Friday, June 16, 2017

Stan Kenton: An Introduction

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

“The emerging consensus … is that the Kenton output was, as a whole, neither as terrible as its critics insisted nor as celestial as its devotees pretended. At times, of course, it could be either of the extremes, but the plain truth about the Kenton orchestra was that it was so much else as well. One should speak of the ‘Kenton sound’ only with trepidation; it is better to refer to the Kenton ‘sounds.’ …
The band’s range of expression was, in fact, nothing short of awe-inspiring. There may have been better big bands, certainly there were more consistently excellent big bands, but for sheer expressiveness, none could match the
Kenton ensemble of the postwar years.”

- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 144-45; paragraphing modified]:

In spite of the controversy that has always surrounded the man and his music and perhaps sometimes because of it,  Stan Kenton has been of interest to me from the first time I heard his magnificent 1946 version of Concerto to End all Concertos.

The actual occasion of my first hearing of this piece wouldn’t be until about 10 years later when while helping a friend clean out a closet, we found a batch of 12” 78 rpm’s that had belonged to his father [whom he had lost as a casualty of the Korean War].  

Given my very nascent interest in Jazz at this time, I had a faint recollection of having heard Kenton’s name mentioned as someone who was prominent in the music.

With permission to borrow the recordings having been granted by the friend’s Mother, I trudged home during a New England snowstorm with these oversized, and very heavy, Capitol 78’s tucked under my aching arm.

When I put them on the record player, all heck broke loose as the majesty and the power of Kenton’s music presented itself. I was hooked then and have been hooked ever since. What grand stuff this is!

The music seemed to possess me, both emotionally and intellectually. It was as though the music came alive and brought me into a new dimension along with it.

Ever since that first encounter with his music, I’ve listened to the various iterations of Stan’s orchestras and the constant transformations in his music.

In doing so, I’ve come to appreciate the following, succinctly-stated observations about Stan and his music as drawn from the website:

“For all the power, beauty, and majesty of his music, Stan Kenton remains an enigma. That may be a little dramatic but it's the kind of drama that Kenton himself would have appreciated.

Certainly much of his oeuvre encompasses a long series of contradictions: he put together a series of the hardest swinging big bands in the history of American music, but he often seemed be on an impossible dream kind of quest for a new jazz art music hybrid in which swing was not necessarily the thing.

He was one of the first white bandleaders to regularly hire black musicians, but in an infamous moment around 1956, he complained that white jazzmen were under appreciated.

He was constantly looking for ways to push the boundaries of the music into the future he was the first musician to popularize the term "progressive jazz" yet he also constantly carried the torch for the great early players like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.

Taken philosophically, Kenton would seem to add up to a series of unresolved chords, but musically, Kenton was among the most consistently inspired of American Musical icons. For nearly 40 years, he led one great band after another, which were marked not only by the ambitiousness of the leader's musical vision, but by the quality of musicians and arrangers whom he unfailingly surrounded himself with.

Every unit he led in front of the public or in a recording studio had something to recommend it, and even if his ideas could occasionally be pretentious, the point is that his music was constantly driven by new ideas.

Over the course of his long career the thing that Kenton feared most wasn't failure but the idea of repeating himself. He was a spiritual kinsman to both Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, two other musical icons who, at every stage of their development, refused to stop evolving and who could never stomach the idea of doing something that they had done before.”

So how best to spend some time with this fascinating man on JazzProfiles?

Since Lillian Arganian has kindly granted the editorial staff permission to use The Introduction to her work, Stan Kenton: The Man and His Music, we thought that this would be an excellent place to begin a multi-part profile on Stan.

© -Lillian Arganian, used with the author’s permission; copyright protected, all rights reserved.

Balboa Beach. June 14, 1982, 9:35 p.m. Site of the Rendezvous Ballroom.

A more perfect setting could not be imagined for what happened here 41 years ago. Dramatic and colorful, it's a stage set for the launching of something of great moment.

