Friday, June 20, 2014

Stan Kenton: The Kenton Era

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

“In every time there are men whose special role it is to give expression to the spirit of their day. The become its symbols, each in his own field of art.
Stan Kenton is such a man, the symbol of a vibrant world that finds its voice today in Jazz. His story is, in many ways, the story of modern Jazz, and this musical era is his.
Much of the era is revealed in a portrait of the man, where he came from, what he felt ….”

The title of this piece is based on the original mono 4-LP Capitol recordings which the label released as a limited numbered edition [WDX 569] in 1955. The series included a 48 page insert booklet with a narrative by Bud Freeman who is described as “… a newspaperman, publicist, and free-lance writer who has worked with many notables in the world of popular music.”  The notes go on to state that: “Extensive interviews and intensive study have given him a penetrating insight into the complex personality of the subject.”

“The Kenton Era” Capitol compilation encompasses the first 15 years or so of the Kenton band’s existence from 1941 – 1954.

In addition to the music from Stan’s early orchestras, the LPs, which were re-issued as a double CD by Sounds of Yesteryear, also include a 12-minute Prologue, in which Stan talks about the development of his music.

The 48-page booklet is absolutely gorgeous and contains a large number of illustrations and photographs of Stan and members of the band.

Given its rarity, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought that visitors to the site might enjoy reviewing the following excerpts and images from the LP booklet.

© -Bud Freeman and Capitol Records copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Now, after ten years of mounting international ten­sions, the prelude to World War II had already begun. An artist had to wonder if what he was working to express mattered at all. Would another band be even a small con­tribution to the evolution of the jazz form? Why bother? Maybe music itself was just an idle accompaniment to a world blowing itself out the back.

These matters of ultimate importance seemed of imme­diate concern to Stan. He needed to believe in something, and he wanted the reasons for believing — otherwise it was all futile to him. He had under his fingers command of so many kinds of commercial music that he could be secure. It was logical and it was easy to ask, "What's the point? When there may not even be a world tomorrow, why not just take yours?"

Stan never could answer the questions. Just the same he began the band project. In irregular alternations of enthusiasm and hesitation the work grew to a sizeable collection of arrangements, promises, plans and dreams. He motivated the project and then was in turn motivated by it. In a sense the band, all those to whom he felt he was now responsible, trapped him into doing what he probably wanted to do.
He finally found reasons, but basically he came to understand that he wanted something from his audience just as the man who feels compelled to speak out to the one woman, just as the man who is compelled to threaten, to plead, or to preach.

Stan felt a personalized sympathy toward jazz. Even in this small band, he believed he could make a serious musical contribution. Even within the scope of the popu­lar song, he felt he could create a kind of depth which would be more complete than what had been done before.

This was the beginning of his own music.

In October of 1940, Stan decided to cut some test rec­ords which he could use for audition purposes. The thirteen sidemen who had been rehearsing with Stan had, in addition to their loyalty and enthusiasm for jazz, two conditions in common: they were all unemployed and, with the exception of Marvin George, the drummer, they were all under 21. Marvin was 28. He was able to help Stan with some of the administrative details.

Crowded into the tiny recording room of a Hollywood music store the band cut, among others, two originals — Etude for Saxophones and Reed Rapture— numbers which became fixtures in the Kenton book. On them Stan was able to demonstrate an unique voicing for the saxes, and the talents of an outstanding musician, altoist Jack Ordean.

The recording difficulties seemed insurmountable. Stan felt that the arrangements only became alive when the band played "out." Certainly the enthusiasm and spirit were not apparent on the records when the volume was brought down to the relatively pianissimo level the engi­neers demanded. In the end the band hit hard —the engineer tried to get as much on the disc as he could.

The band was good. Stan knew it. He was too much of a musician to deceive himself. Men like Bob Gioga, Harry Forbes, and Frank Beach had invested their time for three months. They believed more strongly than ever. Violet's enthusiasm had not lagged. He played the dubs again and again. He knew he was right. The sound was strong. It had depth. It was different. That, he told him­self, was what everyone was looking for — something different.

To sell the band, the best of the audition discs were arranged in a presentation. Stan had a general idea of the sales pitch. He didn't commit anything to memory. It was always better, he found, if he spoke from a general­ized outline. That way he didn't lose the spontaneity which, at least, convinced others that he believed in what he was selling.

One advantage in having a band - there were not many doors to try. Only a few agencies handled bands. And Stan was well enough known in Los Angeles music circles to have entrĂ©e to all of them.

Stan was received politely. He was heard. His records were heard — hesitantly, without enthusiasm, but no one was in a hurry to turn him down. It could take months to milk a "sorry, can't use it," from one of the agencies.

