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Kenton 70's music had many things in common with the bands of other eras including great soloists, great section leaders and a select number of arrangers who played a key role in shaping the orchestra's identity.
But one thing that was different about Stan’s music during this period was the infusion of Rock ‘n Rock into the band’s book of arrangements.
In this chapter from his definitive Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra, the erudite Kenton-scholar Michael Sparke explains how this development, or, at least an attempt to do so, came about.
Kenton Goes Rock
“Bob Curnow was 31 when he joined the Kenton organization, ten years older than his first stint with the mellophonium orchestra in 1963, but still a young man. He was certainly young enough to have been influenced by the fusion music that had actually worked both ways, with a few of the rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears injecting a little from the jazz idiom into their arrangements. Much as Bob might have preferred to get straight into writing for the band himself, his first, full-time task was to ensure the survival of Creative World Records.
At the same time, Bob's impossible instructions from Stan were to expand the label by recording other artists, so that CW was not dependent solely upon the Kenton orchestra. But Curnow had neither the experience, nor (more importantly) the finances to groom the better pop artists who helped subsidize the jazz and classical catalogs of the major companies; and popular jazz stars were not only expensive, but generally contracted to other labels. Curnow had little option but to feature new jazz talent, but if anything sells slower than established jazz groups it is little-known names, and after some few releases by such as Les Hooper and John Von Ohlen, this part of the project was abandoned, leaving Bob free to concentrate on obtaining a "hit" record by Kenton himself.
In consultation with Curnow, Stan was persuaded this could best be achieved through "fusion," a combination of jazz that he hoped would retain the regular fans, and rock to involve the younger generation. In other words, the music was to be dumbed down. Stan had little choice if Creative World was to remain operational, but at the same time his musical instincts resisted the change, so that he was never 100% committed. To live in two musical worlds at the same time is a precarious existence, but some artists had achieved the near-impossible, Miles Davis being the prime example.
Over the summer of 1973 the character of the band changed considerably. As Stan looked to implement his new policy, he commissioned Gene Roland to come up with a rock-oriented album while retaining the Kenton sound, seemingly overlooking (or possibly forgetting) Gene's previous failure at the same task. Although he traveled with the band for three months, Roland's glory days were long behind him, and he was no more successful in 1973 than he had been in 1966. Most of Gene's output was unceremoniously dumped, and only two titles made it onto the new album now coming together. "Those Roland compositions were not up to his earlier standard," observed Bob Curnow, "and that's why you don't hear them any more." But whether "Blue Gene" and "Country Cousin" were any worse than the other titles on 7.5 on the Richter Scale is a matter of opinion. Hank Levy hit "rock" bottom with "Down and Dirty," and even Hanna's band vocal version of "It's Not Easy Bein' Green" is embarrassingly bad. The two big "hits" were both melodically dire film themes: Curnow's "Live and Let Die" and Dale Devoe's adaption of "2001" retitled "2002—Zarathustrevisited" for copyright reasons.
7.5 on the Richter Scale was produced by Bob Curnow and largely conducted by Hank Levy, with seemingly minimum Kenton participation. "The album was done in a very hurried fashion in one of Wally Heider's small studios," commented Curnow. "It was a low-budget deal, and a lot of the music had never been played before the session, and that band was not at its strongest sight-reading. The change in style arose out of the Company's poor financial state—we were looking for something that would sell."
And set amongst all this dross was a single jewel that shone like a gem, an oasis in a desert wasteland. Marty Paich's vision of "Body and Soul" was orchestrated in the same classical style as his previous "My Old Flame," an almost cruel reminder in this setting of how fine the music of Stan Kenton could sound. "A beautifully crafted work of art," opined Mike Suter. "When 100 years down the road Kenton is rediscovered, 'Body and Soul' will be the representative of the last decade. It's fitting!"