A pier runs to the left of the site into the incredible green sea, now darkened. From its edge lovers could turn to face the expanse of miniature gold city lights in the distance to the right, the exotic silhouette of romantic palms to the left. Walking back, they would hear the roaring Pacific, crashing to shore in giant bursts of white foam, hissing away in huge swirls.

And, roaring back, the bold, brash new music of Stanley Newcomb Kenton and his Orchestra, a scant 300 yards away in the Rendezvous Ballroom on Ocean Front Boulevard.
They began here, the five musical decades of Kenton's life, as he progressed from playing in other people's bands in the mid-1930s to putting together his first orchestra at the end of 1940. A booking on Memorial Day, 1941, and through the summer of that year gave his young band the solid footing it needed before heading East. It was to be an international career before it ended with his death on August 25,1979, and though he stipulated in his will that there be no "ghost band" there is Kenton music being heard everywhere in the world today, through the quicksilver scattering of his ideas that have danced into so many corridors of music they can never again be contained.

Stan Kenton the Man was a figure of complexity and simplicity; of contradiction and straight-ahead logic; of enormous psychic awareness and sensitivity; of characteristics at war with each other but at home within the same person, a seeker of the farthest frontiers of music and imagination. If he had to be summed up in one word, the word would be: Innovator.

Stan the Man's music was daring and brilliant. Exquisitely tender and pensive. Quick-paced. Exotic. Lush. Sensual. New. Different. Polytonal. Atonal. Massive. Emotional. Unleashed. If it had to be summed up in one word, the word would be: Exciting.

Stan Kenton was his music.

No phase of it was left untouched by the man, from playing piano, composing and arranging to leading the band, expanding its horizons, stretching and nurturing his musicians, promoting his concerts and records, making his own records and organizing his own direct-mail organization, speaking for jazz, entering the world of education and fostering the art form in an extensive clinic program in colleges and universities that lasted twenty years.

Married and divorced three times, Stan fathered three children and at one time owned a beautiful home in Beverly Hills. But his calling was his music and his true home was the road. And so it has not been the intention of this book to present the life of Stan Kenton in biographical or chronological form, but rather to touch upon key ideas of his musical thoughts and to ask questions—some of which will remain unanswered—as to his aims, directions, and ultimate achievements as a twentieth-century American musician. And to see what his life and music were all about by discussing their facets with some of those most closely involved—his musicians—and their interactions with him.

Whether sidemen, arrangers, composers, vocalists, educators, a combination of two or more of these, or related through kinship of idea or admiration, all were part of the Kenton orbit and understood its sphere of influence. From the early meeting in 1934 with Bob Gioga, who played on the first Stan Kenton Orchestra, through Dick Shearer and Mike Suter, who played on the last, they cover the entire span of his career. A strict chronology was not followed because many of the characters came in and out of Kenton's life in more than one period, but the book should be seen to have its own logic of presentation as the story unfolds.

It may be helpful to keep in mind certain key times in Kenton's career as a guide in tracing the progression of the several phases of his innovations and developments. While most big band leaders were content to settle into a specific style and trademark, Kenton explored. For Kenton the adventure could not be too extreme. Many will remember the revolutionary City of Glass from the late forties-early fifties period. Written by Bob Graettinger, this unusual concert work would not have been touched by any other band leader of the time, nor probably any symphonic conductor. The author has seen some of the Graettinger charts in the Kenton Archives at North Texas State University, courtesy of Leon Breeden, and the courage it took to take on one of those—graphs, for graphs are what they are—is unimaginable. That Kenton championed this music alone guarantees him a place in modern American musical history. But that was but a single episode in a highly episodic life.

Kenton's birth, long considered to be February 19,1912, in Wichita, Kansas, was established as December 15,1911 by Dr. William F. Lee in his book, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm (Creative Press, 1980). Both dates continue to be observed in celebrations and tributes. Kenton spent his early youth in Colorado and moved with his family to California, where after a time they settled in Bell.

Kenton has said he became addicted to music at the age of fourteen, following a visit to his home of his cousins, Billy and Arthur, who impressed him with their playing of jazz. Even before that, he'd had piano lessons and used to fall asleep at night with radio headphones over his ears. Young Stanley formed a combo in high school, called the Belltones, who played dances and parties.