Stan was inclined to abstract the more encouraging aspects from his interviews. It cost the agency boys noth­ing to spread a little happiness. (Stan later learned that often the art of agency was not to sell talent but to keep it dangling, content, until a buyer happened along.)

Stan was continually faced with the request, "Why don't you leave the dubs with us for a few days?" After the few days passed he would then have tp open negotia­tions to have the agency search for the dubs, to have the dubs heard, and finally to have the dubs returned.

Armistice Day and Thanksgiving passed. When the New Year came Stan decided he had better try to find his own jobs.

In February the band auditioned for an engagement at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. The ballroom operators had a choice between Stan Kenton's organiza­tion and that of John Costello. The emphasis on original material and jazz was a little too radical for the operator. He picked Costello for the engagement. But circumstance forced a cancellation and on Memorial Day, 1941, Stan opened at the Balboa ballroom.

With the college and high school crowd that colonized the little resort town on weekends, holidays, and vaca­tions, the young Kenton band was an immediate success. Red Dorris, tenor saxist and vocalist, became a local idol within a few weeks. Howard Rumsey, who played ampli­fied bass with spastic abandon, was known by his first name to every jazz enthusiast in the area. The attention and the adulation that the young audience heaped on Stan and the young musicians kept them playing with unflagging enthusiasm. New arrangements had to be added. By this time Stan found himself working con­tinuously on the endless ravel of details.

Ralph Yaw, a talented musician with a feeling for what Stan wanted, made some excellent contributions to the Kenton book — such as Two Moods, which starred Chico Alvarez, trumpet, Jack Ordean, and Red Dorris.

Stan himself continued to arrange. He added Arkansas Traveler and La Cumparsita to comply with the profes­sional advice which consistently suggested that he play less original material in favor of standard or currently popular music.

Whatever the criticism, it was tempered by one fact: the Kenton band interested people. The youngsters turned out; business was healthy. Stan was booked for the sum­mer at the Balboa ballroom. Three times a week the Mutual Network broadcast Stan Kenton's music.

Stan, Bob Gioga, and Marvin George tried to gauge their success. It appeared to them that they had found an enthusiastic group of local boosters. The same faces seemed to be at the ballroom every night. Only after the summer had passed and the band played a one-night stand at the Glendale Civic Auditorium in suburban Los Angeles, did Stan see how well the band had begun to be established. At 9:30 more than 2000 people jammed the hall. There were nearly twice that number lined up outside.

Prospects were impressive. Finances were low. The band was booked in Portland and, Stan thought, on a string of one-nighters. From a sound engineer he bor­rowed $300 which he rationed, $20 per man.

When the band arrived in the northwest, bookings turned out to be for weekends only. The take of the side-men was not more than $30 weekly — a thin slice for a man on the road, particularly if he had to support a wife back in Los Angeles.
Pinned down by a Friday and Saturday engagement which wouldn't pay for the past week's expenses, Stan and the men were restless and discouraged. There was talk of giving up the project.

The band was saved by one of those circumstances which occur so regularly in success stories as to be almost a prerequisite of success itself. There was an open date in the booking of the huge Hollywood dance hall, the Palladium. The owner, Maury Cohen, it happened, had gone to the Glendale Civic Auditorium to hear Stan's band. While Cohen was not particularly taken with Stan's music, the crowd outside and inside was the kind of evi­dence which forced an operator to overcome his taste.

When Cohen couldn't find a name band for the Palla­dium, he wired Stan. The homecoming engagement saved the band. The young crowd swarmed to the Palladium, and Stan was in a position to command national atten­tion through nightly broadcasts. Variety and The Bill­board passed the word on to the trade that an "attraction" had been born on the West Coast. The youngsters jammed around the bandstand and called for St. James Infirmary or Lamento Gitano—and all the musical and satirical pro­ductions which the band played for listening. The enthusi­asm of the audience and the personality of the band came over the air. By the end of the engagement the word was that Kenton was going to be important. A New York date was waiting. Stan had an eight-week engagement at Rose-land, the nation's most famous dime-a-dance hall.

It was a happy time. Band morale was high, and Stan wanted to keep it that way. On the trip back East, Stan took Violet and his young daughter. He invited the men to bring their families. With eight wives, five children, and several household pets, the band left for New York.


The appearance of the Kenton organization at the Roseland Ballroom was an event in the music world. The jazz intellects wanted to know what, if anything, Stan Kenton had "to say." The business end of music — agents, hookers, and location owners—could make money from Kenton if he proved to be a bona fide attraction. The publishers might find a fresh voice to sell new songs or re-sell their old ones. Arrangers and musicians were curious to see if Stan could really push himself to a commercial success on the type of music he had been broadcasting.

