Dorsey and that became my primary gig outside of my own band. Buddy Morrow, their leader, worked with Dorsey in the 1930s and he was in his 80s when I was hired. He was a star in the 1950s and he wasn’t going out as much, so it was perfect for my home life and going out for a week at a time.
Buddy was the best studio musician in New York on trombone, the first-call guy, and working with him was amazing. Larry O’Brien, who also played trombone, was the leader with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the show was his from top to bottom. With Buddy and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, I had to sing and talk and it taught me so much. He’s greatly missed and was a wonderful mentor.
Is the audience consistent or does the demographic sometimes surprise you?
There are times when I am surprised. The question is always, “Are big bands coming back?” In the 1990s we had the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies and Harry Connick Jr., so I don’t know, really. It’s never consistent. There’s always the World War II generation, and baby boomers are there. Once in a while I’m surprised by people younger than I am. Sometimes local high school bands come to see us. I think there is a group of young people who really love this music and they are the future fan base. I love singing this kind of music to people in their 70s and 80s because it has a whole different context for them. It’s an honor to sing to people from that generation.
What makes this music timeless?
The music of this generation, this era, what we call the American Songbook, was written in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s for Broadway shows. It was writing a song with an art form. I’m not saying that it isn’t one now, but my take on the art form is that one particular person spent their life writing music, like George Gershwin, or they spent their life writing lyrics, like his brother Ira. Rock and roll bands are writing songs and that’s an art form too, but I really think we’ve lost a little bit of what it was like to write something like “I’ll Be Seeing You.” This music is what it is and it continues on. People ask, “What makes classic music classic?” The names of the songs are familiar, people still perform them, and they are standards. The melodies, the chord structures, there’s something special about the way all those elements add up. Interestingly, Frank Sinatra had one of his biggest hits with “Strangers In The Night,” and he hated the song. I was writing an arrangement of it and I have a video of him performing, it’s his Concert for the Americas, and at the end of that song he turns to his band and says, “That’s the worst song I’ve ever heard.” I’ve been listening to Sinatra since I was 15, and now, when I compare the works of Johnny Mercer to “Strangers in the Night,” I realize that he was right — those lyrics really were not that great!