Thursday, February 21, 2019

Stan Kenton - The Beginning Years

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

Both Michael Cuscuna and Michael Sparke have given the JazzProfiles editorial staff permission to reproduce the following introductory portion of the insert notes to The Complete Capitol Recordings of Stan Kenton 1943- 1947 [Mosaic MD7-163].

We thought that this would be an fun way to “begin-at-the-beginning” of the development of the many iterations of The Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Subsequent postings will focus on other themes and topics that formed the evolution of the Kenton Band during the approximately four decades of its existence.

© -Mosaic Records/Michael Sparke: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

“Stan Kenton always referred to the years when his band was young, the style had not yet been finalized, and its very existence was in jeopardy, as the beginning days. And at the beginning Stan, one of the most successful band leaders of all time, was quite convinced the job was not for him. He wanted a band very much, if only to hear played the library of scores he had written which he felt were new and different and adventurous; but he personally was too tall, too awkward, too tongue-tied to be a leader. His idea was he should play piano and write the music, but someone more capable should front the band for him.

In fact, when Stan conducted, he soon found his infectious enthusiasm, his magnetic personality and sheer physical presence were vital selling points; the Kenton charisma mesmerized his audience, and held them as spellbound as the unorthodox music the band was playing. There had been over a year of workshop rehearsals, test recordings, and more latterly the odd one night stand, before the Kenton orchestra opened its first proper engagement for the summer at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa on June 6, 1941.

It was there that the teenagers of southern California discovered Stan Kenton, and gave him his first taste of success. They identified with his music, and their enthusiasm was reflected in the band's spirit and urged the musicians to greater heights. Stanley gave his all, and demanded as much from every member of the band, who responded with the zeal of men working for a cause, rather than a pay-packet. The sincerity was evident and contagious. As Audree (Coke) Kenton told me, "The Kenton band was so entirely different from anything the kids were used to. It was a totally different sound, and very exciting. Stanley was a dynamic, dramatic conductor. When Stanley got up there, he waved his arms and all but fell off the stage, twice a night. The youngsters responded to this, and what he was giving them was not what they were used to. It was not swing, in the way that Goodman and Shaw were swing; it was something new, and there was a tremendous excitement generated. Part of it was Stanley himself, a lot of it was the music, much of which he had written, and it just knocked the kids out. They had come to dance, but they would end up standing in front of the bandstand, hour after hour."

Many of the guys in the band were musicians Stan had enjoyed working with as sidemen in other orchestras (Everett Hoagland, Gus Arnheim, Vido Musso), and whom he knew had similar musical ideals to his own. Key men included Canadian-born trumpet soloist Chico Alvarez, destined to remain a Kenton stalwart for many years; first alto player Jack Ordean, who attracted much favorable attention for his Hodges-inspired saxophone improvisations; tenor saxophone soloist and singer Red Dorris, formerly with Ben Pollack; band manager Bob Gioga, whose baritone anchored the saxophone section until 1953; and bassist Howard Rumsey, who would later lead Lighthouse All Stars.

Every night's performance at the Rendezvous was expertly programmed as Stan explained in a magazine called Band Leaders. "The band was originally designed, through both orchestration and presentation, to thrill as much as possible. I strove for flash and wanted every arrangement, whether slow or fast tempo, to be a production in itself. Everything was written to swing to a driving beat. Spirit and enthusiasm had to predominate at all times. I wanted to play the strongest swing possible and yet to present swing in as elevated a manner as I could. I figured that 11:30 to midnight gave us our high period. Our climax was so complete at that time of night, that had you touched any kid in the audience, I think he would have thrown off sparks!"

The band's style was achieved through the writing of Kenton himself. But as early as 1940 Stan brought in musician-friend Ralph Yaw (who had also arranged for Chick Webb and Cab Galloway) to help ease the burden. Yaw copied the Kenton staccato-style beat and saxophone voicings, commenting, "To my mind, the saxes are treated in the right way for the first time. It really scares me!" Yaw contributed his scores for free because he knew money was tight, and he was happy to write for a band with which he felt so much empathy. During 1941, a young writer named Joe Rizzo also added numerous charts in the Kenton style. "Joe was a young Californian who felt the same way musically as I did," Stan, explained. Even after he was drafted into the army, Rizzo continued to contribute the odd score (I'm Going Mad For A Pad is Joe's), and in later years he became a permanent arranger for the Lawrence Welk TV show.

Despite all the success stories, by no means every night at the Rendezvous was a rave-up. Charles Emge wrote in Down Beat, "It would be an exaggeration to say the band has been a 'sensation.' It's too good to crash through in that manner." And many years later Stan reminisced on CBC radio, "Today we talk about the large crowds that came to Balboa and all the excitement that was created, and honestly, I don't think business was very good that summer. In fact, I remember times when we played that I actually worried about whether the owner of the ballroom was going to come out financially or not."

