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“Few leaders have been accorded as much love and respect as Kenton achieved, not only because of his dedication and his talent, but also because of the consideration he accorded his musicians.”
- George T. Simon
There was a time when if you were a big band and George T. Simon wasn’t writing about you in his regular features in Metronome or in one of his books on the subject, notably The Big Bands [which went through four editions], then you were for all intents and purposes relegated to the Jazz equivalent of the baseball minor leagues.
Amazingly, for all his influence, George usually rendered very balanced accounts of the big bands he observed and was very fair in stressing what was good about them and what was, in today’s parlance, not so good.
Fair-minded accounts of Stan Kenton and His Orchestra weren’t often the case; most were usually polarized with reviews that spewed forth hyperbolic adjectives about the “power and majesty” of the band or those that thought it to be noisy and pontifical.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been hard at work developing a variety of postings on Stan Kenton so as to insure that many points-of-view on this key figure in the development of modern orchestral Jazz are well-represented in the blog’s archives.
The following assessment of Stan Kenton and His Orchestra can be found in George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed. It is of particular significance because George was in attendance during the band’s early years of existence and as such is a primary source.
“TALK to a baseball fan about Stan the Man and he'll know you're referring to Stan Musial. But mention Stan the Man to any jazz buff or big band enthusiast outside St. Louis and he'll know you're talking about Stan Kenton.
Stan happened to be quite a man, too—six and a half feet of him. Six and a half feet of nervous, exhausting energy that once produced some of the most thrilling, some of the most aggravating, some of the most impressive, some of the most depressive, some of the most exciting, some of the most boring and certainly some of the most controversial sounds, music and/or noise ever to emanate from any big band.
A friend of mine, an arranger named Ralph Yaw, had tipped me off on the Kenton band when it was still an unknown infant. In March of 1941 he had written in a letter from Los Angeles:
“Been meaning to write ever since getting here, but you know how it is.
The reason is in connection with a band I'm working with. This band is something quite special and different. Stanley Kenton is the leader and I am working with him. We do the arranging and I think we have cooked up something new in style.
However, I will not take time to try to describe it, but only say that a swell new treatment of saxes and a couple of other style tricks do it. The saxes are treated to my mind in the right way for the first time. It really scares me.”
The band debuted a few months later — Memorial Day— in Balboa Beach, where seven years before young Stanley Kenton had been playing piano in Everett Hoagland's then swinging band. When I arrived in L. A. in the summer of 1941, one of the first things I did was to look up the Kenton band. I found it in the KHJ radio studio, where it was doing a live broadcast, which the announcer kept telling his listeners was actually emanating from Balboa Beach! Several nights later I drove out to Balboa to spend the first of several evenings listening to the band and to gather material for its first major review, a well-reserved rave—for the most part.
"Within the Stan Kenton band," the review noted, "nestles one of the greatest combinations of rhythm, harmony and melody that's ever been assembled by one leader." Then, after crediting Kenton for most of the band's good points, including his arrangements, while also extolling several of the young musicians, especially bassist Howard Rumsey, lead trumpeter Frank Beach and also saxist Jack Ordean, I faulted the band for "continual blasting. It's great to screech with complete abandon," the review said, "but you've got to screech at the right time." It also suggested that Stan "curb his gesticulative enthusiasm" and in general recommended "greater restraint."
One thing I found out immediately: there's nothing more vociferous than a Kenton fan. The mail started coming in at once, faulting me for faulting the band. Stan himself, I understood later, also objected to my criticism, and
I our relationship became tenuous, with only slight variations ever after. I must admit once and for all that I have never become a complete Kenton band convert, for no matter how great his bands have been musically, their emotional impact has for me too often been blunted by an air of self-consciousness, sometimes combined with pompousness, and too often an inability to swing freely. Never, though, have I failed to admire Kenton for his courage, his tenacity, his sincerity, his thoughtfulness and his complete belief that what he is doing was right.
Kenton's unbending approach always made him quite susceptible to some rather caustic criticism. Thus in 1941, in his first radio review of the band, Barry Ulanov admitted that it had "that combination of heavy voicings and staccato phrasings down pat. But there's no reason why so formidable an organization must always sound like a moving-man grunting under the weight of a concert grand."
