Friday, June 1, 2018

Stan Kenton - The Endless Search for New Sounds [Neophonics]

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

“For most of this period, Stan Kenton stood out as Herman's greatest rival in creating an unabashedly progressive jazz big band. These two figures are often mentioned in the same breath—and, true, the similarities between the bandleaders are striking. Both were Swing Era veterans from middle America who came of age at the dawn of the Great Depression, and converted to modern jazz at the close of the war years. But these overlapping biographical facts are merely superficial; the contrasts are overwhelming. The affable Herman, genial and permissive, let his bands discover their own musical identity. The strong-willed Kenton, in contrast, forged an orchestra in his own image: as massive as his six-foot-and-a-half tall frame, as expansive as his personal aspirations, as varied as his moods. Herman had a knack for making modern jazz palatable for the mass market and would not hesitate to record trite novelty songs to capture the public's approval ("I think it's very important to reach that other audience, the larger audience," Herman once explained. "The guys in the band and I put in a good day's work over 300 days a year. We deserve a pay-off sometime").

Kenton … disdained such compromises (although he was not entirely above them), driven instead by a need to create important music, jazz music on a larger scale than anyone had envisioned before. Eventually he established his own corporation and record company, Creative World, to escape the commercial pressures of the music industry. While Herman's modernism drew inspiration from bebop, Kenton avoided the term with a vengeance. Instead, he continually invented new names for modern jazz. He delighted in describing it as "progressive jazz," or in featuring his 1950 band under the rubric of "Innovations in Modern Music," or the 1952 version as "New Concepts in Artistry in Rhythm." Eventually he coined his own word: Neophonic music, deriving from Greek roots meaning "new sounds." Not that Kenton was against bebop—he simply preferred to pretend that it did not exist. His brand of modern jazz was all that mattered.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz

Perhaps because it was not "officially" the Stan Kenton Orchestra, or because so much of the music was ephemeral, played the once and never heard again, the Neophonic has never made such a lasting impression on Kenton fans as many of Stan's bands.
- Michael Sparke, Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra!

Michael Sparke, the quintessential English gentleman and the source of all things Kenton, remarked in his seminal treatment on Stan Kenton and his music entitled Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra!: “A complete book could be written on the Neophonic alone.”

Little did I know how much truth there was in this statement until I stumbled over some unissued, recorded in performance music by Stan’s Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra and decided to do some research on the project.

The unissued music in question is from the January 4, 1965 and March 1, 1965 concerts by Stan’s Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra and it has since been commercially issued on two CD’s entitled New Horizons Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 [T2CD - 1120/1121]. You can locate order information via this link.

Thanks to a government paid “vacation” to Asia, I was out of the country when Stan’s Neophonic Orchestra Concerts 1-4 and Concerts 5-8, respectively were performed at The Music Center of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. There were no concerts in 1967 and by the time of the Orchestra’s closing season the following year, I was otherwise preoccupied with “getting my house in order” by beginning a career and starting a family.

To say that I knew virtually nothing about the orchestra other than than it existed would be an understatement.

But I’ve always been a great fan of Stan’s adventurous, musical spirit, so when an opportunity came about to sample more of the music by his Los Angeles Neophonic Jazz Orchestra, I plumped for copies of the self-produced CD’s featuring the then unissued music from the January 4, 1965 and March 1, 1965 concerts.

In 1966, Capitol had issued the Stan Kenton Conducts The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra LP while the concerts were ongoing [it was nominated for a Grammy] and then reissued it in 1998 as a CD [Capitol Jazz CDP 7243 4 94502 2 6]. For whatever reasons, both had very limited runs and I was fortunate enough to snag a copy of the commercial CD before it went out-of-print.

Rumors had persisted for years that additional music from the Neophonic concerts existed and that the source for it was a sound engineer who worked at The Music Center of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and who had surreptitiously recorded all of the January and March, 1965 performances.

The individual who was offering the bootlegged, Kenton Neophonic CD’s via an internet chat group that was dedicated to Stan and his music provided no information as to its provenance, but he did reassure potential buyers that the sound quality of the music was excellent, which, thankfully, it turned out to be as the entire transaction struck me as the ultimate in caveat emptor.

When the 4 CD’s arrived they proved to be worth every penny as now in addition to the tracks on the commercial Capitol CD featuring extended works by Hugo Montenegro, John Williams, Allyn Ferguson, Jim Knight, Russ Garcia and Clare Fischer, I also was able to listen to orchestral pieces written for the Neophonic by Pete Rugolo, Bill Holman, Lalo Schifrin, Johnny Richards, Marty Paich, Dee Barton, Shorty Rogers, Ralph Carmichael, Nelson Riddle, and Oliver Nelson.