Nevertheless, the publicity roused led directly to a Decca recording contract. But the first session was a dismal failure, the producer insisting on a toned-down taboo, and three other titles that were cover versions of existing hits, rather than the jazz scores the band was familiar with. Much better were the dozens of sides recorded for radio play by C.P. MacGregor Transcriptions. And on November 25, 1941, Kenton opened to excellent business at the most famed west coast ballroom of them all, the Hollywood Palladium. Count Basic told the story of how one night he invited his musicians traveling to their next job by bus, to listen to a Kenton broadcast from the Palladium. "That," Basic told his bandsmen, "will be the next king!"

Basie was right, but the crown was still several years away. On their first visit to New York in early 1942, Stan's music certainly did not thrill patrons of the Roseland Ballroom, where the band (in the vernacular) "fried an omelette." Everyone knew that Roseland, home of hostesses and strict-tempo dancing, was the wrong spot for the jazz happy Kenton crew, but it was still a major setback when the band was pulled out after only three weeks of an eight-week engagement. Word of the Roseland debacle spread quickly, and when a band hit that sort of trouble it was common practice for other leaders to swoop and pick up sidemen for their own orchestras. Kenton said it was Jimmy Dorsey who personally helped him in New York to keep his outfit together and protected him from being raided for musicians by other bands.

The guys hung in there with Stan until the draft started to hurt, but throughout 1942 the band faced an uncertain future and a daily struggle for survival. It was only Kenton's tenacity and belief in his music that enabled him to carry on in the face of public apathy and war-time adversities. Even the critics were beginning their war of attrition, complaining in particular that the music was too loud and pretentious. (It wasn't until the 1970s that Stan's music in general began to be recognized for its worth by the critical fraternity, something the fans had known all along.)

Stan was forced to make concessions to the song pluggers, and play many of the pop hits of the day, usually sung by Red Dorris or Dolly Mitchell (who replaced Eve Knight in September 1942). But Kenton was determined that even pop tunes were going to be played in a musical way, and brought in a young writer named Charlie Shirley to help him with the arranging chores. Shirley told Pete Venudor, "I was hired by Stan because he was impressed with my work for the Sam Donahue band. Kenton was headed for a lot of radio air time and needed a full complement of current pop arrangements. So I was hired to help ease the pressure on Stan and try to develop a pop style for the band. Stan assured me he'd use anything I came up with in the way of experimental stuff, either pop or jazz. We experimented on the ballads with woodwinds and classic voicings, and I feel I had some influence on the direction Stan swung into after the war. Kenton himself was one of the straightest men I've ever met, a valued friend and a fine leader."

In the summer of 1943, comedian Bob Hope was looking for a new band to replace army-bound Skinnay Ennis, and liked what he heard in the Kenton outfit. Stan for his part was desperately trying to balance the books and knew the security of a year's work with the Hope entourage would ease his financial worries. Nevertheless, if ever there was a musical mismatch, the Kenton/Hope collaboration was it. Even as he was preparing to indulge in the onezy-twozy brand of corn demanded by Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna and Hope himself, Kenton was making statements like, "Out of the swing music of today will evolve an original, modern concert music distinctly American in character." Not on the Bob Hope Show it wasn't! Bob's weekly broadcast was probably the most popular on the air, but the house band received limited exposure, and within weeks Kenton was regretting his acceptance of Hope's contract, even though the alternative might have been no band at all.

Commercially a triumph, musically the Hope association was the nadir of Stan's entire career. But Kenton made clear his beliefs had not changed when he told Down Beat in July 1943, "Sure, I've made concessions that I never thought I'd have to make. It was either that or completely giving up a musical idea that I still think is right. But don't think I've said so long to my so-called idealism — I still think the kind of music we used to play exclusively is the best." And things really started to look up for Stan in the fall, when some record labels made overtures to the Musicians' Union to end the first recording ban, then in progress. As a result, Kenton was approached by Capitol Records, a young Hollywood company whose executives expressed a keen interest in the band's music and whose policy Stan felt to be more in keeping with his own brand of idealism than the more conservative Decca label.

Every Kenton devotee will have his own favorite period from the orchestra's four decades of recorded music. For some it may be the mellophonioum "New Era," for some the Holman/Russo "New Concepts," for others the roaring bands of the 1970s. But for many, the definitive Stan Kenton, the music that above all other epitomizes the sounds that made Kenton distinctive and different, is that of the 1940s, when Stan's reputation had still to be established, and his urge for creativity and experimentation was at its peak. Which is where our musical story in this album begins....”

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