Stan Kenton: Article 1
The Stan Kenton Story
An overview of Stan Kenton's career by Jack McKinney. Further interviews with Stan himself from featured below.
Source: Jazz Professional
Interview Text or Transcript
In May, 1941, the John Costello band had to make a last–minute cancellation of its summer engagement at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. The band had been selected to play the season after a series of auditions and when the owners heard the news, in desperation they turned to another band which had also auditioned, been found impressive, but turned down.
In May, 1941, the John Costello band had to make a last–minute cancellation of its summer engagement at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. The band had been selected to play the season after a series of auditions and when the owners heard the news, in desperation they turned to another band which had also auditioned, been found impressive, but turned down.
Thus, in a typically theatrical setting Stan Kenton presented the inauspicious debut of the fourteen piece band which he had dreamed into reality the preceding fall. Here were thirteen fledgling musicians centred around a pianist who felt that he lacked the strong personality to lead and sell a band.
The fourteen men have grown into forty in the course of the years, and the modest leader has become the most admired, most believed–in spokesman jazz has ever known.
American jazz magazines carried reviews of that band in 1941, but that was not the first mention of Stan Kenton in their pages. That came four years before in an in–person review of the Gus Arnheim band, when Kenton was the pianist–arranger. The reviewer, George T. Simon of Metronome, commented : "Stanley Kenton plays not only good rhythmic piano, but interesting fill–in figurations as well." The magazines seem to have missed Stan's playing with the late Skinnay Ennis's band (Gil Evans was doing most of the arranging), among others, or his teaming with Skitch Henderson as a twin–piano group.
From these obscure times the name of Stan Kenton has become a synonym for the modern in jazz. To the average person he is a personification of modern jazz, for while the names of John Coltrane Lester Young, Zoot Sims, Miles Davis, and even Charlie Parker are unknown (somehow Dizzy Gillespie does reverberate in their consciousness), the name of Kenton is perceived by virtually all over the age of eighteen, either with a shrug indicating "I'm not interested ", or with a head–tilting, eyebrow–raising smile which seems a universal password for all those versed in Kentonia.
Any classically trained musician will explain that there is very little which is new in his music, and that it has its roots in nineteenth and twentieth century classical composers. Yet, many of the same classicists will allow that there is something innovational about the way Kenton does it.
His new music is old in the sense that any new artistic concept must be woven into and growing out of the past When a restless and inspired hand touches an old canvas with a new stroke, the result may be as old as antiquity and as new as the day after tomorrow.
From the beginning there has been this element of restless inspiration, even in the first eleven–piece experimental group which began rehearsals at the Royal Palms Hotel in Hollywood in the fall of 1940. None of the young musicians was working regularly and so, even in the beginning, Stan Kenton was able to offer an opportunity to players who had no place to play. The situation has been repeated and magnified over the years, not only in Stan's own expanding orchestra, but also via his influence in popularising jazz and creating an audience for other players. If for no other reason, every jazzman alive owes Stan Kenton a debt of gratitude.
The Kenton band was a great success at Balboa Beach and it was soon blessed with nightly broadcasts which carried the leader's ideas across the country. It was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting Company three times a week, and quite soon the word was spreading through the jazz world that there was something important happening on the West Coast.
The first band has been compared to the great Jimmy Lunceford band of the late 1930s. There was the same chugging urgency in the rhythm and the rolling gliss of the saxophone to bear out thatcomparison. But even then Kenton had a sense of dynamics and potency in the brass which Lunceford never evidenced. And the saxes, too, were able to create something identifiable, particularly in "Etude For Saxes" and "Reed Rapture." The scoring for reeds at that time is reminiscent of Don Redman's writing: the brass has echoes of the shaggy brilliance of Basie; the rhythm section was generally churning in four–four. But even then there were experiments in unusual time signatures.
The Kenton band in the early 'forties was generally playing at fever pitch, but the leader was not satisfied and was searching for new dimensions in which to express himself. (Click the pic to enlarge)
After Balboa, the Kenton band was ready for the road. The question was whether the road was ready for it.
There were some dismal week–end bookings in the Northern Pacific area, around Oregon and Washington, but the send–home pay was not rewarding.
Then Kenton received the second big break that he needed to keep the band alive–an opening at the Palladium in Hollywood. Again the band clicked, and soon Stan had offers to take the band east. It was the beginning of the continuous treks across America or the world that Kenton has undertaken nearly every year since.
The 1941 band which recorded for Decca and MacGregor Transcriptions was a potent team, but it had few outstanding jazz soloists. Of all the guys, Chico Alvarez, a high–note trumpeter, was probably the best, and he was to remain in the band as a featured soloist until late in the 1940s (recently he has been leading a Dixieland group in Nevada).
Others who remained au courant are Howard Rumsey, bassist and leader of the jazz clique in Balbao. and Bob Gioga, baritone saxophonist who was to remain in the band until the middle 1950s. Jack Ordean, an alto saxophonist, played impressively in the Benny Carter style, but he was not in subsequent editions of the band.
From the recordings of the time (and the "Balbao Bandwagon" section of the Kenton Era documentary) we see the inflexible dynamics of the band It was always up, even on ballads, with a double–time final chorus, a carry–over from the days of swing. Yet, for all its faults, it was the best new dance band in the country, even though it was aimed at the listener's ear.
1942 saw the band at Roseland in New York and at the Meadowbrook in New Jersey, where its rhythmic pathos was too strong for eastern dancers. It failed to make music for lovers only, and was soon in disfavour with the dancers and the management An eight–week engagement at Roseland dwindled into three, and the boys found themselves back on the bus, heading into the hinterlands and into possible obscurity.
There were occasional hotel jobs in Chicago and Baltimore, but the weeks were generally spent on buses between one–nighters in Atlanta and Atlantic City.
Stan remembers this period as a time of "growing pains," and critics recall that the era was the only time that the young leader allowed his convictions to be swayed by the pleas of promoters and his record company.
