Friday, March 8, 2019

Stan Kenton: The Relentless Searcher

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

"Some of the wise boys [i.e. Jazz critics] who say my music is loud, blatant, and that's all, should see the faces of the kids who have driven a hundred miles through the snow, to see the band ... to stand in front of the stand in an ecstasy all their own." And it is indisputable that Kenton does have an almost magnetic attraction for some and that, once pledged to the international Kentonian fraternity,  the youngsters remain devout fans."

During an Easter Week break [known today as Spring Break], I was one of the kids who stood in front of the Kenton Orchestra in a state of ecstasy, although in my case the drive was only about 40 miles and there was no snow involved.

My trip took place under the clear blue skies of sunny Southern California because a high school buddy of mine worked for the Benge Trumpet Factory in the San Fernando Valley area north of Los Angeles and asked me if I wanted to make the drive with him to a rehearsal of the Stan Kenton Orchestra at the Rendezvous Ballroom Balboa/Newport Beach in Orange County to deliver a trumpet to Al Porcino who at the time was the lead trumpet player in the band.

It was quite an experience standing on the highly polished, football field size dance floor of the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa when the Kenton Band in all its might and glory let loose on Artistry in Rhythm [Stan’s theme song].

Spine-tingling would be an understatement; I was completely blown away by the power and the majesty of the Kenton Sound.

Still am.

Love Duke’s imaginative arrangements; Basie’s swing; Woody’s Band That Plays The Blues: but the music of the Stanley Newcomb Kenton Orchestra at its best was electrifying.

It’s quite remarkable to look back on many of the comments in this piece from the standpoint of 2016, an era of instant, consistent and persistent communication.

Another aspect of Ralph Gleason’s interview with Stan Kenton that may impress you is how dedicated Stan was to his music and his career in it.

By Ralph J. Gleason                             

“Stanley Newcomb Kenton, at 47, is now well into his second decade as a jazz bandleader. His albums, as listed in the current Schwann's catalog, total 25 and span 18 years.

At this point in Kenton's career, one might expect his appeal to be primarily to a mature audience. Yet he remains, after 15 years, a symbol of the restless searching of youth.

Kenton's hair these days is streaked with gray. But his clothes are racy, his manner youthful, sincere, and directly personal. He has been through more ups and downs than a heavyweight promoter, but his ability to create news and his understanding of dramatic stage presentation - his two greatest assets in selling his music — remain unimpaired. Hear his view of the last decade of American music:

"I think that when the history of jazz is written, they'll probably say that during the '50s, jazz music went to school. It was through the guys — mostly on the west coast — that settled out here and started studying and applying classical methods and classical techniques to jazz.

"That had to happen, it had to take place for jazz to take on a deeper musical meaning, and I think that a lot of the music that has been created in California has been sacrificed, in a sense, to give jazz this: to send jazz to school; because there've been many, many records made that are just absolutely nothing but technique, and there was no heart in it. So I think the historians will say that during the '50s, jazz started to school.

"And now the problem is not to lose things that have been developed in jazz through study and through application of what we might call the techniques of music that belong to the classical world. We mustn't lose those, but what we must do is to be certain that the music has heart and has validity. Otherwise it will be meaningless, like much of the music that has been recorded in the '50s."

It is more than 15 years since Stan Kenton opened with  his band at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook ballroom in New Jersey in his eastern debut. Since that time, he has twice quit the music business; once declared he was thinking of becoming a psychiatrist; won innumerable polls in jazz magazines; became the first U.S. jazz band to play in England in 25 years; bought and lost a ballroom; toured Europe triumphantly, outdrawing everybody but Hitler in the Berlin Sports Plast; dropped a small fortune touring with a symphonic string section; started an abortive jazz subsidiary to Capitol Records, and simply continued to stay active and alive and provocative in the music field.

A provocative thinker, Stan has views that are always interesting. Hear him on big bands:

"I think that the dance band is a long gone thing. Bands like Ralph Flanagan and Jerry Gray and even Ray Anthony ... I think that bands like that, they are not even able to pay their way on the road. Those of us that are associated with jazz are much more substantially in business than any popular dance band. If we didn't belong to jazz, I doubt if we would be drawing anyone either.

"People are not interested in coming to a ballroom and dancing anymore. I don't know, no one is able to determine why exactly this exists. I know that we play a lot of ballrooms, but I'm certain that most of the people that come through the doors are jazz fans. They're not there to dance.

