© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"We were wired that first summer at Balboa. We were glued in. We all had houses or apartments down there; my wife and I lived within sixty yards of the ballroom for thirty-six dollars a month. I was so wrapped up in the music, I didn't even know I was married! We used to follow Stan around. He was like a god to us!"
- HOWARD RUMSEY, bassist
Published in 1973, Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton was Carol Easton's first book.
Stan had been the subject of a slew of articles by the national Jazz press since the inception of the band in 1941 and he would be dead six years after the book was published.
Unlike later books on Stan by Dr, William Lee, Steven Harris and Michael Sparke, it is not a researched work with lots of bibliography and discographical citations.
It’s approach is anecdotal: Carol got people who were on the band for approximately the first three decades of its existence to talk about their experience: what it was like to be on the band and what they thought of Stan as a person, as a musician and as a bandleader or boss, if you will.
It’s not a critical book; it’s approach is descriptive in the sense of trying to convey what it was like to be a part of Stan’s great adventure through the World of Jazz.
Over the years, I’ve read a great deal about Stan in the Jazz literature, but in my opinion nothing beats the following description by Carol about what it was like when the birth of the band took place in Balboa, California in the summer of 1941.
“NEVER again in America would there be a summer like '41. It was a bright, innocent, halcyon summer of cheerful self-centeredness, especially if you were young. The ridiculous German paperhanger was considered laughable, if he was considered at all. "Deutschland Uber Alles" didn't have a beat, and Japan was as remote as Mars. The important thing was to have a date on Saturday night, to catch the local appearance of Goodman or Dorsey or Miller or Thornhill or Lunceford or Ellington or Shaw or James or Basic or Herman or Krupa or Barnet or Martin or Mclntyre—or Lombardo, or Sammy Kaye. Nowhere was this more true than on Balboa, a convenient, sunny playpen for the thousands of exuberant high school and college students who invaded the tiny peninsula and island every spring vacation, known as Bal Week, and all summer long. Simply being there induced a glorious natural high, compounded by record-breaking beer consumption. Balboa was a Utopian blend of sand, sea, sun, sex and swing—a fantasy realized. And the Rendezvous was the hub of it all.
The band opened on June 6 and was an instantaneous success — the right band in the right place at the right time. Trumpeter Chico Alvarez recalls that "Every time Stan would lift those long arms and give the downbeat and we got into the first strains of 'Artistry,' the audience's mouth would drop open and their eyes would pop out. There was nothing to match that first musical thrill. You felt you could reach out and touch that sound,"
Every member of the band believed fiercely in what he was doing. They all played over their heads, better than they had dreamed they could play. Their excitement was contagious, the raw energy of the music irresistible. It was characterized by its sharp, offbeat syncopation, improvised solos and frequent, frantic, screaming brass fanfares. Everything was played as though they were fighting the Battle of Jericho. There were no shadings or subtleties; all stops were out, all the time. The three trumpets functioned as an alternate rhythm section, while the five saxophones and two trombones played riffs and rhythmic phrases. The result was a vibrant, driving sound that demanded GOD DAMN IT, NOTICE ME!
Stanley's exertions on the stand were frenzied; arms swooping, hands jabbing, sometimes leaping into the air and yelling like a cheerleader, perspiring profusely and gasping for breath when he had to make an announcement, he used every means short of a whip to exact more sound, more power, more abandon. "What Toscanini does with his head in conducting," wrote reviewer Del Bodey, "Kenton does with his whole body. He's a show in himself." One customer who stood incautiously close to the bandstand was knocked cold one night when Stanley's downbeat hit him on the head. He redoubled his efforts to find a more capable leader after Al Jarvis, an influential local disc jockey and promoter of bands, told him bluntly, "I haven't seen the band yet, but I've talked to a lot of people who have, and they tell me you're very awkward and you don't seem to know what to do. And besides that, you perspire too much. I think you'd better find somebody to front the band."
"Christ," Stanley replied miserably, "I can't find anybody, and until I do, I guess I'll just have to keep doin' it myself!" Thirty years later, a fan still remembers him "half-standing, half-crouching at the piano, flailing wildly with his arms as he and that band seemed to be reaching for some chord, some sound that was forever beyond their grasp."
The Rendezvous was typical of the hundreds of beachfront ballrooms built during the twenties. The rectangular building occupied half a city block and easily accommodated three thousand people. From the bandstand, the musicians had a clear view of three distinct groups: the dancers, who all did an identical little shuffle step called The Balboa, as though staged by a choreographer; the watchers, who gathered around the stage as though mesmerized; and the no Jess avid but possibly claustrophobic watchers in the balcony. Night after night, the place was packed. On a Monday morning after a holiday weekend, the management had to haul the receipts to the bank in gunnysacks.