There's a wicked irony in the fact Stan had set up Creative World in order to enjoy the freedom to record the music he wanted, and now economics were forcing him to compromise just as he had at Capitol. Although Stan's lack of judgment (the sacking of Clinton Roemer in the States, and the floundering Dutch subsidiary in which he held a 51% stake) was partly to blame, the band was now very dependent on university and college bookings. Every artist likes to bask in audience approval, and the rock charts created more enthusiasm from the kids than "Body and Soul" ever did. As final proof (if any were needed) that junk always sells better than serious music, Audree Coke confirmed: "7.5 on the Richter Scale was an attempt to appeal to a younger audience, and is turning out to be the biggest seller we have ever had."
Like most of us, Stan Kenton frequently changed his mind. In 1948 he had told Down Beat that strings produced a thrilling sound, but were definitely not for his band. In 1950 he had fronted the Innovations Orchestra, featuring a full 16-piece string section. The following quotes to me are also set two years apart:
Stan Kenton, February 22, 1973: "I've always felt that jazz is jazz and rock is rock, and I never felt that we should get into playing rock music."
Stan Kenton, February 6, 1975: "Rock rhythms are more exciting than the old-fashioned jazz rhythms. Rock rhythms have become fused with jazz, they're part of today's music, and there's no going back now."
But again like most of us, Kenton sometimes said things that were expedient rather than what he really believed. So was it a case that Stan had genuinely changed his mind, or more that he was making the best of a bad job? Lillian Arganian asked Hank Levy, who had already done more than anyone to introduce rock into the band, for his opinion. "He didn't believe in it that much," said Hank.
Trombone player Howard Hedges also told the story that whenever Levy submitted a chart that had "rock feel" written on it, Stan would rehearse the music and say he liked it, but would subsequently pass. Hank discovered that if he retitled the SAME CHART and inserted "Latin feel" instead, the music would make it into the book.
Some of the young musicians naturally liked the rock influence more than others. In Peter Erskine's view, "A good number of Hank's charts did employ 'backbeats.' Hank specified 'Jazz/Rock' and we played it as such, for better or worse—but the man's writing should not be indicted. Hank Levy was a lovely gentleman, and I know that Stan cherished their musical association."
A different view of Levy's music (and much closer to my own) was offered by Mike Suter: "Hank was a wonderful man. I loved him dearly— and loved is the word I have chosen after careful consideration. He was totally committed to jazz and jazz education. But he was NOT a good composer or arranger. His gimmick was time charts. For Kenton he stuck pretty much with 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, probably at Kenton's request. But I've played many of his more 'adventurous' pieces, and they all share the same deficiencies as those he wrote for Kenton: they're predictable, forced, harmonically weak, and unimaginative. I hate to say all this because he was such a great guy. So incredibly supportive. But he was a college-level writer at best. That Kenton recorded so much of his music reflects just how far the band had declined in those last years."
At best, Stan's commitment to rock was half-hearted. "For one thing," observes Suter, "rock is a rhythm-based music led by the guitar, and the Kenton band had only three full-time rhythm players—drums, bass, and Latin percussion—but no guitar and only an occasional piano. Therefore any true rock was impossible. Both Stan and Hank were from an older generation, and neither had any real understanding of rock. In my opinion, Bob Curnow proved best at melding rock and Kenton."
The prospect of Stan Kenton playing rock piano was as preposterous as Benny Goodman trying to switch from swing to bop 25 years earlier, so Hank Levy and Dick Shearer tried to convince Stan to hire a younger pianist who would add the textures of electronic keyboards to the band. As Mike Suter recalls, "Stan was playing less and less, so many of the jazz players were looking for more support, and Hank had a kid he was high on who played synthesizer. Hank and Dick hatched the idea that this kid should join the band and play keyboard parts—synthesized piano on traditional tunes and more modern sounds on our version of rock—when Stan chose not to play.