"It's worse now than it has ever been. Each year we keep hoping that something will change and things will break loose, but I'm almost to the point now where I think the ballroom is a thing of the past. People just don't want to go into them anymore. The jazz fan will, as I say, but not to dance. Did you ever think what would happen if suddenly the four or five big bands in jazz went out of business? There'd be nothing else. "We find this, that when we have an opening in the trumpet section, I try, if at all possible, to get someone out of someone else's band that has had this experience. But so many times we have to take a young fella and say, ‘No, you do this.' And, naturally, you have a competent first trumpet player working with him, and you hope that he comes around fast and that he catches on to what is expected of him quickly. But there's no school, no gradually working up to it, like there used to be.

"Sometimes I wonder today, with all the young fellas in the country that are studying music, where they're ever going to get a chance to play it, what they're gonna do, you know? Because I do know that if they have that thing within them burning enough, they're gonna be heard. We had a big discussion in Indiana last year (at the National Dance Band camp, presented at Indiana university in co-operation with Down Beat) with the young guys about, you know, how do you get started and what do you do. And actually, after the whole two or three hours was over, what it boiled down to was the same thing we were talking about earlier: if a musician wants to be heard and believes he's got something' to say, he's gonna be heard! He's just gonna make his own opportunities, he's gonna start his own band. Because before Glenn Miller nobody gave him that band, nobody gave Duke Ellington his band. There were no Duke Ellington's before him and that's the big problem today — to try to instill in these young musicians that there are the opportunities. But they've gotta make them.

"With this machine-type living that we have today in America, you know, everyone somehow believes that they — even in the creative arts, the young people believe that now they've been trained, who's gonna hire them? They don't realize that now they've been trained, now they've got to go out and make themselves a job."

"Bandleaders from the 1940s who are still active today frequently run into the question, "Are you still leading a band?" No one, however, has ever been in ignorance of Kenton. For one thing, ever since he started out as a bandleader at the Balboa ballroom in southern California in 1941, Kenton has made a fetish of making friends with and appearing on the programs of disc jockeys.

In a business where every personal device for gaining acceptance is exploited to the hilt, no one has ever approached Kenton in terms of his understanding of and ability to ingratiate himself with that peculiar American transmission belt of publicity, the disc jockey.

Kenton is perfectly capable of traveling all night on a bus, after playing an engagement, getting into town at 8 a.m., snatching an hour's nap and a cup of coffee, and then starting out at 9:30 with the local Capitol promotion man on a round of disc jockey calls.

Even in the press of backstage, opening-night hysteria, Kenton is never too busy to talk to a disc jockey. If he must put him off for a moment to go onstage with the band, Kenton has developed into an art the ability to convince the DJ that waiting for Kenton in the wings is a high honor.

In short, he is, as every member of the Capitol staff has known for years, a record company's dream when it comes to exploitation. Kenton is willing to meet the disc jockey and the public more than halfway.

As a result of this total.devotion to personalizing relations with disc jockeys (he has probably appeared on more radio and TV interviews than anyone in his profession), Kenton has the undying devotion of a high proportion of them. Disc jockeys whose shows are a far cry from jazz have been known to connive and deceive and delude their program directors in order to insinuate a Kenton disc into their shows. More than one has named a child for Kenton, and they all feel a direct, personal interest in his welfare.

Kenton's ability to consider his own band and its activities earthshaking in importance has allowed him to do several things which have earned him some hard knocks from the critics. He once sent out a jazz concert group consisting of ex-Kenton band members and a few others under the banner Stan Kenton Presents, the title of his abortive Capitol subsidiary. Prior to the concert, audiences were treated to a recorded talk by Kenton in lieu of a personal appearance. When he appeared on the Dick Clark The Record Years TV show, he allowed his dramatic presentation This Is an Orchestra to be passed off as "written especially for this program" when, in reality, it was a Kenton promotional recording of half a dozen years ago, one which had been the subject of countless jokes in the music trade.

Perhaps the best illustration of Kenton's almost Germanic seriousness is the apocryphal story concerning his interview with a Hollywood disc jockey. "Where is jazz going from here?" the platter spinner is supposed to have asked Kenton, and the latter is said to have replied, "Well, we're booked in Salt Lake City tomorrow night and then we jump to Chicago."