Once the Balboa engagement had been set, Stanley had been able to stabilize his personnel. He had selected young, unknown players he felt were receptive to new ideas, in preference to established (and higher priced) "names." Except for drummer Pee Wee George and saxophonist Bob Gioga, every member of the band was under twenty-one.
The rhythm section consisted of Stanley, Pee Wee, guitarist AI Costi and bassist Howard Rumsey, a skinny, naive country kid who had played in Vido Musso's ill-fated band. Rumsey attacked his then-unorthodox electric bass with such convulsive ferocity that he was dubbed The Flying Spider. The saxophonists were Gioga, Bill Leahy, Ted Romersa, Red Dorris and Jack Ordean. Ordean's alto had a haunting, chilling, penetrating sound, and he played with an impeccable natural beat. On the stand, Ordean was all business, demanding, "Get with it, man! Throw some more effort in there!" of anyone he suspected of loafing. Off the stand, he was a proficient juicer with a peculiar taste for warm ale. He kept a supply of the stuff on the windowsill of his room and drank it for breakfast, along with a Benzedrine tablet. Then he would lie on the beach all day drinking whiskey. He initiated his roommate, Chico Alvarez, into this routine, but Chico literally hadn't the stomach for it and wound up with an ulcer at the age of twenty-one.
Bob Gioga was a tenor player who filled in on baritone one day when nobody showed up to play that instrument, and remained a baritone player from then on. He was Stanley's anchorman — reliable, energetic, always on hand with his little Singer automobile when somebody needed transportation.
Bill Leahy's experience belied his years; he had been playing professionally since he was twelve. On tour with Scat Davis in the Midwest, he had listened longingly to radio broadcasts from the Rendezvous. "I felt bad about having left, because the band was sounding so great. I was dyin' to be back with it. Then Stan called me up and asked me to come back, so I got to Balboa before the summer ended."
Red Dorris had been playing in a little Santa Ana nightclub with Pee Wee George and Chico Alvarez one night when Stanley walked in and hired all three of them. Red looked like a young athlete and was known for his way with the tenor saxophone, the jazz clarinet and the ladies. He also sang ballads and novelty numbers in a mellow, Herb Jeffries voice, alternating with the several female vocalists they tried out. Stanley finally settled on Kay Gregory, a competent enough blonde, whose most memorable number was "Hawaiian War Chant." Often, it would be the only number she would sing all night; Stanley was so busy keeping the band playing at top pitch, he would forget to play any vocal numbers, leaving Kay to sit like a wallflower beside the piano.
Ted Romersa and trombonist Harry Forbes had their wives and children with them for the summer, thus eliminating themselves from extracurricular activities. But the other members of the group were inveterate bailers; "We never close" was their motto.
Trumpeter Frankie Beach was, at seventeen, the youngest member of the band. He and fellow trumpeters Earl Collier and Chico Alvarez, a cigar maker's son just a year older than Frankie, had studied the new non pressure system of blowing, which enabled them to play up in the high register all night long without injuring their "chops."
Everyone in the band was an instant celebrity on the island, with fans trailing him day and night. On some afternoons they would hustle up business for the night's dance by marching around the little town playing their instruments. Every Saturday afternoon they would walk the short distance from beach to ballroom to broadcast, on the Mutual Network, "The Balboa Bandwagon — coming to you from the Rendezvous Ballroom on the shores of the blue Pacific with dancing America's next king, California's gift to modern dance music, Stanley Kenton and His Orchestra." In the heat of the afternoon, most of the band and the audience wore bathing suits.
Stanley had no time for the fun and games of his musicians. He worked like a man possessed. Howard Bumsey remembers, "We'd walk by the ballroom at two A.M., coming back from the Bamboo Room, carrying our instruments, and there Stan would be — composing and writing out a chart, and not a soul in the place. The whole ballroom is all dark, with just a piano light. And you could hear him playin' in there, and see that little white light."
With almost inhuman energy, Stanley was attempting to function simultaneously as leader, pianist, composer, arranger, copyist, booking agent, manager, husband and father — in approximately that order. His daughter Leslie had arrived two weeks after the Rendezvous opening. In addition, there was the harrowing task of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. The band was making union scale, but no allowance had been made for a vocalist. And a vocalist, even if only for window dressing, was standard equipment for a dance band. Consequently, Stanley's thirty-five dollars a week went to pay Kay Gregory, all summer long.
He and Violet were heavily in debt to the local radio station that fed the network, as well as to their landlord, who finally evicted them from their apartment. They moved into the converted garage of Violet's parents, in Long Beach. When Leslie was born, Stanley was forced to borrow forty dollars from the musicians union. It was a humiliating, "hell of a wrangle. I had to go before the Board and tell 'em what I wanted the money for, to get my wife into the hospital, so Leslie could be born."