For several years he played in territory bands and in speakeasies, working his way up from fifty cents a night to forty dollars a week. Meeting Everett Hoaglund in 1934 seems to have been a turning point; perhaps because he learned from the man's professionalism, or perhaps because some of the musicians he met at this time later went with him.

By the autumn of 1940 Kenton had made the decision to go off on his own. He formed a rehearsal band, wrote his theme song, composed original charts and arrangements of standard tunes, cut several dubs, lined up his own bookings, premiered at a Huntington Beach ballroom, just north of Balboa. Kenton and his men substituted one night at the Rendezvous in Balboa for the Johnny Richards band, and through a mysterious set of circumstances inherited the summer job there when the owner cancelled Richards' band and hired his.

At some point in the early forties the band picked up the name "Artistry in Rhythm." It was an active band, changing personnel with the coming and going of its sidemen into the armed services. In the autumn of 1947 the "Progressive Jazz" Orchestra was formed, centering on the music of Pete Rugolo, with its many striking influences of classical composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and Milhaud.

Stan's highly creative "Innovations" Orchestra was put together at the end of 1949 and premiered in 1950, going on tour in 1950 and '51. It was the most unusual idea of its time, and probably comes closest to what Stan was striving for all his life, continuing in the experimental vein that predated it in the Progressive Jazz concept and that went on after it. Long before he had one he'd dreamed of a band that played concerts instead of dances. Sprinkled throughout this book is a quote in his words made at the time of the premiere of this new phase of his music. Though the time frame of its formal existence was relatively short, the idea was a lasting one.

Jazz greats were the stars on the famous "swing" bands of the early- to mid-fifties, when performers such as Lee Konitz, Lennie Niehaus, Frank Rosolino, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Mariano, Maynard Ferguson and many others seared into the consciousness of impressionable young musicians who knew they "had to" join the Kenton band one day. For the Kenton band was always its own catalyst for attracting future musicians to it, just as it made the reputations of those who were associated with it. Known as "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm," the band took Europe by storm in the first of Kenton's many trips abroad in 1953. In 1959 Kenton first became involved with jazz clinics at the universities, an involvement that developed into a passionate commitment that endured all the rest of his life. Many feel it was his most important achievement.

Two widely differing musical ideas and a brainstorm found their conception in the sixties: the "Mellophonium" Band, or "New Era in Modern American Music" Orchestra, of 1960-63, which recorded such fabulous discs as West Side Story and Adventures in Time, both written by Johnny Richards, was one. The "Neophonic" Orchestra, which premiered at the Los Angeles Music Center in 1965 presenting some of the most original music ever written for an American band, was the other.

The brainstorm was the creation of Creative World, a Kenton organization that started as a promotional vehicle and later developed to pressing and distributing its own records. Its importance in keeping interest in both Kenton and jazz alive cannot be overestimated, for the sixties saw the rise of rock to dominating proportions on the popular music scene.

Rock crashed head-on into Kenton in the seventies and lost, in that Kenton simply superimposed "the Kenton sound" onto it, through such records as 7.5 on the Richter Scale. Kenton also became entranced with the time revolution of the seventies, instigated by Don Ellis and carried on by Hank Levy, bringing on a whole new but still very much Kentonesque sound.

Stan Kenton's amalgam of twentieth-century European classical influences with jazz in his own original compositions, such as "Shelly Manne" and "June Christy," produced works of startling quality and interest. Many of his works have never been recorded, perhaps never heard. He could be maddeningly modest at times.

Madcap humor was as much a part of his life as were the clashing of chords and brass choirs. A classic favorite was his disappearing act. Stan would mysteriously vanish while leading the band, as stealthily as a fox. Moments later he would reappear—through the parted fronds of a stage palm!