"According to Dick, Stan wouldn't entertain the idea. Dismissed it out of hand. The fans would never accept another piano player. Stan simply said 'No,’ and that was it. Hank kept on to Stan, but Dick dropped out after the first time Stan said 'no.' Dick recognized the tone and stopped. He knew it was pointless —and maybe even dangerous—to continue. In my view and Dick's, the idea had merit. Synthesized sounds would have helped the inadequacies of what Hank wrote and called rock, and would have aided Curnow's music the most, because Bob was the best at reshaping music from the rock idiom to fit Stan's style. I don't remember Dick mentioning whether Curnow played any part in the effort to add a keyboard player. Personally, I'd bet Bob stayed out of it—no evidence, just a gut feeling."
Curnow confirmed he had no knowledge of the move at all, adding, "I never felt the necessity for a second pianist, and even if I had felt the need for electronic keys of some kind, I would NEVER have mentioned it to Stan. One didn't 'discuss' things with Stan very often. You made your (hopefully) well-thought-out suggestion, and then waited for his decision."
So (thankfully in my opinion—and that's phrasing it mildly!), the Kenton band never became a rock band, though it went far enough to alienate some older fans, but not far enough to really enthuse the rock generation. At concerts, the contemporary music like "2002" and "Live and Let Die" was interspersed with more traditional Kenton music, resulting in the very real danger that in trying to please everyone, you end up fully pleasing no one. Stan returned for an extensive tour of Europe in September 1973, its relative failure (especially in Germany) being attributed to "over-exposure"—this was the second visit to England in the same year—rather than a failure to connect with its core audience.
As often happened after an overseas tour, personnel changes took place once the band returned Stateside, among them John Park, who was forced to leave following a heart attack on October 10, soon followed by saxists Kim Park (John's step-son) and Mary Fettig, who had formed a relationship that allegedly resulted in pregnancy. Also given notice was Dale Devoe (trombone), whom Stan appreciated more for his writing than his playing. "2002" had been a sizable hit for the band, though it was the bossa nova-ish "Love Theme from The Godfather" that was the more musically attractive. Dale was a youngster just getting started, and probably wasn't best pleased that Stan had considerably simplified his arrangement when recording the 7.5 album, so that it emerges as effective but over-bland. Much more cutting-edge Kenton was Dale's "El Cordobes" (named after the Spanish bull-fighter) which Stan never saw fit to record. But Dale's biggest hit was "Roy's Blues" for Roy Reynolds, which remained in the book to the end. From Devoe's own account in Steven Harris' invaluable book The Kenton Kronicles, Dale's stay in the band was short but not always sweet, and he perhaps fits Bill Fritz' comment as well as any, that "The tragedy lies in the minds of those who join the band with great expectations, and end up dwelling on what might have been."
From producing one of CW's top sellers, Bob Curnow moved to one of its weakest: Solo—Stan Kenton without His Orchestra. Even the ever-prudent Audree Coke admitted, "The Solo album is selling rather slowly." The truth was, the fans had always adored Stan despite, rather than because of, his instrumental abilities, because as a jazz pianist Kenton didn't even reach the starting gate. There were literally hundreds of piano players in the business with more jazz feeling and rhythmic sense than Kenton brought to the keyboard.
By the Seventies, as his fingers stiffened, Stan was featuring his "concerto" piano style most extensively. Arrangers found their charts were more likely to be accepted if they included a piano solo, often as an introduction to the piece. Audiences appreciated this "hors d'oeuvre," an appetizer, knowing that the orchestra would soon come roaring in, and Kenton basked in this warm glow of affection. But remove the "main course"—the band—and an audience would soon have grown restless. Stan Kenton and his orchestra could fill New York's Carnegie or London's Festival halls. But be honest, how many "bums on seats" would a Stan Kenton Piano Recital have filled?