Noel Wedder’s masterfully written insert notes to the Capitol LP/CD  Stan Kenton Conducts The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra and the excerpts from Michael’s Sparke’s Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra! [University of North Texas Press] that follow it will provide you with experts insights into the Stan Kenton’s Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra project which has to rank, in a career that spanned over four decades, as one of “The Old Man’s” more ambitious forays into Jazz performed in larger formats.

By way of background, Noel worked for Stan in a public relations and media distribution capacity in the 1960s and 70s while Kenton was still recording for Capitol Records and later when Stan formed his own record company - The Creative World of Stan Kenton.

In addition to his historical narrative, Michael Sparke has written liner notes for several Kenton CD’s and collaborated with the Dutch discographer Peter Venudor to produce two works: Kenton on Capitol and Stan Kenton: The Studio Sessions.

You can also locate a great deal of anecdotal information including excerpts from interviews with musician who played in the Neophonic Orchestra and Jazz magazine and newspaper reviews of the concerts in Chapter 10 - Neophonic Impressions of Steven D. Harris, The Kenton Kronicles. And more of the Kenton Neophonic music is available in versions by other orchestras such as the Collegiate Neophonic Orchestra [Part B, Disc 2 of Horns of Plenty V. 1] and the University of North Texas Neophonic [Part B, Disc 2 of  Horns of Plenty V. 2]. These discs are also available through the previously cited Tantara Production link.

© -Noel Wedder/Capitol Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“On January 4th, 1965, another historic milestone was reached in contemporary music.

For on that landmark evening the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, the world's only permanent resident orchestra devoted to contemporary music, gave the first of 11 concerts in The Pavilion of The Los Angeles Music Center.

Significantly for contemporary music, another opportunity for innovative expression had arrived. In a dazzling blend of imaginative writing and superb musicianship the Neophonic Orchestra presented dramatic evidence that it was quite capable of offering the listener a unique musical experience.

For those who had followed Stan Kenton's eclectic career the announcement that he had been invited to premiere the Neophonic Orchestra at Los Angeles' multi-million dollar Music Center came as one more victory over the many slights contemporary music had been subjected to over the years.

Who can forget the Carnegie Hall concert of 1948!

Kenton was permitted to perform in that venerable concert hall with the stipulation he go on at midnight. Carnegie Hall's management insisted their conservative, classically-oriented music patrons would be offended if a 'jazz concert' (especially one by Stan Kenton) was scheduled at the more traditional curtain time of 8:00 PM. Imagine their surprise when every seat in the house, including 300 folding chairs placed upon the stage, were sold-out in 12-hours!

Seventeen years later that same type enthusiastic support for any new musical direction Kenton might take was still very much in evidence. The 11 Neophonic concerts performed in 1965, 1966 and 1968 proved conclusively that audiences would support a new musical concept which challenged them when given the opportunity. A music that was compelling, inventive and very definitely on the cutting edge.

These six compositions, selected from the more than 35 original compositions which received their world premieres during those three triumphal seasons, underscore the stunning harmonies, explosive rhythms and impeccable solo work which became a hallmark of the Neophonic Orchestra.

For those who questioned why Kenton felt the need to radically alter his Orchestra’s musical architecture by forming the Neophonic Orchestra, the reason was simple. He felt contemporary music, and jazz in particular had metamorphisized itself through so many different styles, permutations and instrumentations, that the term 'jazz' was less meaningful. Jazz had become such a catch-all phrase for all types of contemporary music; from ballads to blues; Kenton's own 'progressive jazz’ to Bop, that any attempt to build upon traditional forms was not only restrictive, but impossible.

Interestingly, this was not the first time Stan Kenton had elected to reshape his library and instrumentation and move the Orchestra in an entirely different direction. 1950, without a doubt, will long be remembered in music circles as the year he impressed audiences and critics with his 40-piece ‘Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra.’

Structured along the lines of a miniature symphony -- woodwinds, violins, cellos and a megatherium timpani section augmented his primary 19-piece orchestra - 'Innovations' was acclaimed as being the first positive attempt to begin smoothing over the gap that had long existed between jazz and classical music.

Although the 'Innovations' Orchestra enjoyed an unprecedented success, the melding together of the two forms was short-lived. For some, it as neither jazz, nor classical, but an exploitation of one while demanding the rigorous disciplines of the other. After weathering two short, but lively seasons marked by a storm of critical controversy, tempered by rave reviews from his audiences, 'Innovations' ceased to function as an interpreter of contemporary music.

And so the search continued.

In New York, Gunther Schuller, John Lewis and George Russell began experimenting with “Third Stream’ music, which although a throwback to the classical tradition was yet another meaningful attempt to combine two precise forms into one in an effort to expand upon them.