But even his sharpest critics have to admit that Kenton has, during the past 15 years, had bands that have included some of the greatest instrumental soloists in jazz. A roster of former Kenton sidemen reads like Who's Who of the younger jazz musicians, with a heavy emphasis on men drawn from the Hollywood jazz complex: Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Frank Rosolino, Lennie Niehaus, Lee Konitz, Mel Lewis, Maynard Ferguson, Stu Williamson, Shelly Manne, Carl Fontana, Charlie Mariano, Art Pepper, Zoot Sims, Pepper Adams, Ernie Royal, Curtis Counce, Kai Winding, Vido Musso, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Sal Salvador, Laurendo Almeida, Conti Candoli, Jack Costanza, Stan Getz, Carlos Vidal, and others. His girl vocalists have almost all won fame: Anita O'Day, June Christy, Chris Connor, and Ann Richards (Mrs. Stan Kenton) are all Down Beat Poll winners.

Kenton is obviously a keen observer of talent. Here, too, his comments are provocative:

"One of the great needs that we have in music today is composers. There's such a shortage of composers and guys that know how to orchestrate in jazz. And it's the same thing in classical music. Because out of a long line of guys that present you with arrangements, I have to play each one of these things, and sometimes you have to play them three or four times to find out really whether there's anything there or not, and it's very difficult to be sure, you know? The talent is very rare. There's so much talent today in the form of musicians, guys that come out of school that can play their instruments very well and are very capable, but the composers ... I don't know where they are.

"I believe this, though: I think that a young composer, that knows he's a composer and has something to say, will be heard. He'll find somebody. But I think that there's just a lack of the talent, creative talent.

"I sound very negative about this, but the composers and the shortage of creative thinking in our field of music is really desperate.

"Another thing: I don't know why there aren't more leaders today. There's such a shortage of leaders today. And you say, why is there a shortage of leaders? I don't know, unless there's just not enough young guys that have conviction to say 'By God, I've got some music that must be heard and it's gonna be heard!' And this has not changed in the history of music, classical or any other way. Every leader, every orchestra leader, every composer was a guy that his music was heard. He saw to it.

"I don't believe that there are guys sitting around in attics writing music, waiting to be discovered. Because the guys that really write the music and have something to say are out beating the streets. And that's the need we have today, for leaders and composers. Because there's certainly a lot of musicians. But a musician's no good unless he's got some music to play and somebody to lead him."

It is perhaps symptomatic of the dichotomy that characterized the Kenton aura that he should have been violently attacked, in this country and in Europe, for being anti-Negro (as a result of his ill-advised telegram commenting on a Down Beat Critics' Poll in 1956), even though he has employed such outstanding Negro soloists as Curtis Counce, Ernie Royal, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Julius Watkins, Jimmy Crawford, Howard McGhee, Karl George, and Jesse Price during his years as a bandleader. The verdict was passed on him without, unfortunately, any public statement from the only musicians really in a position to know.

Even the critics who have consistently rapped his music (and this includes the writer of this article) have to admit that Kenton is a master of presentation, one of the best salesmen jazz has ever had, and a man whose presence has been beneficial for all jazz.

"I give Stan credit," one fan said. "If he hadn't taken Art Tatum out on tour, I would never have heard Tatum. And that goes for thousands like me."

At least some portion of the acceptance jazz has received in academic circles and elsewhere can be credited to Kenton, who has always been willing to go out of his way to play a college concert. In fact, with Kenton it has always been the music that counted. He once booked himself into a hall where he couldn't seat enough people to break even, just because he liked the acoustics.

"My music is typed to sounds . . . not necessarily to emotions," he once told Down Beat. "Some of the wise boys who say my music's loud, blatant, and that's all, should see the faces of the kids who have driven a hundred miles through the snow, to see the band ... to stand in front of the stand in an ecstasy all their own." And it is indisputable that Kenton does have an almost magnetic attraction for some and that, once pledged to the international Kentonian fraternity,  the youngsters remain devout fans.

One devoted Kenton admirer, a bar owner in Oakland, Calif., has transformed his bar into a shrine of Ken-tonia. His jukebox plays only Kenton records; his customers chant the Kenton arrangements in unison and, on Sunday, he has special stereophonic concerts of Kenton records and tapes in the bar, which is decorated with old Kenton band posters and photographs.

This spot is called the Gold Nugget and the owner, a New Jersey ex-Gl named Don Mupo, acts as a sort of unofficial GHQ for Kenton fans. He posts the band's itinerary on the wall and talks to Kenton on the phone every few days. Recently, when June Christy, the poll-winning singer who got her start with Kenton, needed to find the bandleader to settle some details of a tour, she called him long distance in care of the Gold Nugget and Mupo was able to put her in touch with him.