It became Stan's period of musical appeasement, and as such it was quite a commercial success. The band was heard on the Bob Hope radio show and recorded such ditties as "Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" and "Across The Alley From The Alamo." Singers Dolly Mitchell and Gene Howard (later the road manager) were used to flutter teenagers' hearts. The book was augmented with humour. Stan used then (and still uses) a routine in which he announces a tune
and a shout comes from the trumpet section: "Stan, Stan, your laundry came back!" Stan pretends to look dismayed, and allows a curt "Thank you " Then a trumpeter bellows : "They refused it! " Kenton was turning out hit–parade material for Capitol Records, but finally success proved too costly for his ideals. The leader realised that no matter how much money he made it would not be enough to buy off his talent. He turned away from the hit parade and went back into jazz with more determination than ever.
Among the best jazz releases were originals like "Eager Beaver," "Harlem Folk Dance" and "Painted Rhythm." Art Pepper was the alto soloist; Anita O'Day came from the Gene Krupa band; Pete Rugolo became chief arranger.
Rugolo was to become to Kenton what Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington, a musical alter ego whose creative talents are intertwined so tightly with Kenton's that on many of their collaborations one may not see the thread of one ending or the other beginning.
Rugolo had first approached Kenton in 1943 while still serving in the army in California. The young soldier was greatly influenced by Darius Milhaud–so much so that he enrolled in Mills College for women so that he might study under the French composer. Stan first met Pete after a dance date and Rugolo asked Kenton to run over one of his arrangements. Stan off–handedly took the chart but Rugolo insisted that it must be played. A month later saxophonist Red Dorris reminded Kenton of the chart, and the leader used it. From one score the leader knew of the vitality of Rugolo's talent.
Rugolo's first chart for the band was "Opus A Dollar Three Eighty," a title which seems more like a secret code. But there was nothing cryptic in the effect that he had on the band after his release from service. What Rugolo added was a sense of form and restraint which the band needed. In the collaborations which ensued, Kenton's enthusiasm for brass was tempered by Rugolo's melodic accents which served to tone down the blaring intensity of the band.
Except for the leader, Rugolo did more than anyone else in establishing the band's sound: certainly it was he who was responsible for the majority of the Progressive Jazz library. There was the undulating insistence of "Monotony," the starkness of "Lament" (incidentally, a great showcase for guitarist Laurindo Almeida), and "Elegy For Alto." Kenton was so much taken by the impressionists that he recorded Rugolo's arrangement of "Bolero" when the Ravel estate would not allow a jazz presentation. At about the same time Kenton did his own arrangement and imitation of Richard Adinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" under the title of "Theme To The West." Criticism arose around these latter efforts of Kenton and Rugolo concerning their inclusion in the realm of jazz. The music certainly did not swing–not in the then accepted definition, at any rate–and it was the root of what subsequently was titled Third Stream music.
The reason I haven't used strings since the Innovations /n Modern Music tours of 1950 and I951 is that the orchestra was entirely too expensive for me to support by myself. I supported two years of it, and it cost somewhere over 200,000 dollars to have it on the road for that length of time. It was just economically impossible, otherwise I would have liked to have continued. I think we were beginning to say new things with strings in the band." But Kenton is quick to point out his lack of empathy for the vapid form which is Third Stream, and he refuses to consider any of his efforts as such.
Kenton's music did have a vitality and a sense of dynamics which many of the later composers in the idiom have not been able to generate.
Yet for a time around 1947–48, the band seemed to come close to losing its jazz identity. Many were shocked by "Impressionism" and the a–rhythmic arrangement of June Christy's "This Is My Theme." The words to the latter effort, with incidental music from Kenton and Rugolo, were written by a mid–western housewife, and the effort represented a harbinger of jazz and poetry which had its moment in the late 1950's.
And effective poetry it was (a great line: "Thin crystal sheets of hysterical laughter")–even if June Christy was melodramatic in her reading. She was substituting for Judith Anderson, whom Stan had asked to read, and by whom he had been refused.
In those days Stan began to realise how inadequate the nineteen–piece band was in depicting the more involved ideas which were finding outlets through his arrangers' pens. There was Rugolo's imaginative chart on "Laura" (apparently never recorded), and the pathos of original material from Bob Graettinger, including his usage of unusual time signatures.
It was about this time that Kenton announced in a banner headline in Down Beat that he had helped to kill the dance–band business. The phrasing of the remark may have been ill–timed and ill–directed, but what it conveyed was that Stan's artistic ideals were higher than those of the jitterbug and he had to express himself without reservations.
Stan Kenton's ideas and dedication gave direction to the young composers of the day who found in his band the ideal setting for their efforts. Men like Gene Roland, Neal Hefti, George Handy, and Dave Brubeck submitted their scores. .
Unfortunately, nothing of Handy's was ever used, and Brubeck was told to come back in ten years when the public would be ready for him.
Among all of these perhaps the greatest composer was the late Bob Graettinger, a California recluse who served his apprenticeship in jazz as a saxophonist in the Benny Carter band around 1942. After that he was heard infrequently around Los Angeles. In 1947 he submitted some work for Kenton's approval, among which was the chart (with no string parts) for "The City of Glass." Stan was more than impressed, but nothing happened with Graettinger's music until 1948, when the Progressive Jazz orchestra presented the premier of The City of Glass" in Chicago. It was a failure with the audience. As crowds walked out on Stravinsky at the turn of the century, now they stormed the exits in Chicago fifty years later.
But Kenton was not discouraged by the refusal of the jazz fans to accept Graettinger's work, or of their rejection of other adventurous composers. He commissioned more scores and had arrangers working as long as the money held out.
Still, the second stage of Kenton's orchestral design was doomed. The band with the Progressive Jazz label was able to play concerts only occasionally and time in ballrooms and dance halls was inevitable.
By the fall of 1947 Kenton had had enough. It was as though a great chain were lifted from his back when he announced to the players and to the jazz public that he was disbanding. The news scattered the players across the jazz world: Eddie Safranski to Charlie Barnet's modern band; Shelly Manne to Woody Herman's dismembered Herd; Conte Candoli and Boots Mussulli to Charlie Ventura's small band.