They survived only through the generosity of Violet's mother and stepfather Pat, who each morning thoughtfully filled the tank of Stanley's old car with gas from the refinery where Pat worked nights. With an infant to attend to, Violet rarely got to Balboa, but would wait up for Stanley until the early morning hours. Sometimes he would arrive home with Clinton Romer, a young ticket taker from the ballroom, in tow. Clinton was an aspiring copyist. He and Stanley would sit all night at the dining room table, copying and writing arrangements in preparation for the band's first recording sessions for Decca. At dawn, Stanley would retire to his bed and Clinton to the couch, arising three or four hours later to rush off to a rehearsal.
Money was a constant worry. One of Stanley's first actions after forming the band had been to seek out potential financial backers — standard procedure for a fledgling band. All his efforts failed dismally, including a somewhat surreal meeting with Julie Colt, the Colt gun heiress, whom Stanley had heard was desirous of helping a band get started. She had summoned him to her sumptuous apartment and, after letting him in the door, sprawled on the plush carpet while he played his demonstration records and surreptitiously checked out his surroundings.
"There were horses everywhere. Pictures of horses, statues of horses, lamps shaded like horses. After she'd heard the records, she said she'd like very much to become a part of it. I said, 'How do you think you could become a part of it?' She said, 'Well, I sing.' I told her I had heard that she did. She said, 'I wouldn't clutter up the stage or anything, I'd just like to come out a couple times a night, you'd introduce me, Julie Colt, and I'd sing a few tunes.' I said I didn't think that was too much to ask. But then she said, I'll buy all the uniforms, but I'd like the fellows to have a horse on their coat. And I'd like the music racks to be horses' heads. ..." I listened to that crap as long as I could, then I just walked out."
He consulted with Gus Arnheim, who gave him perhaps the best advice of his life. "Never take money from anybody," said Arnheim, "even if it means you have to write your own music and copy it and make your own uniforms. You don't own yourself, and you have to answer to a lot of people. It just lets you in for a lot of trouble."
Arnheim's warning proved invaluable when word got around about the exciting new band at the Rendezvous. Booking agents who only recently had exiled Stanley like an ugly duckling to the wastelands of their waiting rooms suddenly saw him as a goose harboring a possibly golden egg. GAG (General Artists Corporation) zeroed in on him with heady promises and heavy rhetoric. With one corporate hand, they dangled before him the country's most desirable bookings; with the other, they reached for 50 percent of the band.
Stanley held out for a contract that would assure his retaining financial control of the band, and eventually such an agreement was negotiated and signed. But far from abandoning their avaricious objectives, GAG simply switched their tactics. Their strategy was classic: starve him out.
When the Rendezvous season ended in September, the musicians were broke but in high gear, eager to get to their next job. For two weeks, the agency stalled and made excuses. Finally, they told Stanley the band was booked into Jantzen Beach, Oregon. Could GAG advance some money for transportation, he inquired? Sure, if he would care to renegotiate his contract. No? In that case, how he got his band the twelve hundred miles up to Jantzen Beach was his problem.
Undeterred, Stanley borrowed three hundred dollars from a sympathetic sound engineer and bought an aging eight-passenger Buick, complete with jump seats, and a two-wheel trailer, the latter intended for instruments and luggage. Those who couldn't squeeze into the Buick traveled in the antiquated jalopies of a couple of the musicians and, caravan-style, they headed north. After countless blowouts, they arrived at the amusement park known as Jantzen Beach just in time to set up in the ballroom and play for a receptive Friday night crowd. They were a hit that night, and the following night as well. On Sunday, their GAC man showed up. "You're doin' just great, fellas," he assured them, "and you'll be playing here again next weekend." "Terrific," said Stanley, "but what are we going to do during the week?" The GAC man shrugged. (Later, Stanley was to learn that his booking agency had been turning down job offers practically since the day they signed him; the less money the band made, they figured, the better their chances for a piece of that golden egg. If challenged, they had an inexhaustible supply of excuses, and Stanley was too busy to trouble himself with the details of hooking. After all, that was what he was paying GAC its 10 percent for!)
The band moved into the cheapest rooming house they could find, and spent the next four weeks rehearsing, playing football and eating peanut butter and crackers, playing only on weekends and an occasional one-nighter in the area. In November, they headed back to Los Angeles, playing a one-nighter near Oroville, in northern California, en route. Howard Ramsey remembers that after driving through wilderness all day long, "all of a sudden this ancient building materializes out of nowhere, just sitting in this flat space with nothing, nothing else in sight. And the signs says COCOANUT GROVE! The place looked as though nothing had been touched since the last band left, maybe twenty years before — chairs turned upside down, just a shambles. Ghost City! We set up at nine o'clock, figuring that if anybody showed up at all it would just be some miners with their burros. But by nine-thirty, there were at least eight hundred people there — and they kept coming! It turned out that the band played as good that night as I can ever remember — we all went away completely content and satisfied, feeling we had just played one of the most important engagements of our lives!"
The most important engagement of their lives was, in fact, exactly three weeks away.”