Stan had been on the air too often to expect that his music would shock or even surprise anyone. In person, however, the band did jolt the critics, operators, and the dancers. Personally Stan won the friendship of the eastern music columnists. They were sympathetic but, for the most part, didn't care for the music. Strangely enough, nearly all the criticism was qualified with prophecies of success.

With the regular patrons of Roseland, the Kenton band was a dismal failure. There were only two serious rea­sons for attending the ballroom: to dance or to socialize with the hostesses. The tempos that kept the California jitterbugs happy did not prove suitable for interpreting the Peabody or the tango and Stan's band played too loud for any subtle exchanges between the hostesses and guests. They couldn't hear themselves talk.

By mutual agreement Stan and the Roseland manage­ment terminated their agreement in three weeks instead of the contracted eight.

Though the band was kept working immediately after­wards, the engagement at Roseland was regarded as a failure. Stan was swamped with advice. In and out of the organization, for all kinds of reasons — even disinterested — Stan's acquaintances were afraid he would miss his opportunity for the big money. There were still many complaints that the band played too much original music. Stan began to add pop tunes and standards. He tried to tone the band down, tried to compromise on some of the arrangements. He tried to please everyone.

In September of 1942, Stan played the Summit in Baltimore. The complaints and the advice were as omi­nous, as varied, and as frequent as ever. Looking back over six months he found the band had achieved a string of commercial successes in clubs, theatres, and dance halls. Whether he had done so well because or in spite of the advice, he couldn't tell, but he saw that continual changes in approach were obstructing the growth of the band, providing an irritant to the men and to himself. It would be simpler, he decided, to stand or fall on his original convictions — jazz as he heard and felt it.

In Baltimore the first of a series of personnel changes began which continued throughout the war. Marvin George, Jack Ordean, and Howard Rumsey left the band.

Stan had added Ted Repay, piano, some time earlier. At the Summit engagement vocalist Dolly Mitchell joined the band and quickly succeeded in identifying herself with the Kenton organization.

Critical acceptance improved gradually. Theatre en­gagements were consistently successful both with audiences and reviewers. The band played the shows well, and were an entertainment entity in themselves —for much of the Kenton material was designed primarily for listening.

Stan continued to do some arranging. A young writer, Joe Rizzo, proved particularly adept at arranging stand­ards for Stan. He contributed Russian Lullaby, Ol' Man River, and I Know That You Know.

Though Stan had a personal manager and an agency handling the business, he asked to be consulted on all details. Finding time to write was a continual problem. Finally it became necessary for Stan to search for outside arrangers who understood what he wanted. As Dolly Mitchell became more important, Stan sought writers who could create interesting vocal backgrounds for her with­out losing the essential quality of the band. Charles Shirley brought Salt Lake City to Stan. It was incorpo­rated in the book along with other Shirley works includ­ing Liza, which featured a Red Dorris solo. (For his singing Red had been given consistently uninspired re­views. But as an instrumentalist, he continued to improve until he was drawing critical acclaim.)

In 1944 Dolly Mitchell left the band and Anita O'Day, widely known for her work with Gene Krupa, joined Stan along with a young male vocalist and arranger, Gene Howard.

A considerable quantity of material was mailed or brought in to the Kenton organization. After rehearsal one afternoon in a San Francisco theatre Stan saw a young soldier waiting. It was Pfc. Pete Rugolo, a stu­dent of Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Rugolo had written an original composition and arrangement which he thought would be fine for the Kenton band. The name of the selection was Opus a Dollar Three Eighty.

It was three months before Stan found time to read down the arrangement. As soon as he did Stan began to search for Private Rugolo. Three days later he located him. On the long distance phone Stan offered Rugolo a job as soon as he was discharged from service.


In four years Stan had become famous. These were war years. The quality of continual movement, arrival, and departure common to the band was shared with the whole country. People were dignified by direction, a journey from which, eventually, they would all hope to find their way home again.

The pressure of the times and of success itself kept Stan moving. Even back home he could spend little time with Violet and the child. He had signed with Capitol Records, a company whose main offices were in Holly­wood. As soon as he hit town Stan would begin to prepare for recording sessions. Then there were the commercial engagements, broadcasts, rehearsals, auditions and the performances for men and women in the Armed Services.