Any man who inspires this sort of devotion among his fans is a force to be reckoned with — in or out of music. And any student of the Kenton career immediately sees what a great salesman he is. One of them said once that if Kenton had been selling a product that was basically palatable to the American public, he would long since have become a millionaire. The comments have always been sharp. Critics are never neutral.

One assessment of Kenton comes from British critic A. J. McCarthy. "Within its strict limitations, Kenton's music has a surface brilliance. ... It screams because it can make its point no other way." Time magazine called one of his concerts "a bewildering battle between strings and brass."

[Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra] Arthur Fiedler called him the most important link between jazz and the classics. Yet Kenton's contemporary avant garde bandleader, Boyd Raeburn, said, "When you listen to Stravinsky and Milhaud, Stan's things and the modern things I've done all sound very amateurish." A Houston, Texas, music critic said, on the other hand, "Here is ... a musician who is trying to paint pictures, transfer ideas and moods in the field of music. ... He should be heard." Kenton himself is equally direct in his comments on the jazz scene:

"I don't see there's any place for jazz on TV nor do I see any jazz on radio, to speak of, because I believe that jazz is a minority music, as classical music is. And I don't see any future for any minority music on either radio or TV.

"I think the reason that jazz has so much freedom today on FM — not that it has a lot but there's more jazz heard on FM today than on radio — I think the only reason that exists is because there's not the commercial heat on FM. I'm afraid that as soon as FM becomes powerful enough to become a medium for the advertising agencies, jazz will leave it too.

"I think that modern jazz is going to continue to develop, and it's going to take on probably more complexities. I believe that we are just beginning in a stage that probably will last for 10 or 12 years of rhythmic development in jazz, because I think that modern jazz has challenged us to get away from the old 2/4 and 4/4 swing beat. I was thrilled lately to see Brubeck, the things he's doing, experimenting in different rhythms and so forth, that are necessary because American music, as great as it is, is still very lacking rhythmically. So I think that we all have been for some time working with rhythms and trying to develop new patterns and so forth, that I think are so necessary to jazz.

"I think that competition is going to get more severe, and I think that the people that support jazz are going to get to be very calculating in their choice of what they're going to buy and not buy. I think there are going to be a lot of jazz stars that have been accepted throughout the '50s that are going to fall by the wayside in the '60s because I think the people are going to start looking for music that has validity and says something, of course, which is the necessary thing that makes it art.

"I think there's been too much recorded in the '50s that was just a series of devices and different sorts of craftsmanship that overlooked the main, important part of music, which is the heart or the soul or whatever you might call it. I like to use the term 'valid.'

"For myself, the first plan is to try to see how I can make a living and be able to do some of the things that I feel so behind on. I haven't written any music for such a long time, there's a lot of composing to be done, a lot of studying to be done, a lot of records to be made, things that I couldn't do, that I haven't been able to do when I've been pounding those long periods on the road. And that is the challenge: how can I get enough income coming in to keep my family and me eating while I get into these other things I must do that are so long overdue. I feel that it's so long overdue that I am absolutely compelled to do it. I can't stall any longer.

"We're trying to figure out what is the best thing to do. I know I've got to be off the road for longer periods because so much time is wasted on the road with just sitting on the bus and doing nothing. You know. For instance, today on the road with a band, there are not those long periods like we used to have where we would be in a city for six or eight weeks at a time. If we are in Chicago for two weeks, it's because we're working at the Blue Note there, or at Birdland in New York. And these jobs, you have no idea of how difficult they are. Because you're playing hard, physical music for as much as six hours a night, and when you walk out of the place in the morning, you're totally drained. They're hard jobs.

"I don't know as I care to get in on any of the TV scenes that are going on in Hollywood. I'm not anxious to get on any programs and start supplying cue music to them. I'd like to compose and, probably for the next two or three years, record most of the stuff myself. Later on, if I can get others interested in it, I'd like to do that. I have three or four publishing firms that I must activate, too, because there's a lot of important music that is lying in those firms that has never had any attention called to it. I think I have a good chance with a lot of this music, to activate it and get it going."

It is not impossible, for all the sharp digs and the critics' squabbles over whether Kenton is or is not an important force in jazz, that Stan himself is best reflected in the words of one of his sidemen:

"This is the first band I've ever worked on where I've felt like a gentleman and a human being and have been treated that way."

That's no small tribute.”

1 comment:

  1. "The restless searcher" hits the topic right on the head. We have to admit that his restlessness did not always lead to a good end and I think sometimes it was a desperate searching with open outcome especially in the later years. Not always the more recent bands had that power of the soloist as to Holmans, Niehaus' and Russo times.


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