Stan Kenton fans cried: "Say it isn't so! " It really wasn't the end, merely the close of an episode in the Kenton story.
The third part of Stan Kenton's orchestral existence began soon after he sank the Progressive Jazz band into limbo. He was no sooner back into his comfortable Beverly Hills home when he began to envisage a new and bolder venture into jazz. Confusing reports filtered east that Kenton had chosen psychology as his vocation, and yet there was a grain of truth in them, for Stan today is still interested in music as a psychological force in man's existence.
For a time there was some consternation that he might disappear into the glorified garrets of Hollywood's music moguls at one of the major or minor studios (much as Pete Rugolo has done since 1950).
Yet Stan Kenton was silent. His thoughts were never away from music for long, and as the rumours began to subside there came the announcement that the Kenton band was coming back bigger, brassier and better than ever, with a torrent of strings to balance the rhythmic avalanche and the puissance of the brass and saxophones.
Given carte blanche, virtually all important jazz composers submitted their most ambitious scores. Stan was the leader, yet he admitted at the time that "My band has gone beyond my own technical knowledge in its use of the complexities of modern orchestration." Consequently, he was doing some study with composer Franklyn Marks in the Schillinger method.
Kenton's forty–piece caravan snaked its way across America and set down at Carnegie Hall on April 8 and 9, 1950.
"Audiences came and audiences cheered as Stan and his superbly disciplined musicians presented their Innovations . the music was great!" wrote George T. Simon in Metronome. This was a rare rave from Simon, who was and was to be a frequent critic of Kenton's work.
But there were some complaints and concern when Kenton presented a montage of past efforts, such as "Eager Beaver" alongside the newer works. Although he had promised that there would be nothing from the old book, he did a turnabout as a concession to those who might find a diet of Innovations too demanding at first.
Since the debut of the forty–piece orchestra there have been many disparaging reviews written in the trade press about the band's relationship to jazz. Many argued that it was not jazz since so much of it was written down (classicists could refute this by saying that too much of it was improvised).
This same criticism applied to the Benny Goodman band in 1935 and to the Herman Herd a decade later–and it has always applied to the Ellington orchestra in its thirty–odd years of existence.
Others commented that strings do not belong to jazz, ignoring their use by Shaw, Goodman, even Ellington in the 1930s. Others complained that the compositions were merely pastiches of European music from the middle of the nineteenth century forward, and yet ironically, many of the same critics have accepted the pastiches of John Lewis and other members of the Third Stream in the past decade.
A positive note regarding the strings was voiced by Barry Ulanov, who wrote in Metronome that "Kenton has done things with strings that no symphony orchestra in the world could boast of." The strings were impeccable, but they did have a basis in classical music. Kenton intimated to Ulanov that he had found the ideas for the usage of the section in Bartok's "Concerto For Strings." At about this time Stan took the opportunity to use the string section in Bob Graettinger's "City Of Glass," and the composer re–orchestrated it accordingly. The work was never programmed in its' entirety but sections were played in the second edition of the Innovations tour in 1950–51, and it was presented on a Capitol recording which was released in 1952. The "City" found fulfilment with strings, and to these ears it is one of the great pieces of twentieth–century music in any category, in any milieu, any country.
If there is anything important in all the gropings of Mingus, Russell, Lewis, Taylor which eclipses this magnificent orchestral statement, I have yet to hear it. "City Of Glass" is unique, the work af a genuinely creative mind, a true innovation in American music.
These are the seeds of its greatness and it may be so judged on a classical or jazz standard. It stands as a paragon for the Third Streamers who are floundering between the classics and jazz. Regarding these composers, something which Oscar Peterson said must be repeated : "There are a lot of innovators around.
The only thing they lack is talent." Graettinger's scope was vast in comparison to the musical pygmies who followed him, He presented something old in a new way, as all art must be presented, and that is innovational enough. Wagner seems to have been Graettinger's greatest musical influence, and Bartok is there too. But in the amalgamation of his creative resources he went beyond these influences.
Graettinger died in California in the middle .of the last decade, a recluse who lived high on a mountain and only came to town to deliver a score. Kenton always felt that he needed a good meal–he was that thin.
Graettinger was struck by a rare form of cancer in December and was buried in February. Two people came to the funeral, Rugolo and Kenton. Kenton has one piece of Graettinger music left–a string quartet, which he promised the composer he would record. He will.
In addition to Graettinger's magnum opus for the Innovations orchestra, there was some important music from the pens of Johnny Richards, Chico O'Farrill, Dennis Farnon (his showcase for Maynard Ferguson on "All The Things You Are"), Bill Russo, and Shorty Rogers.
Rogers' major work was written for and titled "Art Pepper." This tribute was recorded and the effort is the altoist's most expressive in his career with the Kenton band. The composition, with a complement of strings out of Bartok, is the finest marriage of strings and a solo jazz horn on record. Rogers' arrangement presents quite a contrast to the syrup and saccharine which clogged Charlie Parker's horn in his effort with strings.
Rogers' other portraits of Bob Cooper and Maynard Ferguson (both again titled after the players) were not as effective. Ferguson is one of the most exciting musicians ever to devote his talents to jazz, but this does not mean he is a creative soloist. He is inspiring in a section and once thrilled the horn men in a symphony orchestra under Dmitri Mitropolous while performing in Bill Russo's symphony "The Titans" at Carnegie Hall. As a soloist he lacks generally that elusive ability to construct meaningful ideas in the throbs of his improvisation. One of the best solos I have ever heard him play occurred one night in summer in 1952 when Kenton coaxed him to play his solo number and not go over middle C.
Bill Russo's compositions for the forty–piece orchestra were "Solitaire," "Improvisation," "Ennui," and his magnificent "Halls Of Brass." These compositions are all heavy, brooding pieces, and many believed that Russo followed the dictum that all art must have the element of sadness in it.
