Thursday, February 28, 2013

Kandinsky and Kenton: An Artistic Accord

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

“Beginning in the mid-1940’s, Kenton found an enthusiastic, ever-growing, devoted audience. His music seemingly spoke to the postwar young and veterans of World War II. The enveloping, orgasmic sound of the orchestra had a hypnotic quality. The general feeling was that Kenton was hip. And though many critics disagreed vehemently, supporters of the orchestra would have none of that. They loved with a passion this vivid, often stirring, immoderately loud music that made them feel good and seemed to promise something for the future.”
- Burt Korall, Jazz author and critic

There’s a tremendous bond between Jazz musicians.

They know how hard it is to play this music; harder still to create it.

As a result, Jazz musicians have a ready respect for others who demonstrate a facility in navigating the music’s many challenges.

The knowing look; the smile of appreciation; the nodding of the head in approval are all subtle signs accorded to a musician who can make it happen in Jazz.

Jazz doesn’t exist; it has to be brought into existence by the improvising skills of the musician, individually and in combination.

Of course, the melodies, chord structures and blues frameworks that these improvisations are based on are, for the most part, written compositions.

But this notated music only serves as a point of departure.

Jazz is almost impossible to teach, but it can be learned.

In Jazz, one of the sincerest forms of flattery is indeed imitation; copying the work of others in order to get the “feel” of how Jazz is done and to develop one’s own sensibilities for making it.

It’s like trying on our elders’ clothes until one is able to “dress” oneself with originality, assurance and style.

When it all comes together and one finds one’s own voice in Jazz, there’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction and power in what the author Arthur Koestler once described as “The Act of Creation.”

Although I am not at all practiced in other, creative arts, I am told by many who are that artists share a similar affinity with the work of each other be they painters or poets or photographers; essayists or writers or biographers; playwrights or actors or movie directors.

Sometimes these artistic accords cross lines and combine well with one another.

Imagine viewing motion pictures with film scores by Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith or Ennio Morricone, or listening to Leonard Bernstein or Sting read the narrative to Tchaikovsky’s Peter and The Wolf  while the symphony orchestra plays out the sounds of each of the characters or any of the multitude of multi-media experiences that we create for ourselves like viewing photographs or reading a novel while listening to music.

The arts blend and form a concurrence with one another because each in their own way takes us through perception into the world of imagination, emotion and atmospheric mood. 

Artistic expression also satisfies our need to shape our own world; our individualism, as it were.

Part of growing up is rejecting the world of our parents [without, of course, rejecting them] and seeking out our own interests and world view. Artists help us to do this by replacing the powerful ambiguity of imitation with the thrilling assurance of finding our own preferences.

Artists often pave the way for the new. In Jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives were followed by the big bands of The Swing Era and they, in turn, were followed by Bebop and various forms of progressive or modern Jazz.

In painting, Greek and Roman art was followed by that of Medieval Times, and then the Renaissance, Mannerism, The Baroque and the various schools of Modern Art including, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impression and the many schools of Twentieth Century painting and sculpture.

Two examples of artists that strike me as constantly searching and probing for new directions while having an artistic unity based in iconoclasm are the painter Wassily Kandinsky [1866-1944] and the composer-arranger-bandleader Stan Kenton [1911-1979].

Put into a simpler form: I like listening to Kenton’s music while viewing Kandinsky’s art. Both are known for their daring.

Kandinsky died in 1944, a few years after Kenton formed his first big band in 1941. As a Russian living in Germany, Kandinsky’s art reflected the chaos of German culture before and between the two, world wars.

A leading member of a group of Munich artists known as “Der Blaue Reiter” [The Blue Horsemen], Kandinsky abandoned representational art altogether.

Using a rainbow of colors and a free, dynamic brushwork, Kandinsky created a completely non-objective style.

Whatever traces of representation his work contains are quite unintentional – his aim was to charge form and color with a purely spiritual meaning [as he put it] by eliminating all resemblance to the physical world.

Not to push the analogy between art and music too closely, but Stan Kenton in his music, as did Kandinsky in his painting, eventually eschewed representational forms of the Jazz while pursuing more abstract forms of the music.

He didn’t want his band to swing or his music to be danced to, he wanted it to be modern, contemporary, and progressive.

But most of all he wanted his music to be listened to, to have an impact, to be felt!

Big, brassy and bombastic, Kenton’s musical conception was orchestral bordering on the grandiose. His music wasn’t mainstream, if anything, it was characterized by a concerted effort to attack established Jazz “traditions.”

Can you imagine standing in front of the Kenton band when it unleashed the power and majesty of its music?

Trumpets screaming, French Horns heralding, trombones blatting, and tuba’s bellowing bass notes – what a rush!

I feel the same flash of excitement when I view Kandinsky’s paintings with their bold, bright colors, non-objective configurations and juxtaposition of shapes and patterns.

Both Kandinsky and Kenton were spurred on by the artistic urge to find their own style; to do it their way.

“Kandinsky's—or any artist's [Kenton?]—ideas are not important to us unless we are convinced of the importance of his pic­tures. Did he create a viable style? Admittedly, his work demands an intuitive response that may be hard for some of us, yet the painting here reproduced has density and vitality, and a radiant freshness of feeling that impresses us even though we are uncertain what exactly the artist has expressed.” [H.W. Janson, History of Art].