Simultaneously in Los Angeles Kenton went through a trial and error period of instrumentation in which he added five E-flat trumpets to the Orchestra's already muscular 10-man brass section. When that fell short of providing the contrasting tonal patterns he wanted, he changed the five E-flat trumpets to five German fluegelhorns. When that, too, left a void he discovered almost by accident that a brace of four Conn mellophoniums (alto brass horns keyed in F) very precisely captured the elusive color range between the trumpets and trombones he had been seeking for so long.

Kenton toured for three years with the 'Mellophonium Orchestra’ and played to capacity houses both here and on the continent. Thanks in large part to Kenton's own deft touch and notable contributions from Bill Holman, Ralph Carmichael, Johnny Richards, Gene Roland, Dee Barton and Lennie Niehaus the library featured some of the most driving and melodic writing ever conceived.
But, like all creative pathfinders, the time had once again arrived for him to elevate his music into yet another dimension.

Just before leaving for England in the winter of 1963, Kenton decided he would remain in Los Angeles for 18-months so he could form an altogether different orchestra. One which could be permanently located in Los Angeles and would utilize many of the people who, from 1941 to present day, had graduated from the band and were playing, composing and arranging for the television and film industries.

This recording is a tribute to not only Stan Kenton's vision, but to everyone who helped make the Neophonic Orchestra a reality and skillfully shaped it into one of the most daring and successful ventures ever undertaken by a performer.
Don't be surprised when the Neophonic's clarion trumpet calls, robust trombone passages and soaring saxophone runs begin swirling about you that you, too, sense the same exhilaration these musicians experienced on their way to January 4, 1965; a most historic date for music.  And for you…..”

© -Michael Sparke/UNT Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Adventure in Emotion: The LA Neophonic (1964-1968), Michael Sparke

“For much of 1964 Kenton was turned off from music altogether, in what may have seemed like over-reaction to a mere two weeks' poor reception overseas, but which Stan explained in a long letter to Joe Coccia dated September 7, 1964. This is just a short extract: "I haven't been any place other than at home with the children, they need me so much to be with them. I've been through a period of adjustment, from wanting to give up music for something else, or retiring completely on a low budget. I've had terrible depressions and hardly any creative drive. I'm delighted to tell you, however, that I'm about to come out of it, and I realize I've had these dry periods before, but that doesn't seem to make it any less painful while they're taking place."

[Bassist] John Worster also explains how Stan's psyche could easily put things out of perspective: "Stan Kenton is a man who is immense in everything he does. When he trips, he doesn't just stumble, he falls flat on his face. Everything he does is done exaggerated, and all his emotions are exaggerated. When he's happy, he is happy, you and I aren't ever that happy! And you and I are never as sad as he is. He's a very emotional, exaggerated person, and if you hurt him you hurt him deeply, or you don't scratch the surface at all. If you get through to him, you get through to him, and he'll never forget it. If you do him a wrong he'll never forget it; and if you really please him he'll never forget that either."1

Most bandleaders (think Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Count Basie) found their niche and stuck with it. Often buffeted by market forces, Kenton was never quite sure whether his was a dance band, a jazz band, or a semi-symphonic concert orchestra. The latter was his preference, but audiences for such music were thin on the ground, and even in the "good old days" had been too few to support a national tour. So since he was confined to LA anyway by his children, in conjunction with his new managers George Greif and Sid Garris, Stan conceived a plan to front a resident concert orchestra of the finest Hollywood-based musicians, playing only avant-garde music, and limited to around four concerts a year.

The prospect was enough to shake Stan out of his doldrums, and restore his creative drive. He started writing for an instrumentation similar to the "New Era" orchestra, but with five French horns replacing the unpredictable mellophoniums …..

[Michael goes on to explain that a precursor to the Neophonic was a recording that Stan’s made for Capitol Records of the music of Richard Wagner].

“The Neophonic movement would receive scant backing from Capitol Records. The Wagner album has never been reissued on CD, and in 1998 the CD of the Neophonic Orchestra itself was in and out of the Capitol catalog so fast, if you blinked, you missed it!

Stan cast his net wide, and solicited scores from composers in all schools of jazz. Most wrote in the Kenton idiom, despite his name not being directly attached to the orchestra, which he insisted should be called the Los Angeles Neophonic, a coined word meaning New Sounds. But Stan paid the bills. Only the writers contributed their charts for free, glad of the opportunity to hear their most ambitious works played before an appreciative audience. But the AFM insisted the musicians be paid full Union rates, copyist Clinton Roemer could not afford to work for nothing, and the prestigious Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles imposing Music Center did not come cheap. (It almost didn't come at all, because Mrs. Chandler had stipulated the hall should feature only classical music. It was only after much persuasion the Center's committee relented, and then Kenton was relegated to Monday nights, when the hall was normally "dark.”)