In construction, his compositions are similar to contemporary classical designs, and they are enhanced by the pathos which jazz musicians bring to them.
Little of his music swings in the accepted manner and when his themes propel, it is with an ethereal rather than an earthy movement. And yet his music is not merely two–dimensional, catering only for the mind and the spirit; it involves the visceral part of man's makeup as well. His music swings in a subtle way, and Bill was able to rise out of his introverted ways in such outgoing charts as "Sweets," "Bill's Blues," and throughout his arrangement for the "Sketches" and "Portraits On Standards" albums. It is interesting to note that Bill Russo has not received credit for such pendulous charts as "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Crazy Rhythm," and "Fascinating Rhythm," which were erroneously listed as Gerry Mulligan's contributions.
In spite of all of Stan Kenton's efforts and those of his arrangers and musicians, the two Innovations In Modern Music tours in 1950 and 1951 were tremendous box office failures. The cost of transporting forty musicians was somehow five times as much as transporting twenty. Kenton lost a fortune, but every participating member was paid in full. The spring of 1952 found the leader at home, musing on his next project.
The musing did not take too long. By the late spring of 1952 Kenton had re-assembled a nineteen-piece band which was to function along more accepted jazz levels.
When Kenton re-formed many of the older guys had found the gold of Hollywood's studios too attractive, and younger players were coming in to take their places. Shelly Manne, Bob Cooper, Milt Bernhart, Art Pepper remained behind; Stan Levey, Bill Holman, Richie Kamuca, Frankie Rosolino, and Lennie Niehaus joined for their taste of the road.
There were some of the old popular instrumentals in the book, a few of the Innovations were re-orchestrated, and Bill Russo did the majority of the new jazz and dance book. There were many personnel changes in the first few months, and the band was steadily improving.
At one of the rehearsals Gerry Mulligan (he had hitchhiked from New York to California) came in with a bunch of scores under his arm. The fellows were crazy about them, but Kenton disagreed and relegated Mulligan to the dance library. On a recent broadcast Stan told me that Mulligan was not satisfied with Kenton's re-shaping of a number of themes, and that their differences resolve simply to a contrast of personality in music. However, Stan decidedly was not as ugly as Mulligan was in an interview in DownBeat in which the saxophonist condemned Kenton for re-shaping his music.
After Mulligan arrived, at the next rehearsal Bill Holman appeared with a batch of arrangements which were clearly in the Mulligan vein. After that Kenton gave more attention to the Mulligan-Holman impetus and the band opened up into its most freely swinging era It became an exuberant bunch for "Young Blood" by Mulligan, and then a sombre, brooding group for "A Theme For Four Values" by Bill Russo.
New players came in. Russo persuaded Lee Konitz to join. Kenton was broadcasting from Revere, Massachussetts, the night the altoist joined, and a leader was never more ecstatic than when he announced: "Tonight we have the presence of a musician I've been trying to get into the band by hook or by crook for the last few years. Ladies and gentlemen, the artist–Lee Konitz." Konitz and Russo had been childhood friends in Chicago, but the altoist did not agree with Kenton's concepts of music, and the reports are that he was never satisfied with his performances in the band. Yet Konitz remained over a year, and it was a productive season for himself and for the band.
In retrospect, this seems the last major effort of Konitz, for his work has generally become more introverted and less communicative since that time. He complained that he had to play too "hard" (though hardly in the present jazz connotation of that word) to be heard. Yet it was that extra push which created a pungent bitter–sweetness in his tone and allowed him to elaborate fully on the stimulating scores which Russo and Holman had fashioned for him.
A sideman has seldom received better treatment than Konitz did in the Kenton band. Russo had fashioned "My Lady" as a solo vehicle for Konitz within a few weeks, and Holman gave the altoist his happiest–sounding exercise in the vital "In Lighter Vein." Subsequently "The Fabulous Alumni" album has shown Konitz in a magnificent statement on "My Funny Valentine." Later, Konitz was to travel as an added attraction and he recorded extensively with the band, including some unreleased things that were written to feature Charlie Parker when he was on a special tour with Kenton.
Stan told a story of the weeks when Konitz and Parker were both travelling with the band, and from the comparison and contrast in their playing Kenton believes that Konitz had more to say to him.
The Kenton-Konitz alliance was much more productive than the altoist had expected or might now admit. It is not an unusual quirk of fate that an artist's best work may be among that which he does not appreciate.
In this respect I recall one night when the Kenton band was off and Lee sat in with his mentor, Lennie Tristano, who had the Monday night stand at Birdland. I was near to a state of idolatry over Tristano's group at that time, and yet I was chagrined over the playing of the leader and his star pupil that evening.
Their playing was a blend of ennui and metallic coldness. The point of these reflections is that in his Kenton days Konitz was spurred to his most lyric and communicative expressions by the dynamics and drive of the band. Certainly Konitz was at the peak of his form in his year stay with the Kenton band, and since that time the altoist has seldom come up to these heights again.
In 1953, Konitz was joined in the sax section by Zoot Sims (what a contrast in personalities!) and Davey Schildkraut, along with Bill Holman and Bob Gioga. The trombones included Frank Rosolino, Bill Russo and Bob Burgess. Buddy Childers led a brass array which included Maynard Ferguson (for a time), Conte Candoli, and Don Dennis. The rhythm section had Sal Salvador, guitar; Don Bagley, bass; and Stan Levey, drums.
The band cut two magnificent albums for Capitol, "New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm" and "Kenton Showcase." The latter was devoted to eight tracks each by Holman and Russo and evidences most emphatically the distinction between their personal aesthetics. Subsequent releases by later editions of the band have given us "Limelight," "Swing House," and "Walking Shoes," by Gerry Mulligan.
But, as all good things the 1953 edition of the Kenton band had to break up. After a European tour Konitz and Sims remained in New York; Russo and Holman decided to concentrate on their writing; Candoli and Rosolino settled down to mine some of the gold in the California movie caverns.
