Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm – Portrait of a Jazz Legend

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

“[The ancients Greeks] … knew that Fortune was an idiot’s dance, springing away, and then back, and then again away. And they knew that no one is ever always fortunate.”
- Donna Leon, The Girl of His Dreams [p.109].

With almost 40 years as the leader of a Jazz big band, no one knew better about la forza del destino than Stanley Newcomb Kenton.

Thank goodness for the many fans of Stan’s music that this talented and dedicated musician had perhaps more than his fair share of good fortune over the span of his nearly four decade career [1941-1979].

If you lived in Southern California, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, the name “Stan Kenton” was closely associated with big band jazz. It also had a similar relationship to Jazz on the West Coast during the decade of the 1950s as most of its principals had been “on” the Kenton band at one time or another.

And when the Jazz clubs began to fold and the Jazz festivals diminished or disappeared, if you wanted to learn to play Jazz, Stan Kenton’s name became synonymous as a source for learning about this fascinating form of music through the many clinics and college concerts his band appeared at in the 1960s and 1970s.

The JazzProfiles editorial staff has recently written extensively on Stan and you can re-visit these past features by clicking on the following segment links:

Beyond the fact that preparing these blog features on Stan provided us with a focus for spending more time familiarizing ourselves with recordings of Stan’s music, the arrival of Michael Sparke new book – Stan Kenton: This is an Orchestra! [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press] – a few months after its publication in April, 2010 also served to further our knowledge about the career of this amazing musician.

And now, along comes a magnificent documentary DVD by Graham Carter, the Producer and Director of Jazzed Media [], which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Stan Kenton's birth [Wichita, KS on December 15, 1911].

Two ingredients make Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend must viewing: Graham Carter’s exceptional skills as a filmmaker and the film’s heavy reliance for source material on Ken Poston, Director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, and his knowledge of all-things-Kenton.

During its 117 minutes, the “DVD includes over 20 people interview about Stan Kenton’s career, and over 20 television and movie performances of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. [It] also includes over 300 photos and images from Kenton’s almost 40 year Jazz music career and rare taped interviews with Stan Kenton.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Graham’s DVD is the audio visual equivalent of a nearly two hour gold mine of Kentonia, the pace at which this material is presented never gives its viewer the sense of being rushed or of being lectured.

The experience the DVD affords is more akin to hearing and viewing a good story teller unfold a well-conceived narrative.

Even for those who may already be familiar with certain aspects of the “Kenton story,” they have certainly not heard it told this way before.

Graham keeps the film visually interesting with a sentimental but not maudlin interview with Howard Rumsey, the bassist with Stan’s first band in 1941; footage of Stan with a coat jacket slung over his shoulder talking about where it all began while standing on the beach sand just down from the burned out site of the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA [having been rebuilt after a fire gutted it in 1935, it was lost forever in a second fire in 1966]; interviews with former band members Peter Erskine [drummer] and Mike Vax [lead trumpet] explaining the significance of the orchestra in its later years, something not always well-understood or appreciated by the fans of Stan’s earlier bands.

But perhaps what stands out the most among the film’s many attributes is the way in which Graham constantly captures and underscored Stan’s humanity for I would venture to say that never in the history of big band Jazz was a band leader more universally loved by musicians than was Stan Kenton.

Another theme that the DVD emphasizes is Kenton’s constant search for new forms of Jazz expression: here again, not all of his fans stayed on board the USS Kenton as it navigated its way along the Seven Seas of Jazz in search on new musical treasure.

But this was Stan quest: it was his musical soul that was on this journey looking for new forms of musical expression.

In viewing Graham’s DVD, it appears as though Kenton was not always certain of the best direction to take in order to satisfy this search – the expression “we’re lost but we’re making good time”  sometimes comes to mind, but Stan was always very welcoming in allowing both musicians and fans to join him for the ride.

If you are inclined to undertake the adventure that was Stan Kenton’s musical journey through life, I can think of no better way of experiencing it than by watching Graham Carter’s superb documentary DVD on the subject.

Here is Graham’s own annotation about the film.

“Stan Kenton is acknowledged as one of the pioneers in developing contemporary big band jazz, with a career as band leader starting in the 1940s and lasting through the late 1970s. Kenton was also responsible for helping bring to fame many jazz stars including June Christy, Maynard Ferguson, and Lee Konitz. Many great arrangers wrote for the Kenton band including Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Lennie Niehaus, Gerry Mulligan, and Pete Rugolo.

Celebrating the 100th birthday centennial of Stan Kenton in 2011, this almost 2 hour documentary film, produced in association with the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, provides an in-depth look at Kenton s almost 40 years as a big band leader.