Such were the costs, it was later calculated that even if there'd been full houses
at every concert (which was far from the case), it would have been difficult for the Neophonic to turn a profit. Not that such considerations would have even entered Kenton's head as he prepared for the premiere concert of the 1965 season. His only concern was to prove once and for all that there was a place in American society for an art form that raised jazz music to the same level as that of the renowned European classical composers of earlier times. Whether or not he succeeded artistically, commercially the venture was soon in deep trouble.

Accurately described as a "Non-Profit Organization," the Neophonic was never financially successful. Even before the echoes of the opening concert had died away, Variety was reporting the orchestra to be in "financial troubles," and this final attempt by Kenton to present a new American art music proved as doomed as his previous endeavors. Despite inflated attendance figures released to the press, rarely were more than 2,000 seats of the 3,250-capacity Pavilion filled by paying ticket-holders, a pathetic number in relation to the population of metropolitan LA and its environs.

The Neophonic stumbled on through three seasons, performing a total of just 11 concerts:

1965—concerts 1-4
1966—concerts 5-8
1967—no concerts
1968—concerts 9-11

Rehearsal time was at a premium, because all had to be paid for. The first anyone saw of the scores was immediately prior to their performance, so an evaluation had to be made on the spot. As Kenton said, "Even though they were all important composers with good reputations, you never knew what the quality of the writing would be like. Some wrote very bad music, and some of them wrote great music.”  Obviously, the musicians had to be skilled sight-readers, and manager Jim Amlotte signed up the best available, men like Conte Candoli, Milt Bernhart, Bud Shank, and Shelly Manne, who were conversant with the Kenton style. But the difficulties inherent in even assembling around 26 top studio musicians at a time that didn't clash with their regular assignments are readily

Perhaps because it was not "officially" the Stan Kenton Orchestra, or because so much of the music was ephemeral, played the once and never heard again, the Neophonic has never made such a lasting impression on Kenton fans as many of Stan's bands. As Bud Shank put it, "We saw the music for the first time in the morning, rehearsed it and played it at the concert that night, and it was gone, finished with."

Nevertheless, a representative number, though by no means a majority, of the most important compositions did get onto records, albeit often played by college bands or the composer's own recordings, as well as the single LP reluctantly put out by Capitol. The Music Center recorded everything played there, but reportedly most tapes were destroyed in 2001, though two concerts (numbers 1 and 3 from the 1965 season) were "rescued by a sound engineer," and subsequently saw several CD releases, most notably on Tantara's two-volume New Horizons….

Milt Bernhart [a trombonist with a long association with Kenton]  resigned right after that first concert: "After that first night I said, 'Stan, I can't do this any more, it’s impossible.’ That first concert was a nightmare. Stan didn't think so, he was having a great time! But composers like Marty Paich, Bill Holman, and Lalo Schifrin, everyone, wrote as much as they could possibly write, and there wasn't the money to pay for more than something like a three-hour rehearsal beforehand, so we were really sight-reading everything, and it was miracle-time.

Then when the curtain went up I saw all the royal family of music in the front three rows — Ella Fitzgerald, Norman Granz, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing — and I thought to myself, 'I can think of better ways to get in big trouble!' Even Stan lost his place while he was conducting his own orchestration, so he looked up at Shelly and whispered, 'Where are we?' And Shelly looked surprised and said, 'Are you crazy Stan? We're at the Music Center!' It was the trial of the century!"

But John Worster remembered the whole endeavor very differently, and offers the best description I have seen from his first-hand experience: "I made 15 albums with the Kenton association, but the best music I've ever played, or possibly ever will play, was the Neophonic album. Those concerts weren't just another gig to anyone; all the musicians took it very seriously. They treated the music with respect, and after rehearsals nobody was running to leave, everyone was looking over parts and checking phrasings and asking questions. I've never been part of a more healthy attitude in regard to anything. I remember Shelly coming in an hour early to talk over tempos with Stan. And Bill Perkins sent his check back to the organizers. He didn't want the money, he was doing it because he believed in what it was — a clearinghouse for original, new, needed music. And Stan of course held it all together. This was his dream come true.

Suicide Mission; Noble Experiment; Quest for the Grail?

Perhaps, a little of all three.

But after spending some time listening to the music of The Los Angeles Neophonic Jazz Orchestra, I had the impression that is was just another chapter of Stan being Stan; The Old Man reaching out and trying new and different things for the sake of trying to find other avenues of Jazz expression.

See what you think after listening to Jim Knight’s Music for an Unwritten Play as played from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as performed on March 1, 1965.


  1. Another outstanding article. Thank you for your skills and devotion....and passion!

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