Kenton took a short vacation and then re–organised with Lennie Niehaus, Charlie Mariano and Bill Perkins as the saxophone soloists, along with Bob Fitzpatrick on trombone and Sam Noto on trumpet.
This band continued under the strong influence of Mulligan–Holman and recorded an excellent album titled "Contemporary Concepts" with Holman's classic arrangements of "Cherokee," "Stella By Starlight," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Yesterdays," and "What's New." (Stan had Bill Holman fashion "Cherokee" for Charlie Parker after Bird appeared with a batch of disastrous arrangements by Joe Lippman, substantially the same that Bird used on his Night And Day album on Verve.) It was even more of a `swing' band than its predecessor, with few of the moody themes from the past.
The band lived through 1955–56, including a second European trip, and from its demise Kenton was forced to grope through 1957 to 1961 with bands which were only mediocre in comparison to their forerunners.
The impact of each succeeding band dwindled as the fifties came to a close. The soloists were generally caricatures of the great players of the past The band did not advance musically, no matter how much Stan fiddled with the instrumentation. For a time there were two French horns in the brass arsenal, and in one edition there were moments of musical mayhem between two drummers.
Only a few worthwhile recordings came out of this era, notably a new arranger's charts, Bill Mathieu's, entitled "Standards in Silhouette," recorded in 1959.
In the late 1950s Kenton took the strings out of mothballs. After the bank–account–busting days of the Innovations tour they were just a memory, but the leader thought that there were some of his and Pete Rugolo's scores which might have more of a chance of permanency in modern music (certainly not jazz alone) in a setting of strings.
He was right, for Pete Rugolo outdid himself with his writing for a contingent of sixteen strings trombones and rhythm, plus occasional' solos by alto saxophone (Bud Shank) and guitar (Laurindo Almeida).
Two albums were released, "Lush Interlude," first, and "The Kenton Touch" a year later. At the time many were enthusiastic that the success of the albums in sales might help to resurrect the Innovations band, but the albums were not successes in the record shops.
"The Kenton Touch" received a rather startling review by Don DeMichael in Down Beat. The rating was somewhere between poor and fair, and was found . . . more depressing than absorbing, more boring than interesting," and Pete Rugolo's ". . attempts at `serious' music succeeds only in being pretentious." This review is typical of the critical diatribes which have been directed at Kenton in the last ten years. Here the album was attacked for a ". . very dark, moribund quality [which] leaves this listener wishing Kenton and Rugolo had seen fit to include more brightness in their scores." Ironically, an album by John Lewis, "European Windows," was given a much better rating a few issues before even though it lacks "brightness" and has the same "dark, moribund quality." This is not the time to measure the comparative merits of the Lewis and Kenton–Rugolo music, but it is interesting to question reviewing standards.
Other critics of Kenton have not limited their attacks to his music only. In 1956, when the band returned from its European trip, the Critics Poll in Down Beat reflected victories by Negroes in virtually every category. The Kenton band was playing in Ontario, Canada, at the time, and Stan dispatched a telegram which brought near apoplexy to critic Leonard Feather.
The telegram lamented "a new minority, white jazz musicians," and stated Kenton's "complete and total disgust [with the] literary geniuses of jazz." Feather, alone of all the critics, took up his cudgel to answer and attack Kenton. In the October 3, 1956, issue he wrote an open letter which distorted Kenton's words, and in the heat of anger (though he claimed it was sorrow) he questioned Kenton's racial views, his alleged disparagement of Negro leaders like Duke
Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Feather inferred that Kenton's failure to win the Critics Poll was the major reason for the complaint; that there had been a prejudice for many years and now it had to be expressed; that Kenton had not hired enough Negro musicians over the years.
All points except the last were based on conjecture, and events preceding and following Feather's complaint have shown how ridiculous they were. The latter point was based on a poor or prejudiced memory of the writer, for in noting the presence of only a handful of Negroes in Kenton's band he overlooked at least five times as many others who have played with or been aided by Kenton. (The night that Kenton sent the telegram there were two Negroes playing in the trombone section.) Not least among these would be Charlie Parker and, particularly, Art Tatum, who was given more exposure on a Kenton sponsored tour than he ever received elsewhere.
Feather's weak memory tore his thesis to threads.
In reality, every musician who has ever played with Kenton will tell you that he has been a staunch defender of the Negro's place in jazz and that he has fought just as violently against the Crow–Jim concept of some Negroes that jazz is their music alone. As critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote, also in Down Beat, Feather's verdict was passed on Kenton ". . without, unfortunately, any public statement from the only musicians really in a position to know." Again, unfortunately, it took critic Feather four years to realise his error, for it was not until August, 1960, that he took stock and tried to clear the scene.
I once asked Kenton if Feather had apologised for his article before the jazz world in Down Beat. The answer was: "Yes: I think it was on the back page of the Pittsburg Inquirer ." Kenton was pointing to the irony that Feather had created a great tempest, and no matter how apologetic the critic would be he had created great ill–feeling, and there is still much of that prejudice–in–reverse by Negro musicians toward Stan.
Nearly three years before this, in the December 16, 1953, issue of Down Beat, critic Nat Hentoff had written that ". . . Stan is as free from prejudice of any kind as any man I know," a strong statement which would seem to refute Feather's insinuations.
However, Hentoff went on to attack Kenton on another point. On the return from his first European tour in 1953, where the band was received with wild enthusiasm (they even outdrew Hitler's previous record at the Sportpalast in Berlin), Kenton had said that ". . we're playing music more advanced in harmonic and melodic content than the Duke's [Ellington]. And one thing our tour proved to Europeans it that white musicians can play jazz too." Hentoff answered that there was very little harmonically or melodically in the Kenton book that hasn't been all too familiar to European ears since Richard Strauss. . . I submit that those Europeans who were greatly affected by Kenton's music are largely untrained in jazz or classical music." It was a rather broad attack, but Hentoff was to go even further in his indictment, noting on the back cover of a Lester Young album on Commodore label that he would not trade " these passages of Lester Young's clarinet [for] the collected works of Stan Kenton. From these latter remarks one wonders what difficulty Hentoff had in being objective in his reviews of the Kenton band.