The Kenton band of nearly forty years hurtled through the night in one gigantic card game. Only the players changed, while Kenton stayed on. A remarkable rendering of the Kenton philosophy turned up on the back of some score sheets, dated Dec. 1966, during Leon Breeden's researches at NTSU, which he very kindly shared with the author. In Stan's own writing were these words:

A bus is many things to a band over and above transporting it from engagement to engagement and place to place.
It is serenity - - belongs to the musicians and they belong to it. It carries not only the musician, but their (sic) necessary personal items such as clothing and other objects contributing to his being in addition to the most important reason for his very existance (sic) and his justification for living, his musical instrument which is his identity.
A bus is more important than a hotel room. A hotel room is temporary. The bus is permanent. A visit to a restaurant is a fleeting intermission.
A musician's seat on the bus becomes his personal area both above and below & is so private that no one infringe(s) by placing any thing foreign to him in his retreat.
A bus is refuge and escape from the outside world.
A bus is a symbol of a musician's dreams and aspirations. It can become a sanctuary of elation and satisfaction or a den of despair and disappointment all determined by how and in what manner he and his horn have performed. A bus can be any thing from a horror chamber from which there seems no escape to a vehicle taking him to the highest level of exalted achievement.
A bus is sometimes a dressing room a warm up room a library a place of meditation, on it dreams of the future take shape and foundations are lain to help them become realities.
A bus is a recreation center a rumpus room a private meeting place in which no one is admitted unless their interests are common.

Talk and conversation is in almost every case is (sic) dominated by discussions revolving around music. Occasionally talk drifts away to other things but only for a moment then back to music.
'I feel this way'
'I dig that'
'I find that'
'My taste tells me'
'He thinks'
'They thought'
What do you do
What are your feelings
etc. etc. —One nighters—
Constant movement.
Travel—eat—play music—travel eat sleep travel et (sic) play music and the cycle continues.
No one remembers where they played last night or where they play tomorrow. It is only today that counts. The day of
the week and the date of the month is forgotten, sometimes even the month itself.
—Hit & run—/Goody box/ Water jug/ Rules/ Root /Beer Coolers/Tire checks/Day sheets/Laundry/A. C. & Heat/Iron lung/Coffin/Chops/Axe & horn/Misfits/Numbers/
Anticipation of the job &/Crowd raport. (sic)

Kenton's legacy reaches far beyond the glossary of supertalents who spent time with him and went on to great success in their own careers, people like Art Pepper and Mel Lewis and Conte Candoli and Stan Getz and Laurindo Almeida and the whole encyclopedia of them. To borrow a quote from Hank Levy in his own chapter, that's "just touching the top."

The Kenton Wall of Brass is thriving in the hundreds of international drum corps who pour onto the fields every summer playing richly orchestrated arrangements with full colorations of brass and percussion. "Kenton music lends itself to our art form," Scott Stewart explains. Stewart is director of the Madison Scouts, who favor a decidedly Kenton style in their jazzistic approach, balanced horn line and warmth of interpretation. Madison drives people crazy whenever it performs "Malaguena," won an international championship with "MacArthur Park," and has played other Kenton favorites. The Blue Devils of Concord, California, a consistent international finalist, has ripped into "Pegasus"; the Garfield Cadets of New Jersey have done a medley from Adventures in Time, Les Eclipses of Canada has done music from Cuban Fire; the Grossmen from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and others have done "Artistry in Rhythm"; the Freelancers, of Sacramento, California, and others have performed "Malaga." But whatever the work being played, a Kentonesque concert of brass comes right at the wildly cheering throngs of appreciative fans at every show, in dauntless presentations of fire and talent highlighted by intrepid soloists.

Coincidentally, these young people also ride on the bus, do one-nighters, and live on the road, at least during the summers.

Kenton's legacy of new American music and his propensity to experimentation is somewhat more difficult to trace, though interesting ideas have been attempted by The Orchestra in Los Angeles, whose name was later changed to The New American Orchestra, following the departure of co-founder Allyn Ferguson. Some of the problems and concepts of such a venture are discussed in the chapters on Ferguson and Jack Elliott, present director of the orchestra. Some similarities with Kenton's Neophonic exist, however, such as writers Russ Garcia, Bill Russo, John Williams, Morty Stevens, Dave Grusin, Dick Grove, Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin, Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan and Ferguson. Also Claus Ogerman, who wrote an arrangement for the Neophonic, Manny Albam, who wrote for Stan at the time of his Innovations Orchestra, and Don Sebesky, who played trombone with Kenton. Musicians common to both orchestras are George Roberts, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Vince DeRosa, Art Maebe, Richard Perissi, Lloyd Ulyate, John Audino, Henry Sigismonti, Chuck Domanico, Gene Cipriano, John Lowe, Virginia Majewski, Gerald Vinci, and Shelly Manne (as a guest soloist).

