Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton: Alike and Unalike

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

The following piece by Harry Frost touches on a relationship that I never knew existed.

Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton took such widely divergent paths in their respective approaches to Jazz that I always thought of them as bridges to infinity; like two parallel lines that never meet.

And yet it would seem that the Brubeck-Kenton relationship very much reflects Aristotle’s maxim that “we are all different with respect to that which we have in common.”

Jazz was the common ground for Dave and Stan, but what they did with their style of playing the music is worlds apart.

“IN 1943 a soldier passing through Los Angeles was carrying an arrangement he wanted to show to a rising bandleader. He went to the leader's house. A tall man with chiseled features answered the door and was greeted by an intense, dark-haired young fellow he had never before seen. With pardonable curtness the man asked, "What do you want?"

"I want to show you an arrangement."

"All right, I'll see you tonight. I'm going to be on the Bob Hope Show, and I'll meet you at the stage door."

This sounded like a run-around to the soldier, but he had nothing to lose. That night he went to the stage door, and the leader was there waiting for him. He looked over the soldier's music and then handed the manuscript back. However, the leader offered encouragement to the young musician and was genuinely friendly. They have remained friends since.

A look at the careers of Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck discloses several analogous factors, some superficial and some that go deep. They are both Californians, Brubeck by birth and Kenton by emigration from Kansas at an early age. They are both pianists and composers whose interest in jazz is built on a foundation of classical study. While Kenton has been associated with large groups and Brubeck with small groups, there is nonetheless a kindred spirit in their music and personalities.

An aura of strength and purpose surrounds these men who have become two of the most imposing figures in jazz.

The music of Brubeck, like that of Kenton, reflects the firm convictions of its creator, and the supporters of Brubeck and Kenton are equally firm in their devotion. It is characteristic of Brubeck and Kenton followers that they accept almost everything their heroes offer. It is also characteristic that those who don't like Brubeck or Kenton are vociferous in their disapproval. While Brubeck and Kenton each command hordes of faithful, there are in both cases multitudes of detractors, including critics, musicians, and fans who say Brubeck and Kenton are not participating jazzmen. Here we come to the heart of the matter.

Both highly individual, Kenton and Brubeck have pursued courses that, while running parallel to the currents of jazz, have moved in singular directions. This has provoked much adverse comment from those who like to see jazz move in measured steps that find all the musicians marching along together. Brubeck and Kenton have never joined this army. They are dedicated to a common artistic cause but prefer to wage separate campaigns.

Brubeck has said, "The most fortunate thing that can happen to a jazz musician is to move in his own way. Kenton is a good example because his band has always had a very individual sound, and Stan has always welcomed the efforts of arrangers who dare to experiment, fellows like the late Bob Graettinger. Stan has played things that were too wild, things the audience couldn't understand, and things that hurt his band commercially; but Stan wanted to give these writers a chance to be heard. Stan refuses to sit still and settle just for public acceptance — and this takes nerve. Once the public likes someone, he will usually stick to a successful formula, but Stan is always pioneering."

Brubeck's admiration for Kenton goes back to the beginning:

"When Stan first started at Balboa, I had my own band up north in Oakland. It was a very young band — I was the oldest, and I was 19. We listened very closely to Stan's band, and ever since I've always followed Stan's music with great interest."

So it was that the young Brubeck sought out Kenton in 1943 to show him an arrangement.

"That was the first time I ever took a jazz arrangement to anyone," Brubeck said. "It was inspired by the war, and I called it Prayer of the Conquered. Someday I'm going to get Stan to play that thing he wouldn't play back in '43. I was only 21 when I wrote it, but I think it's far enough out to be played today.

"After the war, I went to see Stan again, but by that time Pete Rugulo was well established with Kenton."

There is more coincidence here because Rugulo had also first approached Kenton in '43 as a soldier with an arrangement he wanted the leader to see. It was one with the cryptically pecuniary title Opus a Dollar Three Eighty, a number fully garbed in the Kenton raiment of that period and one that Stan immediately liked and added to his library. To add to the oddity of the situation, Rugulo at the time was studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, where and with whom Brubeck had studied and would resume study after the war.