In this respect one may also recall the plethora of innuendo and attack regarding Kenton which permeated the Jazz Review when Hentoff was directing its short-lived run. Hentoff might ask Arthur Fiedler of his musical evaluation of Kenton; or Leonard Bernstein; or John Mehegan of Juilliard; or the directors of the Sadler Wells Ballet, who used "Abstraction," "Lament," "Monotony" and "Somnambulism" as part of their repertoire as early as 1954.
'I'he most severe and ridiculous review that Kenton ever received probably came from a New Jersey newspaper when the band made a guest appearance on television in 1955. The critic called Kenton an obnoxious bop musician (just to show his erudition) and when the leader ". . had the effrontery to say that he felt such music is sweeping the world and might lead to world peace," the reviewer added, "Not at that price, bub. A lot of us prefer war to that kind of insanity." In the last decade Stan Kenton has become involved in many enterprises. In 1956 he received the commission from impresario Julian Braunsweg and Anton Dolin of the London Festival Ballet Company to write music for a ballet for the wedding celebration of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly (the Prince is a jazz fan).
It created quite a stir in ballet circles when it was presented in Monte Carlo under the title of "Homage To A Princess." Later a recording was issued on the Mercury label, but this revealed that the music was hardly new, being a pastiche of Progressive Jazz and Innovations scores from 1947 to 1952.
For seven years Stan Kenton conducted jazz clinics at leading universities all over America, taking time off in mid–summer (when business is best) to help the new players who are coming to jazz. An indication of their importance might come from Negro trumpeter Donald Byrd, who also gave a telling view of Stan's stand on prejudice.
"My experience with the Stan Kenton clinic at the National Band Camp has left me in complete ecstasy. .
The camp was interracial, both in the teaching faculty and the student body. . . For the benefit of the bigots, let me say that I stole as many or more things (ideas) from the white musicians with whom I played than they did from me." In the late 1950s Stan tried to reactivate jazz at the Rendezvous Ballroom in California, the scene of his first success. He invested quite heavily in the project, recorded two Capitol albums there, and then saw the enterprise fail. Undoubtedly there was a combination of reasons for the failure, but paramount among them was the fact that Stan had run into a dry period in his creativity, the dark night of the creative soul, and the band was suffering from it.
He admitted to John Tynan in Down Beat that he had been in a state of confusion. Television and pictures were beckoning: there were marital problems at home. He said : "I didn't know what direction to move in–or even if there was a direction." It took until 1960 for Stan to find that direction, and with it began another new era. Kenton was looking for a new sound in the brass section, somewhere between the ranges of trombones and trumpets, and yet overlapping both. He had tried French horns at times, alto trumpets, too, but neither proved satisfactory.
When he took the band on a package concert tour with Count Basie in the fall of 1960, he was experimenting by having Gene Roland play a mellophonium devised by the Conn instrument company. The horn proved satisfactory and by the next year Kenton was ready to incorporate a mellophonium section in the band.
Kenton labelled the mellophonium band as A New Era in Modern American Music, and he opened with it in the spring of 1961 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Then came two months of one–nighters which carried the sound across the country.
The band's reception by many critics was the best it had received in nearly a decade. And the raves were not only for the mellophoniums, for Stan had assembled an array of soloists which could rival his best bands of the past. Sam Donahue came in on tenor; Gabe Baltazar auditioned after minimal jazz experience in bands like Buddy Morrow's and became Kenton's most exciting alto soloist in a decade; trumpeter Marvin Stamm joined immediately after graduating from the jazz band at North Texas School of Music Dee Barton soon followed classmate Stamm, first as a trombonist and then taking Jerry MacKenzie's role as drummer; Gene Roland led the mellophonium section and then left to concentrate on his writing, and Ray Starling came in, providing an even stronger solo voice and a fine arranging talent as well; trombonist Bob Fitzpatrick was playing with his usual vitality; Dalton Smith was leading a trumpet section which hit harder than the hammer of Thor.
The first new album from The Creative World Of Stan Kenton was "The Romantic Approach," a setting of ballads arranged by Stan which show the mellophoniums to distinct advantage. Then came Johnny Richards' concert score of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," which won the Grammy award for the best jazz album of the year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1961.
Lennie Niehaus's exquisite arrangements of standards followed, bearing the title "The Sophisticated Approach," and allowing room for all of the featured soloists to take two excursions into improvisation. A gimmick album with cowboy singer Tex Ritter was a concession to Capitol Records' concern for profit. An album (sometimes swinging) of Yuletide standards were arranged by Stan and the Reverend Ralph Carmichael.
The band's first expression on original material, "Adventures In Jazz," was released in November, 1962, and it contains some bristling blowing and arrangements on "Limehouse Blues," "StairwayTo The Stars," scored by Bill Holman, and "Turtle Walk" and "Waltz Of The Prophets," by Dee Barton. This album also won the Grammy award for the best jazz album of 1962.
Three albums were released in 1963. The first was Johnny Richards' concert scores on his own "Adventures In Time," which is a concerto for orchestra which utilises time signatures in 5/ 4, 7/ 4 and 6/ 8 time, among others. It was not the first effort of Richards or Kenton in unusual time signatures, for both have been working to free the metrical limitations of jazz for twenty years.
Johnny Richards did his early experimentation with his own band in 1940–45 and later with the great Boyd Raeburn orchestra of the late 1940s. After Raeburn's band passed into obscurity, he wrote for Charlie Barnet's modern band, Dizzy Gillespie (two excellent albums stressing Dizzy in a string context) and many jazz instrumentalists and pop singers.
As noted above, his scores were played by the Innovations band and they have been included in the Kenton book in every edition of the band since 1950. His "Cuban Fire" album with Kenton and "The Rites Of Diabolo" under his own name on the Roulette label are examples of efforts to blend African rhythm and the tonal elements of jazz.