Many people feel that a decided Kenton influence exists in the far more sophisticated kinds of music being written for films and TV.  Academy-award winning composer John Williams, for just one example (E. T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Superman, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the music for the L. A. Olympics), was one of Stan's Neophonic writers.

Even more exciting is the direction being taken by people such as Bud Shank and Bill Russo, now Director of the Contemporary American Music Program at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois, in erasing the dividing lines between jazz and classical music in brand-new creative ways. Both were with Kenton during his Innovations period and learned from the experience. Where this direction will ultimately lead is a fascinating question for our times.

Stan Kenton willed all his music, that is, the scores and charts, to North Texas State University, in Denton, Texas. Why he chose to do so will be seen in the chapters on Leon Breeden, Gene Hall and Bobby Knight, as the background and structure of their fine jazz program are explored in some depth. Gene Hall, one of the principal originators of the jazz clinics in 1959, founded the NTSU program in 1947, the first of its kind in the country. Leon Breeden continued its development from 1959 to 1981, bringing great honors to it and earning prestige and recognition for his efforts. North Texas' 1 O'Clock Jazz Lab Band was chosen by Kenton to appear with the Los Angeles Neophonic in 1966, was the first university band ever to appear at the White House, in 1967, and was the official big band at the Montreux International Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1970, among other honors. Breeden has his own extraordinary story to tell concerning his relationship with Kenton and the future of the music at NTSU, a heartening one for all Kenton fans.

Bob Gioga was a close friend of Kenton's, tracing their friendship back to the Hoaglund band in 1934. He played baritone sax and was band manager for 12 years, from 1941-1953. George Faye joined for a year and a half in 1942 and played tenor trombone. Buddy Childers came on as trumpet player in January of 1943 and was with Kenton over a span of 11V2 years. Pete Rugolo, composer and arranger and closely identified with Kenton's "Progressive Jazz" period, joined the band in 1945. June Christy was vocalist in April, 1945 for two years and also made several tours and recordings. Shelly Manne was Kenton's drummer starting in February, 1946, off and on until 1952; Milt Bernhart played trombone in the band off and on from 1946 to 1952; both came back for the Neophonic. Bill Russo was trombonist and composer-arranger off and on from January, 1950, through October, 1953, returning to write for and conduct the Neophonic in 1966.

Shorty Rogers was trumpet player and composer-arranger on the band in 1950, stayed for a year and a half and continued to write for Kenton afterwards, including a ballet for the Neophonic. Jim Amlotte joined as trombonist in 1956 and was band manager from 1959-69; Dalton Smith was lead trumpet player off and on from 1959-1970; both were involved with the Kenton clinics and the Neophonic. Bud Shank came on in late 1949 for two and one half years, played in the Neophonic, taught in the clinics and was involved with the Collegiate Neophonic in 1967.

Mike Suter was bass trombonist in 1963 and again from 1973-75 and in 1978. He was both a student and a teacher in the clinics and is a close friend of Dick Shearer's. Shearer was band manager and trombonist for the last 13 years of the band, though he left on August 21, 1977. (The band broke up on August 20, 1978.) A joint chapter on Shearer and Suter in addition to individual ones has been included, since they triggered each other's memories in many details.