The fact that Brubeck's composition did not catch Kenton's eye or "ear" was undoubtedly because Brubeck, then as now, was writing what he felt and not to the dicta of a prescribed style. It is this very individuality that makes Brubeck at once like and unlike Kenton. Their music, while having related qualities, moves along separate paths.

The best comparison of Kenton and Brubeck music is afforded by the Brubeck trio records of '49 and the Ken-ton output of '42; they are alike in their failure to swing.

Good specific examples are Brubeck's Blue Moon on Fantasy and Kenton's Adios on Decca. Rhythmic deficiencies are more pronounced with a band than a trio, but in both cases there is a heavy, almost ponderous feeling. At the same time there is definite musical value, and it is unlikely that anyone has ever swung less and said more than Kenton and Brubeck on those early records.

In the years since, Brubeck's touch has lightened considerably, and Kenton's bands have found an easier motion than what a former Kenton drummer, Shelly Manne, once likened to the labored movement of a long freight train.

On the subject of swinging, Brubeck said, "You'll find very often that the serious creative musician does not swing as readily or as easily as some of the others. The creative musician is interested in saying something, and trying to say something is hard work. It's not a tinkling, light approach which comes when you're not pushing hard to say something individual. This light approach is a matter of technique — just playing it nice and easy.

"The guys who are really saying something are often out of tune — squeaking, squawking, and struggling. Whether as an arranger, composer, or performer, it's the guys who are working hard, the guys who aren't afraid to make mistakes — those are the ones who do the real creating.

"Ornette Coleman is a good example. He works very hard and always tries to create. It's not pleasant to listen to. I don't like what he does, but he has the background — the license — to experiment. The ones you have to beware of with this 'new thing' are the unqualified guys, the ones who try to experiment without the right background of study and experience."

Brubeck pointed out that playing hard and ugly are not requisites to being creative, but he does insist that "as a rule, the hard-blowing, heavyhanded guys are leading the way." There are exceptions, he admitted, and named altoist Paul Desmond in his own group as one.

"Paul can dig in hard and still make things flow, still have a relaxed sound," he said.

While Brubeck has much tolerance for anyone who genuinely tries to create, no matter how crude the product, his own group has remarkable polish. It goes through a maze of strange time signatures with seeming ease and through concert hall after concert hall filled with enthusiastic fans.

THERE ARE MANY things about Kenton and Brubeck that fall into place side by side, but, obviously, Kenton never has had it so good as Brubeck and probably never will. The 20 or so men Kenton needs to broadcast his message are infinitely more difficult to support, maintain, and control than the close-knit members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

There has been no change in the quartet since 1958, when the junior member, bassist Gene Wright, joined. Next to Brubeck, the senior member is Desmond, in his 12th year with the group, coming to what was a trio in 1951.

The most important single event since then was in 1956, when drummer Joe Dodge decided to leave the group, whereupon Brubeck traded in his Dodge for a Jaguar— a supple cat named Joe Morello.

Counting even short-term members, there have been fewer than a dozen musicians working in the Brubeck quartet in more than 12 years. By contrast, some hundreds of musicians have passed through the many editions of the Kenton band, and lovers of big-band music, including the leader himself, are faced with the melancholy fact that small groups like Brubeck's can pack a concert hall as well as, or better than, a band or two bands (there was a Count Basie-Kenton tour a few years back that was far from a roaring financial success).

For more than 20 years Kenton has fought the battle valiantly with unquestioning expenditure of his youth, talent, and money. His bands have often been losing propositions, but Kenton remains undaunted—if a little dented. Now into his 50s, Kenton still stands proudly ! and resolutely in front of a band.

How much longer he will continue as a leader is an | open question. Duke Ellington is approaching 65 and I still going strong. Kenton, however, has for a long time ' expressed a desire to concentrate on writing, and the responsibilities of a band make this difficult. It is not unlikely that the time will come when Kenton finally gives up his band and settles down to an intensive schedule of composing and arranging. And at length, in seeking a suitable performer for his work, it would be poetically fulfilling if Kenton would turn to one who has already done things in a symphonic context.

"Dave, I'd like you to look at this manuscript."


Downbeat Magazine
November 1963

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