There had been suggestions for a Kenton piano album for many years, but Stan had always deferred, perhaps sensing it wasn't his greatest strength, and also because he invariably tensed up and became very apprehensive when recording solos. By all accounts Kenton suffered agonies during the sessions, and a hilarious compilation of out-takes that includes Stan's many expletives is a mind-boggling prize among serious collectors. Bob Curnow relates: "I remember when we first went to record at United and Western, the studio was in darkness, but a light from the control room was focused on this nine-foot grand—this big, black, Baldwin piano—and as Stan saw it he said, 'I feel like El Cordobes walking into the ring, and that's the bull!' And it was quite an experience, a real eye-opener. Some things Stan played beautifully, and some things he played terribly. A lot of times he didn't even remember his own compositions, and I had to go out and find the sheet music for things like 'Theme to the West.'"
For Kenton to record an entire album without even rhythm support was certainly a brave—some might say foolhardy—venture on his part. There's very little "jazz" on the completed album, and even then you are by no means hearing the music as Stan played it, as Curnow explains: "It was very hard. We recorded something like 11 hours of music, and then I took the tapes and edited those 11 hours down to 42 minutes. Every note on the album is Stan's, but it's a real patchwork quilt of many takes over many days on quite a few of the cuts. My memory tells me there were well over 150 intercuts and edits in the final album. I worked on it for an entire month before going back into the studio to put together the master. What a labor of love, with an emphasis on the LABOR part!"
The best summary of Solo that I have seen comes from Ed Bride on Kentonia: "To me, the Kenton solo album is more of a personal statement than great jazz piano-playing. You hear melodies of compositions that were played by the big band, and you get to think about what might be going on in his mind. He's talking to us. It's more personal than musical, at least to me."
The next musician to cause the greatest stir after John Park was also an alto sax player. Tony Campise joined in March 1974, the most "avant-garde" soloist the band had ever featured (and that includes Jay Daversa), giving rise to strong pro and anti opinions both inside and outside the orchestra. Kenton allowed Campise complete freedom of expression, and featured him at concerts on such disparate titles as "Inner Crisis" and "Street of Dreams" (from rock to ballad). I asked Stan how he found Tony compared with Park: "Campise's an exhibitionist and Park isn't. Campise has such tremendous technique he can't help but use it, and sometimes he plays too much. He'd take a lot of wild chances and scare guys to death, the things he'd get going on that horn. But he didn't play with the taste that Park played with."
Dick Shearer continues, "Campise probably knew more about saxophone than anyone I've ever heard in my life. Technically he knew how to do everything, and he could change styles: if he wanted to sound like Johnny Hodges or Lee Konitz or whoever, he could do that very easily. There were times when he'd be playing he'd do something like that just for the fun of it. Every time he played you didn't know what was going to happen. Tony had no inhibitions, whatever he felt, whatever he wanted to do, he did it. His lead playing was always fine, but I'm less sure whether his solos always fitted the style of the band.
"Tony was popular with the public, and sometimes he'd get these ethnic-type things going, where he'd talk like a Japanese, or he'd do his Mexican imitation. And he could literally talk backwards. He could speak what sounded like nonsense into a tape recorder, and when you played it the other way it came out as, 'Yes, my name is Tony Campise.' Tony's the type of person who could hear a language once or twice, and have the pronunciation down, whether or not he understood what was said."
Despite Campise's strong personality, Mike Suter insists this was the "John Harner band." John played lead trumpet through 1974-75, and according to Suter: "Brought phrasing and dynamics back to Stan's music. John willed the band to excellence and personally burnished the rough edges. I wish I knew how he did what he did, but I don't have a clue. He would decide to make a change, and somehow through his sound we were aware that a change was coming, and be ready. I'm afraid Stan's ambiguity towards John prevented him from recognizing his talent until it was too late. Great lead players only come along a few times, and Stanley blew it."