The Kenton style was indeed heavy and ponderous, especially on ballads. Some people, including some critics, insisted that Kenton's projected the swinging approach of the Jimmie Lunceford band. Both, they pointed out, played heavily accented music. I think this evaluation misses the one basic difference: the Lunceford band always played and sounded relaxed, rolling along easily with the beat instead of fighting and trying to push it ahead, as Kenton's did. One band moved like a fleet halfback, the other like a muscle-bound lineman.
In his Treasury of Jazz Eddie Condon wrote that "every Kenton record sounds to me as though Stan signed on three hundred men for the date and they were all on time. Music of his school, in my opinion, ought only to be played close to elephants and listened to only by clowns." But, Condon admitted, "It's a real accomplishment to take that many men and make them sound ruly."
Kenton's musicians have sounded "ruly" because they not only believed in his music, but also believed in him as a leader. Consequently, they worked especially hard for him. Few leaders have been accorded as much love and respect as Kenton achieved, not only because of his dedication and his talent, but also because of the consideration he accorded his musicians.
Shelly Manne, who for several years handled probably the most difficult assignment of all musicians in the Kenton band, that of trying to swing it from the drums, emoted words of high praise several years after he had departed the group, words that undoubtedly express the feelings of many other men who played for Kenton. Said Shelly: "He was so personal, always one of the fellows and yet nobody ever lost any respect for him. If the guys needed money, Stan would lend it to them. Everybody really wanted to work for what he was working. And the spirit of the band was wonderful. It was such a clean atmosphere. You always felt that you were working for something that mattered instead of just jamming 'Tea for Two' or Perdido.'
"The way Stan encouraged everybody was so wonderful, too. He was always encouraging young arrangers. If a guy joined the band, he'd never judge him on first appearances, the way most leaders do. He'd let him play for a while until he settled down. Then Stan would make up his mind.
"And he was so wonderful with the public, too. He never fluffed anybody off."
But Stan wasn't without faults. During his early days especially he showed great stubbornness, often refusing to face certain harsh realities and insisting upon doing only what he, in his idealistic way, believed he should do, regardless of what anybody else thought or felt.
This attitude, of course, tied in directly with a certain obstinacy that he admitted to as a youth when his mother wanted him to learn piano and he insisted on playing ball instead. It took a lengthy visit from two cousins who played jazz at his house to convince him that music was after all what he really wanted to do.
Like any good man, Kenton was quite willing to admit his mistakes. In 1947, after he had reorganized, he told me, during a lengthy interview what he thought had been wrong with his last band. "It was much too stiff," he said. "Some people with lots of nervous energy could feel what we were doing, but nobody else could. Our music seemed out of tune with the people; we just had no common pulse. I guess I just had the wrong goddam feel for music."
Kenton, who once threatened to quit the music business to become a psychiatrist, may have been unduly hard on himself, for his band had made a fantastic number of converts, many of them through his popular recordings, which began in late 1941 with "Adios," and "Taboo" and "Gambler's Blues," the last a rehash of "St. James Infirmary" on which Stan "sang." Even more popular were his 1943 recordings of his theme, "Artistry in Rhythm," and "Eager Beaver," one of his most swinging sides. New, more experienced, not completely Kenton-indoctrinated personnel had dispelled much of the band's stiffness by then; only three men remained from the unit that had been formed just a little over two years earlier.
But the band's swingingest sides were still to come. In the spring of 1944, Anita O'Day joined Kenton and during the same period Dave Matthews and Stan Getz came in on tenor saxes, with Dave also writing some of the arrangements. In May, with Anita singing, the band recorded one of its most famous and infectious-sounding sides, "And Her Tears Flowed like Wine," and a swinging "Are You Livin', Old Man?"
Anita stayed with the band for less than a year. She was followed by a cute blonde whose singing resembled Anita's, though it lacked both Anita's sparkle and intonation. This was June Christy, bright, friendly and very well-liked by her compatriots, who recorded such commercial sides as "Tampico" and "Willow Weep for Me." A young tenor saxist, Bob Cooper, also joined Kenton around this time; later he and June were married.
