Sunday, August 25, 2013

Whitney on Stanley: ”Artistry in Limbo”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Stan Kenton’s music always evoked strong reactions.

And, as you can see from the following essay by the superb Jazz writer and critic, Whitney Balliett, some of them were not always favorable.

For me the pleasure of experiencing the sheer power of the band, especially in performance, was enthralling; the epitome of excitement in Jazz.

One of my most enjoyable memories is of a Spring break spent with friends on the Balboa peninsula in southern California while the Kenton band was folding forth at the Rendezvous Ballroom and literally walking into its cavernous spaces on a daily basis to hear the orchestra rehearse.

I certainly can relate to Gary Giddins’ description of one aspect of the Kenton aura when he writes:

“Kenton had a mystique, not to mention an audience that listened to little else. When he left Capitol in 1968, he started the most successful musician-owned independent jazz label ever, Creative World. A class operation in every respect, the company believed in its product. Spurred by its professionalism, I tried to measure up, poring over every new release, as well as reissues of albums leased from Capitol, and catching Kenton whenever he appeared in town. To be sure, his catalogue included many enduring performances, ingenious arrangements by Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, and others, with solos by saxophonists Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Zoot Sims, Bill Perkins (whose tenor solo on Johnny Richards's arrangement of "Out of This World” is worth discovering), and Lennie Niehaus (for all the heavy-handed brasses, the reeds had the best soloists), and brassmen Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino, and the Candoli brothers. For a while, drummer Mel Lewis, who gave the band much of its heart, and bassist Max Bennett made a vital rhythm team.” [Visions of Jazz, pp.328-329]

Whitney, on the other hand, seems less-than-captivated by the Kenton sensation in the following essay entitled Artistry in Limbo from his wonderful book: The Sound of Surprise: 46 Pieces on Jazz by The New Yorker Critic, 1959].

But the editorial staff of JazzProfiles wanted more of Whitney’s writings on these pages along with an opportunity to bring you a playlist of eight [8] videos that feature music from various eras of the Kenton Band.

When it comes to Stan Kenton’s music, there’s no point in trying to reconcile opposites so why not read Whitney’s view of the band and see if you agree with it after experiencing Kenton’s music on the playlist?

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Stan kenton got started officially as a band leader on Memorial Day, 1940, when he opened with a thirteen-piece group at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Cali­fornia. The music, already indicative of things to come, was relentless and heavy-booted, with a staccato two-beat attack that resembled in intent, if not execution, the style of the Lunceford band of the time. Perhaps it was per­suasive because it was rhythmically overpowering, for by the summer's end, Kenton had built a staunch following on the West Coast and considerable speculation about his "new music" in the East. Kenton's second period began in 1944 after he had been East, and, although the band was defter and less aggressive, it was not much different. The third era, 1945-46, illustrated what is now known as the band's principal style — a big reed section securely rooted with a baritone saxophone, an inflexible, metallic-sound­ing rhythm section, and ear-bursting brass teams.

The next two periods extended from 1947 to 1951, years in which Kenton turned restlessly to his "progressive jazz" and "in­novations in modern music," using, in addition to his own works, the compositions and arrangements of Bob Graettinger, Pete Rugolo, Ken Hanna, Neil Hefti, and Shorty Rogers. Here the music moved ceaselessly and cumbersomely between the funereal orchestrations of Graettinger,mood music performed by a forty-piece band with strings that was perilously close to movie music, and immense jazzlike frameworks constructed about scintillating sec­tion work and occasional soloists. The last era, which brings the band up through 1953, was more or less of a deflation to the mid-forties period, and reveals a clearer jazz feeling than the band had ever before had.

It is impossible not to be impressed by Kenton's aural bulk, by the sheer sinew and muscle that have gone into his music. It is not impossible, however, to remain almost completely unmoved. Kenton's bands, in spite of all the complacent, organ like talk that has surrounded their "progressivism" in the past ten years, fit roughly into the tra­dition of the silvery semi-jazz groups of Larry Clinton, Glen Gray, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, and Ray Anthony. This tradition, although aereated from time to time by Bunny Berigans and Bobby Hacketts, is quite different from the genuine big jazz bands cradled by Fletcher Hen­derson and Duke Ellington, and maintained since by Goodman, Lunceford, Galloway, Basie, and Woody Her­man.

Kenton does not fit easily into the white-collar music of the former tradition, however, for he tried to combine the two movements, with the help of extracurricular sea­sonings, into something new. This he did, in part, by allow­ing ample solo space within glistening limousines of sound that, in the end, tended only to stifle whatever potential­ities for jazz there were on hand. He also created, as a result of purposely and confusedly trying to be a musical refractor of his times, a self-conscious music that was caught — strident and humorless — somewhere between the pseudo-classical, jazz, and popular music.

Nevertheless, Kenton's sounds and furies have, partly through accident, had certain positive effects within jazz. His various bands have been rigorous training grounds for many younger musicians, particularly those who have gone on to fashion in the past few years, in probable revolt, the small-band parlor jazz of the West Coast. His pelting about of words like "progressive" and "innovation," to­gether with the uncompromisingly modernistic tenor of his music, has helped prepare the public for true futur­ists like Gillespie, Parker, Monk, Powell, and John Lewis. And, finally, he has inadvertently defined, like a Thomas Wolfe, the possible wastelands of his own medium, thus performing the negative service of showing many jazzmen where not to tread.

Kenton says in the epilogue to a recent album called "The Kenton Era" that "It is too early yet to attempt to ascertain whether our efforts over the years have contrib­uted to the development of the world's music." It isn't, of course, for — as is apparent in this album — his music has come just about full circle. Indeed, it deserves a prominent place in that fascinating museum where the curiosities of music are stored.”


  1. Steve Cerra: great blogspot...enjoy being here and reading and listening...keep on keepin' on...
    Tony Agostinelli

  2. As a life long Kenton fan, I really enjoyed the music for the umpteen time and I never paid attention to his critics...really enjoy your blog spot
    Terry in Oakland, CA


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.