Following a successful if less than overwhelming tour of Japan in April, the band plunged into a brace of new scores written by Bob Curnow, a very diverse talent whose skills ranged from the traditional Anthems music to the fusion charts he saw as the best way for Stan to make contact with the younger generation. Bob's original concept had been an album featuring the music of Chicago, and another from Blood, Sweat and Tears, but Stan was never fully convinced. While he could endorse translating classical composers like Wagner into the Kenton idiom with composure, rock groups carried a certain stigma that he found impossible to overcome. Kenton ended up advising Bob to use some music by both groups on a single LP, and even that should be filled out with some original Curnow compositions. One senses Stan's lack of conviction from his comment (displaying more optimism than realism), "We used music made popular by Chicago because we felt it would call attention to the band and gain a lot of the younger listeners—and we've begun to believe now that we didn't have to do it, because the kids are coming to us in droves anyway."
Even post-Kenton with his interest in Pat Metheny's music, Curnow never wrote pure rock; at most his music might be described as "fusion," and the centerpiece of the Chicago album ("Chicago Suite III") veers towards jazz. As Mike Suter phrased it, "Bob was the best at melding rock and Kenton. He squeezed the music into the Kenton mold, writing great arrangements, let's say 85% Kenton and 15% rock, that worked. At the same time, the music itself, regardless of the arrangements, doesn't have the 'drama' that a Kenton piece should have." While I might quarrel slightly with Mike's percentages, he is right that the music isn't really strong enough to support Bob's imaginative arrangements, so that a sense of total fulfillment is lacking. Music from rock groups might be a workable basis to sell records, but it was never going to replicate the great Kenton achievements of the past. And the Chicago music had the disadvantage of seldom being played in public, according to Curnow because, " 'Chicago III Suite' was a very complicated piece of music. They played it for just a few months after the recording, and then stopped because Stan would get lost, and it'd get all screwed up. Stan was aware he wasn't as sharp any longer, and he couldn't do it justice. And that's why in the Seventies he allowed the arrangers to conduct their own things on the recording sessions whenever possible."
Kenton's deterioration since his operations was highlighted by Mike Suter: "The Stan Kenton I knew in 1974 was very different from the man I knew in 1963. His health problems had taken a huge toll. He still loved being a bandleader, standing in front of his brainchild. He still loved the Clinics, which to him wasn't just a way to rake in a few extra bucks—his belief and leadership in jazz education was for real. He even still loved the road. But he no longer had the drive, the energy, to be the front-running innovator he once was. He no longer drove the band as in earlier years; now the band drove him."
More to the taste of Kenton traditionalists (and possibly Stan himself) were the two Curnow original compositions, which showed no trace of rock influences. "First Child" is a sombre, sololess work, dedicated, Bob said, to his first-born son, replete with all the majesty one associates with Kenton music. "Rise and Fall of a Short Fugue" is more experimental, with weird Campise flute, written, Bob said, because "Stan wanted something which he could play every night and conduct differently. Originally the piece was constructed in such a way that there were different directions to work through, so that Stan could change tempos, appoint different soloists, and bring out the backgrounds behind the soloists at his bidding. That piece could comfortably go ten or twelve minutes, and be pretty interesting." But this recording is over all too quickly in just four, and the basic concept worked no better than it had with Russo's "Improvisation," resulting in the title soon being dropped from the repertoire.
Much was clearly expected from Curnow, as illustrated by these quotes to me:
Stan Kenton: "Bob Curnow is basically a brilliant composer and conductor, and he shouldn't be wasted running Creative World—he's got too much to say." (February 6, 1975)
Dick Shearer: "He's my brother! I think Bob is the new Johnny
Richards—he's marvelous!" (February 18, 1975)
Audree Coke: "Bob is remarkable. He is talented, intelligent and totally creative, and he writes specifically and correctly for the Kenton band. Bob is the logical successor to Pete Rugolo." (February 19, 1975)
I asked Curnow why it didn't happen, and his simple explanation was that Stan eventually found him most indispensable running Creative World successfully, and there was no time to write as well, so the Chicago album was Bob's swan-song. (Two further titles were recorded in 1975, but left on the shelf.) Stan returned to relying on his two reliables Levy and Hanna (especially Hank) and a sprinkling of other writers, but never found anyone to replace Maiden. Fusion was lost in the shuffle, but Stan had no great ideas to replace it with, so that the band lacked a clear direction. It's a real potpourri on Fire, Fury and Fun, a pretty meaningless album title itself, and since Curnow's idea was to fashion an LP featuring the band's soloists, something drawing attention to that concept might have been more explanatory.