There was, too, a constant turnover in personnel. Of all those who started at Balboa in 1941 only Bob Gioga and Stan were deferred from service. Once at the Para­mount Theatre in New York the Kenton band opened with nine new men. Many musicians who became famous in jazz joined Stan during the war years: Eddie Safranski, Vido Musso, Buddy Childers, Boots Mussulli,Ray Wetzel. Anita O'Day left the band, and in Chicago a school girl named Shirley Luster auditioned for Stan. He signed her, and changed her name to June Christy.

By 1945 the band was a strange mixture of personali­ties: returned veterans, youngsters of sixteen, young men classified and waiting to be called, older men being re-culled and reclassified. The personalities and peculiarities of the sidemen were as diverse as their ages.

One of the sixteen year olds had come to Stan after two years with a well known jazz group. He was a lover — with five unfortunate experiences to prove it. An older man was a professional Milquetoast. He carried the spending money he allowed himself in a compartmen­talized change purse with sections for food, incidental, and entertainment money. Sticking religiously to his discipline, he would refuse to join the others at a motion picture if he had, for the week, run out of cash for entertainment.

There was one known as "wigless." The others said of him, "all talent — no brains." He was continually leav­ing his possessions, including his instrument, at the pre­vious engagement. Faced with his delinquencies he would shout angrily at the men in the band, "Why did you let me do it? You know I'm not responsible!"

Some squandered. A few found business opportunities everywhere. There was the "operator." If he had nothing else to do he'd find himself a pawn shop and haggle with the owner. In four years with the band the operator never bought anything he didn't turn over for a profit.

There were solid citizens. There were touchy and tem­peramental ones. A soloist, nearly thirty, was disturbed almost to the point of quitting when one of the other side-men said, 'Thanks, old man." He felt it was a reflection on his advancing years.
There were the clowns and the practical jokers. One night in Minneapolis, Stan, at the mike, announced the first number of the evening, I've Got the World on a String. He walked to the piano which had, since rehearsal, been placed on a shallow platform. Before he could give the downbeat, Stan tripped and fell, disappearing completely from sight. The audience gasped. There was complete silence. Bob Gioga immediately stepped to the mike and announced, "Our next number will be Tea for Two."

Beyond the petty irritations of living together there were very few personality conflicts. To the younger men who joined the band, Stan was an institution. The older men knew Stan's reputation for treating his sidemen fairly and courteously.
After the war ended, some of the former members of the band returned. By early 1946 the personnel and busi­ness side of the organization had become stabilized. The appeal of the band was at its height. The annual polls named "Artistry in Rhythm" the most popular music of the year. Financially the Kenton organization could not have done any better.

More than a third of the sidemen, the core of the band, had been traveling almost continually for two years. The men were worn physically. Stan himself found it increasingly difficult to drive himself. It had been five years since he and Violet had, for any period of time, a life together.

On the bandstand at Tuscaloosa playing a University of Alabama dance, Stan looked at the men, listened to the music, felt his own weary loneliness.
After the dance, Stan announced that he was disband­ing. The men were given three weeks1 salary and their fares. Stan wired Violet that he was on his way home.


There were peaceful months of recuperation. Stan, Violet, and little Leslie (now seven years old) vacationed in South America. Stan began to see that should he con­tinue the tours it would ultimately force him to make a choice between the band and his family. Quite un-dramatically, he discussed it with Violet. Their life together had been reduced to six weeks a year. The arrangement was far from satisfactory. It could not continue.

But the alternatives were not as drastic as "music or the family." Recording, arranging, conducting, compos­ing provided many situations in which Stan's talents were welcome. Though it would mean giving up the band, Stan could stay in California and continue working in music at any number of interesting and well-paying jobs.

Too, there were opportunities outside of music which, from the standpoint of money, were attractive. Stan tried to evaluate each of the different prospects. Violet listened and — to the best of her ability — allowed Stan complete freedom in choosing his direction.

At home Stan continually played back the recordings of all his bands. In the work he found much of which he was proud. It was incomplete, but it was, Stan felt, a beginning.

He was rested. He felt full, fat, and lazy. At times he grew lonesome to hear the sounds again, the pulse of the band — even to feel the airy, nervous clarity which came from too much coffee, too many cigarettes, and too little sleep.
By the middle of summer the pressures, external and internal, began to increase. He was a musician, a traveler, and he was a money-maker. Someone was always after him.

There had to be another year on the road. There was a possibility that a concert attraction would be the solu­tion. If concerts were successful it would not be neces­sary, Stan believed, to stay on tour more than four months a year. He discussed the idea with arrangers Pete Rugolo and Ken Hanna. They were eager to try. Violet, too, was enthusiastic about the project.