The second album of 1963 was "Artistry In Bossa Nova," which featured Kenton's own arrangements on many of the standard workhorses of the band, such as "Interlude," "Eager Beaver" and "Painted Rhythm." Translated to a bossa nova beat and accenting new voicings, these arrangements add an entirely new dimension to the Kenton standards.
The album was probably conceived as an effort to capitalise on the popularity of the Brazilian beat, but in Kenton's hands the music has negated the commercial accent. Again, however, Stan was not able to Capitol–ise (pun intended) on the success of bossa nova, and the album was not commercially successful.
A subsequent album prepared for 1963 was "Adventures In The Blues," with charts by Gene Roland. It was the best setting that Roland has received in his twenty–year association with the leader, and evidenced Gene's talents on mellophonium and soprano sax (Gene plays every instrument in the orchestra).
These latter efforts indicated that Kenton was still stressing his orchestra's function on three levels–popular, jazz and "the more advanced things." In the first category he has presented music which consistently rises above the level of the maudlin or mawkish, and which in turn might lead the listener to the second stage. Stan's presentation of jazz has varied over the last two decades, from the neo–Lunceford beginning through the Mulligan–Holman influence from the early 1950's until today.
On the third level Kenton has been stressing the experiments with time signatures as noted above, and he has some other Innovations material to be developed. One is the late Bab Graettinger's string quartet, and another idea which is fanning itself (which I have heard Kenton mention only once) is an exclusively brass band, without rhythm, without saxophones, particularly without drums.
Stan said that his band had rehearsed without rhythmic support many times and that it was a success. Yet, no matter what they are, there are still many innovations in his facile mind.
This third level of creativity should not be confused with the designs of the Third Stream composers of the 1960s. Kenton is not interested in this effort for he is positive that for jazz to survive it must maintain its own identity. It seems that the compositions of Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, Charles Mingus, are being celebrated for the Third Stream idea, but Kenton presented more ambitious and better integrated works of classically–tinged but still vital jazz in his Progressive and Innovations orchestras in the later 1940s and early 1950s, and with the concert scores of the past three years.
Kenton's probings have set a standard for those who are versed in the classics and excited about the possibilities of jazz. But whatever the results of Third Stream music, its effects seem to be positive when contrasted with the retrogression of 'rock–bop' which filled the latter half of the 1950s and cluttered the early part of this decade with excessive diets of `soul. ' 'Soul' jazz involved a stressing of the blues, but not the sophisticated blues of Charlie Parker. Rather, it was a revision to the simplest forms of expression, usually in the key of B or C. This retrogression led jazz back to its own roots, eventually presenting a stagnant situation which over–emphasised 'funk' and which seems in turn in direct opposition to the yearning for advancement which has characterised jazz and its players from New Orleans to Nagasaki.
Perhaps that indigestible fillet of `soul' was a reason why Stan Kenton became discouraged and unproductive in the latter years of the last decade. But now he was once more with the "mellophonium band," he was once more in the throes of creativity, and represented the strongest current running through the murky mainstream of modern jazz.
On the trip to England and on to the Continent in the fall of 1963 he was leading an extremely young and persuasive group of soloists, featuring Jiggs Whigham, trombone; Tony Scodwell, mellophonium; Steve Marcus, tenor sax; and, for me, the star of the band, altoist Gabe Baltazar. The band was a major success at the Newport Jazz Festival that year, where one special presentation found Cannonball Adderley and former Kentonite Charlie Mariano joining with the incumbent Baltazar for a three alto exercise in the blues. Stan considered the band which he led to Europe in late 1963 as the best that he had ever presented.
The Kenton band was in concert in New York a week before it left for England in 1963, and I found the leader behind the bandstand, with a look of physical exhaustion on his face–the band had been travelling from February until July–and yet half an hour later he was re–charging the youngest players with the same vitality he has shown for over twenty years.
On his return from England in December, 1963, Stan Kenton went into another year and a half of retirement from the rigours of the road. There were other reasons for his remaining close to California, one being his two children, whom he fought for and won in a custody suit with his second wife, singer Ann Richards.
Since that time Ann has won custody of their daughter, but Stan has custody of his seven–year–old son, Lance. The year 1964 was a great time of soul–searching for Stan, and again the questions led toward a new direction. While he mused, two other albums were released and both proved to be stimulating for themselves but not consistent with his own directions and ambitions.
A release from early in 1964 gave us the vocal stylings of Jean Turner, with arrangements by Lennie Niehaus primarily. Jean Turner is quite a talent, and in many ways the best musician of all of Stan's female vocalists. Much more is to be heard from her on her own. In the fall of 1964 came an album fashioned for voices, with Kenton music, Rugolo arrangements, and lyrics by Milt Raskin. The album, "Artistry In Voices and Brass," allowed Milt Raskin to add his lyrics to the Kenton–Rugolo standards, and there is buoyancy and bitter–sweetness, depending upon the mood, in the familiar themes as they are fashioned for a choir of eighteen voices. It is a lovely statement, and again all of a piece, but it is not the answer to the overall direction which has been formulating itself in Kenton's mind.
Stan Kenton was in a quandary. Just as he had been plagued with a general lack of acceptance for the Progressive Jazz band in the late 1940s (and resolved the point with the magnificent "Innovations" band), and just as he had been overcome by an arid spell in the late 1950s (and evolved out of that the "Mellophonium" band), so he now found himself in a quest for still another new direction. The situation was stagnant through the summer of 1964, and then in the fall of that year Stan revealed his newest direction, the formation of the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. The point here is that this is not the Kenton orchestra, even though it is staffed by most of his former sidemen, and it was not an investment for profit nor an experiment for his own prestige. Stan is president of the International Academy of Contemporary Music, which sponsors the Neophonic orchestra (although he pays his own way into each concert), but the orchestra belongs to the players. It belongs to every player and every composer who has talent enough to be associated with it.