Hank Levy, Director of Jazz Studies at Towson State University in Towson, Maryland, composed for Kenton chiefly in the seventies, though he was on the band for six months in 1953. George Roberts was bass trombonist on the Kenton band from 1951-53 and again later on; he had his group of forty trombones play for the dedication of the Kenton Memorial in Balboa in September, 1981. Ken Hanna, composer-arranger-trumpet player, began his long association with Kenton in 1942, writing some of the band's finest charts in the seventies. Ross Barbour sang with the Four Freshmen, a group that made several appearances, tours and recordings with Kenton. The Freshmen, still concertizing, though without Barbour, proudly claim to have owed their style to the Kenton sound. What is surprising is the number of groups who imitate the Freshmen—and who therefore are perpetuating the Kenton sound as well.

Big bands are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, which assures a future to the new ones being formed, some of which have a Kentonish verve and brightness about them. Kenton records are being played on radio both by deejays on the new shows and by long-time advocates of his music. Perhaps none can equal the devotion of Randy Taylor, big band host on Miami University public radio station WMUB in Oxford, Ohio, who plays a special 4-hour all-Kenton show every Friday night from 7 to 11. Taylor, former Kenton archivist, began the practice as a memorial tribute in August, 1982, and has continued it in response to public demand.

Memorial concerts testify to the enduring values of Kenton's music and the loyalty felt to him by his fans. At Clarenceville High School in Livonia, Michigan (affectionately dubbed "Montreux North" by host Dick Purtan) one of the first such concerts was held on February 19, 1982, with Dick Shearer fronting the band.

By 7:30 p.m. the lobby was jammed for a performance scheduled to begin at 8. By 7:35, after the auditorium doors were opened, almost all seats were taken. Guests sat back and surveyed the scene: Blue seats, aqua carpeting. Orchid lighting on the stage, set up to show a piano at left, where Kenton would have sat, congas nearby and percussion at back left. Rows of aqua-and-tan chairs poised like sentinels. Saxophones parked, slightly aslant, trombones "face down" behind them. A pleasing, sensual avant-garde look about it all. The audience, mostly dressed in sharp, youthful, sporty attire, looks alert and intelligent.

Opening remarks, and then Shearer whips the band into a crescendo that threatens to tear the walls down, leading into Willie Maiden's "A Little Minor Booze." In a rainbow of colors and moods, he takes them through "Here's That Rainy Day," "Minor Riff," "Two Moods for Baritone," "Opus in Chartreuse," "Body and Soul," "Roy's Blues," "Street of Dreams," "Intermission Riff," "Send in the Clowns," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Yesterdays," "Opus in Pastels" and "Peanut Vendor." The second half of the program goes quickly, and suddenly it's time for The Theme. Pianist Chuck Robinette does it proud: weaving Kenton music in and out as he spins the haunting threads of Artistry. Everyone anticipates what's coming and tries to prepare for it, but with the electrifying entrance of the saxes a universal chill slips through the audience like a single emotion: "Baa-baa ... ba-ba-ba-ba baa-baaa ..." Before it is over there are few if any dry eyes either on stage or anywhere in the room. And the realization dawns that "Artistry in Rhythm," like its creator, has become immortal.

In his own ways and by avenues that will perhaps not be felt for some time in all their scope, Stan Kenton was the greatest force in twentieth-century American music.

His sweeping sense of music favored extremes in dynamics and tonal expanse, tormenting crescendos to ear-splitting highs, tension and release. It became its own genre, consuming the categories of "concert jazz" and "classical jazz" and adding enough character of its own to be labeled unto itself.

No one can measure the effects of the priceless gift he bestowed upon people and how it contributed both to their own flourishing and to new forms of American music: the gift of listening. It was a selfless, most generous form of encouragement. In the total freedom allowed his composers and arrangers to create, his band became a vehicle for their creativity; but by a curious reciprocity everything that passed through it somehow became "Stan Kenton music." Kenton was influenced by the musicians who came to him, but none left his band untouched by the Kenton experience.

Stan the Man had the integrity of his own conviction and would gladly have dispensed with the need for money and sacrificed all his time to artistic endeavor. He was not satisfied to cater to the public taste of his time, but insisted on going in his own direction, whoever listened or did not.

Stan Kenton's music was the headiest combination of love, emotion, intellect, form, freedom, boldness and fire ever known.

It still burns, its sparks igniting life wherever they touch down.”

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