They all agreed that the most logical approach would be to use the nineteen piece "Artistry" band. The per­sonnel had, since the war, become stable. Boots Mussulli, Vido Musso, Shelly Manne, Kai Winding, Eddie Safranski, and Milt Bernhart were, in themselves, attractions. If, with them, the Kenton band could not draw the young crowd into halls, make them sit and listen, then, Stan and Violet believed, the concert idea would never work.

Some of the dance items were kept in the repertoire: If I Could Be With You, Artistry in Harlem Swing, and By the River St. Marie. Numbers which had proven suc­cessful in theatres, on records, and at the colleges were shuffled back and forth in the program. With this small band Stan did not believe he had the scope to offer a full concert of modern music.

Though the instrumentation, except for the addition of Jack Costanzo on bongos, would be the same as the "Artistry" band, Stan decided to try the title, "Progressive Jazz," a banner he felt was truly descriptive. The concerts would be essentially a test. If they were successful Stan hoped in the future to develop the idea with a large orchestra.

Rehearsals were called.

The Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa agreed to go along with Stan's experiment. They rented 3000 camp chairs, released advertising and publicity for a Sunday afternoon concert late in September. Two days after tickets went on sale all seats were gone.

The Kenton management decided to book a series of sixteen dates at such established concert halls as the Acad­emy of MusicPhiladelphia, the Civic Opera, Chicago, Symphony Hall, Boston, and Carnegie HallNew York.

The concerts were fitted between regular bookings. Nothing Stan ever did proved more successful. Variety headlined, "Kenton’s Carnegie Hall Concert a Killer Both Artistically and at B.O." In its story, the show busi­ness "bible" stated: "Kenton's success is based on his constant striving for new paths in music, his band's ex­cellent understanding of it... His music, filled with dissonant and atonal chords, barrels of percussion and blaring, but tremendously precise, brass, could probably be compared in the jazz field to the music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich."

George Simon in Metronome was less ecstatic. "It [the band] has, in Stan and Pete, two intense, enthusiastic musicians who are firmly convinced they are making for progress in jazz. Unfortunately, I think, Stan and Pete and the men who play their music so well are deeply shrouded under a neurotic conception of jazz if not of all music. Their stuff is not mellow, but megalomaniacal, constructed mechanically of some of the familiar sounds and effects of modern composers, from Bartok to Bongo Drums, with little apparent feeling for the jazz medium and none at all for the subtleties of idea and emotion which support every roar ever heard in music." And in conclusion Simon added, "Lurking behind this sad mu­sical tale is a personal one, for me, at least, sadder still. Stan and Pete and June and the band and its manager Carlos Gastel are among the very nicest people this busi­ness has ever seduced. But their collective effort, mighty as it is, is not making it. It couldn't have not happened to a nicer bunch of people."

Stan continued touring the dance circuit. The influence of the "Progressive" aspect modified all the music the band played. Even Sophisticated Lady and June Christy's Over the Rainbow were progressively shaded.

Playing concerts and dance engagements, the band worked its way West.

On June 12, 1948, Stan Kenton, his band, and June Christy packed 15,000 people into the Hollywood Bowl for a concert in "Progressive Jazz." All the hopes and effort that had gone into Stan's music were, to him, justified by this acceptance. The entire program, but par­ticularly the originals, Machito, Interlude, and George Weidler interpreting Elegy for Alto, were received with towering applause.

Throughout July and August, Stan had accepted scat­tered concert bookings. He had only a few days here and there for the family after traveling time and the press of business arrangements. Early in June he had come to a parting of the ways with his long time manager, Carlos Gastel. Gastel felt the concerts would ultimately destroy Stan's wider appeal. Stan believed he had to press the concert idea. The separation was amicable. Stan and Carlos had worked together for seven years with only a handshake between them.

In September the band headed east again, fulfilling concert dates and one-nighters. The schism between the dance and the progressive side of the music was exuber­antly demonstrated at one college dance. A group began to chant for the concert pieces. Those who wished to dance were disturbed. The discussion became an argu­ment, the argument a brawl.

The last of the concert engagements had been sched­uled for December. At that time, Stan decided, he would conclude his "Progressive Jazz." The men were weary. Physically and emotionally he had driven himself one fatiguing day after another to the point of exhaustion.

It seemed to him that he had lived enough music. At last, he believed, he could turn to something else. The concerts had given him not more time at home, but less.

When Stan concluded the last "Progressive" concert the Kenton organization was, according to the theatrical trades, the biggest box office aggregation in the country.”

The booklet then moves on to the 1950-51 Innovations Orchestra, which we have covered in a previous piece, and concludes with The New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm bands, which we will profile in a future feature.

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