Stan has written for the orchestra (Opus for Tympani) and he has used one part of his arrangements for an album of Wagner music. But he as well as all the other composers is not paid–there simply is not enough money now! The orchestra belongs to the musicians, but it requires a man of Kenton's disposition and personality and integrity to work for them, to give his name and fame, for nothing.
Stan told an interesting story of how Shelly Manne came to him after rehearsals for the first concert with his fears that "We're all going to bomb here!" Shelly was quite anxious, for he felt that in presenting only new music the orchestra would tax the audience beyond its resources. Too much new music for one night. Stan's managers agreed with Shelly and suggested an interlude with some of the older Kenton numbers. Stan was apprehensive, but he refused. The band was not meant to be an extension of his get–up, but a new entity of which he was a part, as were fifty other musicians. There was too much at stake, too much to sustain a poor response with the public. Kenton held out in his belief in new music and he geared the concert to take advantage of the excitement of the new pieces, so that the audience could share in the moment of discovery.
The first Neophonic concert opened with Hugo Montenegro's "Fanfare For The New," an exhilarating exercise for brass and rhythm, and the applause was deafening. Stan then spent five minutes talking to the audience, trying to explain the direction of the orchestra, and trying to prepare the audience for the new pieces they were about to hear. It was an effective five minutes, but one wonders if it was necessary–for the music which followed needed no words to speak for its vitality and inspiration. The audience seemed thrilled! The Neophonic orchestra was born; it was to flourish from that time forward.
In the following three concerts for last season there were some equally great moments with original material, and some quite disappointing performances from guest stars. In the opening concert Friedrich Gulda had been brilliant with his playing of his own Music for Piano and Band, No. 2 , but subsequently Dizzy Gillespie turned another evening into twenty minutes of tedium with his clowning around and ribald remarks (though he played well on charts which Gil Fuller fashioned for him). Jimmy Smith was ridiculous in his feature at another concert as he resorted to a string of his 'hits, ' which clearly missed the mark with this audience. In the final concert there was dismay on what to present for the closing piece–a piece de resistance. It was decided to; pay a tribute to California and they offered Mel Torme's California Suite, with Torme sharing the vocal with Betty Bennett As sweet as the Suite was it was much too programmatic, and it hardly swung, even in Marty Paich's arrangement.
From the four concerts Stan was assured that success with the audience and the orchestra was not by appeasement in any source or circumstance. Thus the concert season for 1965–66 lists six programmes of new music, without concessions, and with full public support. In this regard Stan told a story of a day when he was shopping and he was approached by an elderly woman, and he was quite surprised when she said "Mr. Kenton, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the first Neophonic Concert." Stan was stunned. He asked, "You mean that you were there?" The octogenarian said matter–of–factly, "Of course, we have season tickets."
The point is that Stan feels that the audience is finally ready, rather demands, a full diet of Neophonic music Jazz is now able to function best in the concert hall, and Stan's major problem is to bring the music into more halls. He feels that the people are starved for more new music and that there must be a way of enlarging the audience from 2,500 to 25,000 for each performance. This is a job still to be done, and undoubtedly there will be trial and error as the Neophonic group expands. But it is on its way and it represents the first resident jazz orchestra in the world (possibly excluding The London Jazz Orchestra, which Bill Russo founded two years earlier). An LP is due in November.
Yet the reader must be reminded that the Neophonic group is not Stan's orchestra. Stan still insists that he must maintain his own identity, and as such he is still searching for a way to present his musical ideas. One of the means open to him was through television, and Stan was approached by the producers of a new programme, "Mr. Roberts " and asked to provide themes for each episode. Stan submitted two scores for the show, but the producers didn't like them.
This past summer he had a nineteen–piece band circling America again for six weeks, and it was an extremely exciting and vital group. The vitality often made up for some jaggedness in performance by young players, and there were few good soloists (an exception, bassist John Worster), but the excitement was still there, and it seemed to hypnotise the listeners. Kenton's discographer, Jack Hartley, noted that he had not heard such a response of enthusiasm for ten years and the standing ovation which the band received brought tears to Stan's eyes.
Late in August Stan was my guest on a radio show, and after that we talked (and supped) for another four hours. Stan is concerned about his own new direction, but he felt that he had been through similar periods before and that the new phase would be different from that which had preceded it. It must be different. The future cannot be based upon nostalgia for the great things of the past. Stan feels that in an age in which everything is moving so fast and in which the complex forms of yesterday become the basic tools of today, tomorrow must have a music which is supercharged with the vitality of the most ambitious composers.
The designs of music must be reflective of man's needs in an emotional way as well as toward the designs of the intellect and the drive of the imagination. Music must communicate, otherwise musicians are only playing for automatons or posing for the eye of the recording needle, not for the eyes and minds and hearts of men. Emotion is the important word, and in the super–cerebral world which jazz has become, Stan Kenton feels that it has lost its association with humanity. Communication is the basis of art, and players such as Ornette Coleman (Stan laughed when I told him of a report that he had offered Coleman a job) and others of major and minor reputation are communicating to no one but themselves. Rather than art they are involved in its opposite–anarchy.
In closing The Kenton Era documentary Stan Kenton said : "I came to lead a band because I wanted so much to be a part of the development of the thing I felt and loved most–the music of jazz. Today I still feel that need more strongly than any other, and with the help of new musicians, new ideas, and new composers, I look forward enthusiastically to the future and the opportunities of productive experiment. Building on the rich jazz experience we've all shared, we are on our way, I am sure, to create a more mature modern music–a music more expressive of the exciting, dynamic times in which we live." In leading his orchestra across the landscape of America and Europe, Stan Kenton has done more for jazz particularly and music generally than any other person who has earned the cognomen "jazzman." He is jazz's most articulate spokesman, and jazz would not have the respect, the world–wide recognition, the devotion of so many followers, if Stan Kenton had not projected the artistry in its rhythms.
Copyright © Jack McKinney 1965. All Rights Reserved