Kenton was a leader in combining Afro-Cuban rhythms with big band jazz in America in the late 1940s. The "Progressive" era of Kenton jazz introduced various elements of modern classical music to the big band jazz setting. His "Innovations" orchestra of the early 1950s offered up a touring band combining jazz and classical music elements and featured soon to be worldwide jazz stars including Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank, and Shorty Rogers. Kenton was instrumental in the formation of jazz education starting in the late 1950s. The 1960s brought further development of additional instrumentation to the band with the "Mellophonium" sound, and later many works written for the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. Kenton continued leading bands through the changing times of the rock influenced late 1960s and 1970s.

Producer & Director Graham Carter has interviewed many people connected with Stan Kenton s life and career including Howard Rumsey, Dr. Herb Wong, JoAnn Kenton, Audree Kenton, Peter Erskine, Carl Saunders, Joel Kaye, Mike Vax, Bill Holman, and Jack Costanzo.

Many famous Stan Kenton Orchestra film and television performances have been included from the big band era of the 1940s through the late 1970s. A large collection of audio music performances are included in the film showcasing the various Kenton bands and their renowned soloists.”

And here are a few comments from the many fans who have already viewed it.

“It's wonderful!!!! Just to see Stan the Man, in all his phases, leading his band, coming to life ... it's priceless. …

Ken Poston does a running narrative (if you've ever been to one of his presentations in L.A., you will appreciate the significance of that) and there are interviews with Jack Costanzo, Herb Wong, Bob Curnow, Eddie Bert, Mike Vax, JoAnn Kenton, Audree, Howard Rumsey, Bill Holman, and many others, and film clips ranging from the earliest beginnings right up to the last band. How this was all compressed and edited into a comprehensive and smoothly flowing narrative is just amazing. …

Congratulations to Graham Carter, and thanks to all who collaborated to produce this marvelous video, which, I agree, every Kenton fan will want to own and play, many times. The music itself hits on so many of his phases! Most of us probably have the full-length recordings, but this is like a nice sampler to remind us how much we've always enjoyed it all. You'll see John Von Ohlen, you'll see Dick Shearer, you'll see June and the early band members and Shelly and ... well, get your copy and see for yourself. Make it your Valentine to yourself. :) ….

- Lillian Arganian”

“This year the legendary big band leader Stan Kenton would have been 100 years old. "Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm – Portrait of a Jazz Legend" is a great way to celebrate the Kenton Centennial. …

This film provides an overview of Kenton's memorable career, one marked by some of the most important and controversial innovations in the history of big band jazz. The story is related through interviews with friends, associates, admirers and family, as well as a variety of photographs and archival performance footage. …

Producer/director Graham Carter has done a marvelous job of gathering together these disparate elements to provide the viewer with a cohesive picture of the Kenton career and personae. The interview segments are masterfully blended into the excitement of the musical footage to keep the story moving along at a rapid pace. At the conclusion of the almost two hour running time, I felt that the elapsed time was considerably less than the actual time. That is always a sign that the creator of the film has been successful in engaging the viewer in a way that justifies the effort that went into producing the final product. ( …

- Joe Lang”

“”Stan Kenton - Artistry in Rhythm, Portrait of a Jazz Legend - ****½:

Graham Carter of Jazzed Media has done a Herculean job of documenting through archival footage and 20+ interviews with Kenton alumni and family, the jazz life of Stan Kenton from the early 1940s all the way to end of Stan’s life in the late 1970s. This 40 year period encompasses all the generations of Kenton’s bands from the Artistry in Rhythm Band of the early 1940s; through the 1950s Innovations in Modern Music and Contemporary Concepts; the New Era in Modern American Music and The Neophonic Years of the 1960s; and concluding with The Creative World of Stan Kenton period of the 1970s when Stan created a record label just for his band.

What jumps out to viewers of this extended period of Kenton excellence is Stan’s restlessness. For example, Stan would do largely commercial work to support the costs for his band to incorporate strings in a 43 member band at the beginning of the 1950s, which was an artistic success but a financial failure to tour. He was arguably the first big band leader - certainly on the West Coast - to incorporate Afro Cuban rhythms by using the talents of Johnny Richards.

Throughout this historically well researched near two hour encapsulation of the musical life of Stan Kenton it became clear that he was a father figure to his band. They represented the family that he did not have the time to raise. His failings as a family man were partially “cured” by the love of the musicians he traveled with on lengthy bus trips.

Proper time in the
DVD is devoted to Stan Kenton’s role as a jazz educator. He knew full well that fostering jazz education in the schools would keep jazz alive. For that alone he should be honored.

 - Jeff Krow, Audio Audition”

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