As the war ended and more musicians became available, the Kenton music improved even more. So did its popularity. It scored a big hit at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, the first really great reception it had received in a major room outside Los Angeles. In September the band returned to New York and registered just as impressively at the Paramount Theater and at the Pennsylvania Hotel, where Barry Ulanov reviewed it. "Stan had been wandering musically," he noted, "playing more and more ballads, going in for more and more production numbers, and, consequently, playing less and less of the kind of galvanic jazz which was first associated with his name. The wandering years are over. Stan is back to the kind of jazz he knows, feels and is best able to play . . . and his band swings more subtly now and, as a result, connects."
Eddie Safranski had joined the band by then on bass, and his playing made a big difference. Vido Musso and his tenor sax were also there, and they played important roles on one of the band's biggest hits, "Artistry Jumps." And soon came more stellar musicians, like trombonist Kai Winding, drummer Shelly Manne and arranger Pete Rugolo, pushing the Kenton band toward musical heights it had never been able to attain previously.
Rugolo, serious, bespectacled and highly imaginative, made the biggest difference. Not only did he write distinctive arrangements, giving the band an ever clearer identity, but he also took a good deal of the load off Stan, with whom he became very friendly, establishing a relationship similar to that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
In January, 1946, Kenton was declared Band of the Year by the editors of Look magazine. Twelve months later, Metronome's editors, who had never been complete Kenton converts, accorded the band the same honor.
In the same issue they ran an article headed "Bands Busting Up Big" and listed eight top dance orchestras (Stan's not included) that had decided to disband during the preceding months.
But Stan wasn't discouraged. Perhaps the era of the big bands that played for dancing and strictly for the public may have ended, but Stan's wasn't one of those bands. He continued to have faith in his more specialized, modern approach. "Soon there'll be no more 'in the middle' bands," he predicted at the time, "no more of those that try to play something new for a few minutes and then settle back into the old way because it's commercial. The pace is much too fast for that sort of thing. . . . Quite frankly, I think that if the commercial bands try to compete with the more modern bands, they'll wind up making asses of themselves."
Stan often came on strong like that. He was thoroughly convinced that what he and his men were doing was the right and perhaps the only thing, and he spoke out all over the country for what he believed in. Spoke out and spoke on and on and on. I can't recall any bandleader who ever did a greater selling job for his music than Stan Kenton did. He was a press agent's delight, a constant joy to his equally voluble, omnipresent PR man, Milton Karle. He was forever visiting disc jockeys, dropping in at record shops and granting interviews anywhere, anytime with anyone who would listen to his impassioned diatribes. His highly contagious and often overpowering enthusiasm frequently carried him away too, as he rambled on about his music, his philosophy and various other subjects. Many of his interviews turned into monologues as the sentences poured out, seemingly without any punctuation except exclamation points, which he'd drop in all over the place.
He knew he had a selling job to do, and he relished it. "If you ask any ten people on the street," he pointed out, "if they have ever heard of Stan Kenton, only a couple of them will say 'yes.' We have to try to get the other eight. And the only way I can see to do it is to make myself a personality and take my band along."
The big bands as a group may have started to fade away in 1947. But not Stan Kenton's. He kept building bigger and more complex units, which played bigger and more complex works. He veered more and more from the dance band field and began concentrating almost exclusively on concerts, bringing greater satisfaction not only to himself but to those who came to listen but seldom to dance.
There were times when he was successful; there were times when he failed. But always he kept up that indomitable spirit. Perhaps his enthusiasm was not as intense and as pervasive as before. Perhaps he listened more as the monologues ebbed and the dialogues flowed.
In the sixties, he and I participated in a dialogue. Looking back at his music, especially his ballads, he said, "There was just too much tension, but I'm rid of that now. ... At my age [he was then nearing fifty] I've finally found out what is and what isn't important. I used to try to prove every point. Now I'm concentrating on those that really mean something to me.”
Concentrate Stan did, as hard as he possibly could, for almost two decades more. His spirit never flagged, as he kept trying to prove all the musical and philosophical points that mattered to him. The pace was literally killing. In 1977, after an engagement, he fell in a parking lot and suffered a severe skull fracture that required a lengthy hospitalization. Upon his release, he was warned to slow down. He never heeded that warning, and on August 17, 1979, he suffered a terrible stroke. He lingered for just eight days more, and one of the big bands' greatest innovators was gone."