Stan's thematic piano is prominent (though not really a headlined soloist) on Levy's "Quiet Friday" (not so hushed during its rockier moments) and Hanna's "Montage." I appreciate Hanna's ballads are not universally regarded with the same admiration I have for them, but "Montage" is one of Ken's finest achievements, a dark, brooding work with a powerful theme that builds to a dramatic orchestral climax. Conducted by Curnow in Hanna's absence, the initial arrangement has been considerably simplified for recording purposes, yet still presented problems on the date. The recording log shows it took 14 takes to perfect "Montage," and Stan became tetchy, afraid the session would run into overtime he couldn't afford. During a break, Shearer gave Suter the nod to switch from tuba to bass trombone, because (said Mike), "The tuba part was just impossible, but in the end we never played 'Montage' again as good as we got it on the record." And they never went back to playing the original, superior orchestration again either!
The remaining pieces are more legitimately solo features, the "fun" presumably intended to come from Tony Campise's voice and flute on "Hogfat Blues," if you find pig-like noises masquerading as music amusing. A much more musical score comes from veteran arranger Chico O'Farrill for the conga drums of Ramon Lopez. Ramon told me he chose Chico based on his previous writing for Stan and Machito, and that he specified the congas should melt in and out of the music, rather than just being percussive. Chico slows the tempo mid-piece for a short piano spot which cleverly leads into the closing section, and as Lopez notes, "We made only two takes, and the band played so great we left it at that. Stan didn't like the original title 'Hit and Rum' [Ramon's favorite tipple], and elected to put my name on it instead."
The album's big hit was "Roy's Blues," which according to composer Dale Devoe experienced changes to its structure along the way. A basic blues chart of no great melodic worth, it was one of the few Seventies titles to really take the public fancy. Reynolds started out on baritone sax as heard here, the tone of which I preferred to the tenor he adopted in January 1975. Both Reynolds and the band soon grew tired with the monotony of the piece, and Suter relates, "We tried Roy on a lot of other charts, but none were as effective. Roy played 'Yesterdays' a few times, and it was beautiful. But the audiences didn't want to be touched, they wanted to be thrilled. The band was still playing it in '78, and the crowds still ate it up. It got one of the biggest reactions every night."
Peter Erskine certainly displays a great deal of "fire" on "Pete Is a Four-Letter Word." The piece is orchestrally structured, and is certainly not an endless drum solo, though whether Levy's score is better musically than Rugolo's for Shelly Manne almost 30 years earlier is a matter of opinion. "I think the feature was Stan's idea," said Erskine, "but I had no input into the chart's design or form, and it wasn't an easy tune to play—a bit 'left-handed' rhythmically. Typical procedure for the band at that time was to play a piece a couple of times (at most) in concert before the recording session, then go into the studio and scramble like crazy to get a decent take for the album, and then begin playing it nightly until the album came out."
Under these conditions, considering the inexperience of most of the band and Stan's loss of vigor since his illnesses, it's not surprising producer Bob Curnow worked under pressure. In a comment that showed how much Stan's attitude had changed since earlier times, Bob explained: "The Creative World albums were hard, especially in the post-production stage, because I had to go in and mix-out all the clams, and some of the solos were troublesome. More time should have been put into the recordings, and Fire, Fury and Fun was done in just two days: the band was in and out of the studio because they left Chicago after that real fast. Stan really left everything in my hands. He rarely expressed any interest in anything like the art-work or liner notes. On the sessions he rarely interfered or said anything. He'd leave it to me to decide whether we needed another take, and I always pushed for one more. I wanted that extra something that wasn't there yet, and that nearly always turned out for the best."
This look at Kenton’s music is to be continued and concluded in Part 8.