Paul Tanner dies at 95; trombonist with Glenn Miller Orchestra

Paul Tanner, a trombonist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra who became a prominent jazz educator at UCLA and created an unusual electronic musical instrument heard on the Beach Boys’ classic 1966 hit “Good Vibrations,” has died. He was 95.

Tanner died of pneumonia Tuesday at an assisted-living facility near his home in Carlsbad, Calif., said his wife, Jan.

Tanner was a member of the Miller Orchestra, one of the best-known swing bands of the 1930s and ‘40s, for most of the orchestra’s existence of less than a decade. Over the course of his tenure with Miller, Tanner recorded some of the orchestra’s best-known hit recordings — “String of Pearls” and “In the Mood” among them. He left the orchestra in 1942, when Miller broke up his civilian band to form a service swing band. Tanner joined the Army himself in 1942 but did not play in Miller’s service ensemble.


He continued to play in big bands after the war — occasionally with Tex Beneke, a tenor saxophonist/singer with Miller who was leading a Miller-like band. But other interests soon began to attract his attention.

Tanner’s involvement with electronic musical instruments began in the ‘50s, when he was drawn to the sound of the theremin, with its eerie, sliding notes. (It was notably present in the film scores for “The Lost Weekend” and “Spellbound.”)

Fond of its unique tonal qualities, he was bothered by the theremin’s playing technique, which required the performer to control it by waving one’s hands. Working with inventor Bob Whitsell, Tanner designed an instrument that initially he called the electro-theremin. Eventually, it also received the name Tannerin, although Tanner preferred the title Paul’s Box. Unlike the theremin, its method of playing was closer to that of traditional keyboard instruments.

It was prominently heard on the 1958 LP “Music for Heavenly Bodies” as well as the TV series “My Favorite Martian” and another LP, “Music From Outer Space.” But the best known performance by the electro-theremin/Tannerin was on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” where it is played by Tanner.

Paul Tanner was born Oct. 15, 1917, in Skunk Hollow, Ky., the son of Archibald Elmer and Janet Rose Tanner. The family was musical, with all five of his brothers playing instruments. His early trombone training took place at a reform school where his father was employed as the superintendent.

Tanner was barely out of his teens when he joined the hugely popular Glenn Miller Orchestra, remaining with the ensemble from 1938 to 1942 and serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945.

He was discovered by Miller in what Tanner described as a “strip joint,” while he was playing with his brothers in a family band.

“Somebody told him to come in and hear this kid on trombone,” Tanner told NPR in 2000. “So he did, and he said, ‘Well, how soon can you come with me?’ I said, ‘I can come right now.’ I told him I was all packed, I had my toothbrush in my pocket and everything. And so I went with him that night, and I stayed with him until he broke the band up in September 1942.”

After the war years and into most of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Tanner was an active studio musician on the staff of ABC, performing on recordings, film and television scores composed by the likes of Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, Neal Hefti, Nelson Riddle and others. He also played in the ABC Orchestra, performing under the direction of Andre Previn, Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini.

While his playing career continued, Tanner earned three degrees from UCLA — a bachelor’s in 1958 (graduating magna cum laude), a master’s in 1961 and a doctorate in 1975. Carrying a full teaching load as well, he played a significant role in starting the university’s highly regarded jazz education program in 1958. Two of his courses, “Jazz Before World War II” and “Jazz After World War II,” were taught with the aid of his own book, “A Study of Jazz,” which has become one of the most widely used texts in jazz history courses.

His other books include “Sideman: Stories About the Band” and “Every Night Was New Year’s Eve,” inspired by his on-the-road years with the Miller Orchestra.

A decade after he began teaching, Tanner’s overflowing classes were averaging 1,600 students a week, with a waiting list.

He retired from teaching in 1981 and donated his record collection of 10,000 jazz albums and recordings, fully catalogued, to UCLA.

“I’ve always been very lucky,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1986, “in that I’ve never had a job I didn’t enjoy or one that didn’t pay well.”

Tanner, whose first marriage ended with the death of his wife, Alma, in 1982, is survived by his second wife, Jan, and two stepsons.