Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Creative World of Stan Kenton - Part 4

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"There were three principal writers when I was on the band (1970-72): Willie Maiden, Ken Hanna and Hank Levy. We were playing such a diverse kind of music, it wasn't like the earlier bands where there was a direction that became the focus of a single writer. Willie kept us swinging, Ken kept us romantic, and Hank Levy kept us befuddled!"

- Mike Vax, lead trumpet, 1970-72

In developing a broader understanding and appreciation of Kenton 70's music to share with you in these continuing features on the subject, we now reach the point at which the arrangers for the band during this decade need to be considered.

In delving more closely into the bands and recordings from The Creative World of Stan Kenton during the decade of the 1970s, it becomes apparent

that we have new orchestrations in play or as Michael Spake phrased it in his definitive Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra [2010]:

“A new start and a new band required a new book. The mellophonium library of a decade earlier didn't make it in the 1970s, and Mike Vax put it as succinctly as anyone: "There were three principal writers when I was on the band (1970-72): Willie Maiden, Ken Hanna and Hank Levy. We were playing such a diverse kind of music, it wasn't like the earlier bands where there was a direction that became the focus of a single writer. Willie kept us swinging, Ken kept us romantic, and Hank Levy kept us befuddled!"

Always looking for change, Kenton saw unusual time signatures as the only viable direction, and turned to the arranger who had already become prominent in that movement with the Don Ellis orchestra. Hank Levy was amenable, but there were immediate problems. Whereas Ellis concentrated almost exclusively on that single style, so that his men were geared up 100% to tackle whatever time changes were thrown at them, Kenton had a much wider repertoire, and required his musicians to switch from swing to Afro-Cuban to slow ballads to different time signatures in succession, and that was an almost impossible task for young and inexperienced musicians to cope with. Levy had to temper his charts to make them easier to play than some of the things he had written for Ellis, at once making them less far-out, or "progressive."

Mike Vax remembered well how it all began: "At the first rehearsal of Chiapas'—and I'll tell you, it was in the attic of the Hotel Bradford in Boston—Stan enthused, 'This guy's been writing for Don Ellis, and I want to do some of that, I really like it!' So Hank came in and he brought 'Chiapas’ and the only person in the band who could figure out how to make it sort of semi-swing in five was John Von Ohlen. The rest of us were fumbling, and we were trying to get through this thing, and it was just not happening. And I can remember Stan sitting at the piano, and he's going like, 'Oh God, this is terrible, what am I doing!' 'Cos he wanted to feature this music, but none of us were used to playing it, and in the beginning it was a real chore. Later on it became easier, but we still had to concentrate more on Hank Levy's stuff." 

For Stan, Levy's charts provided a double-edged bonus. They offered

a new direction in the vanguard of modern big-band innovation, and they also allowed him to introduce the rock beat — so necessary to keep the kids on-side — into the band's regular vocabulary under the guise of advanced jazz. It wasn't necessary to use rock rhythms in conjunction with exotic time signatures (Pete Rugolo certainly hadn't in 1947, nor Johnny Richards in 1962), but in keeping with the times, almost all of Levy's charts include a heavy rock beat as an integral part of the arrangement, which from my point of view often renders the music unpalatable. Worst "offenders" are the more basic pieces like "Hank's Opener" and "Blues Between and Betwixt," while the scores with stronger thematic foundations, such as "Chiapas" and "Ambivalence" work better for me, because the rock elements may be more constrained. Some Levy lovers no doubt will hold diametrically opposite and equally valid views to my own.

Hank himself told me, "My charts are a new concept in jazz that at present is controversial. At first the guys used to cringe when they saw me coming, because they knew my scores meant more rehearsals and confusion, but in general the acceptance by Stan and the band has been gratifying. As a writer I try to leave room in a chart for the personality of the band to come through. I believe that after some playing, a chart begins to settle, and the band will make some subtle changes, and I am very much in favor of this. Most of the time the final results are a great improvement over the original—the music comes alive, and it is more realistic. I must also say how much I respect Stan for even attempting a totally new concept at this point in his career. Not many leaders would make such a radical change, but Stan is an innovator. He respects new ideas, and if he believes in them he doesn't mind sticking his neck out. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the 'Old Man.'"

But Mike Vax's thoughtful insight into Levy's music indicates that though certainly different in the one respect, the Emperor's new clothes, if not actually invisible, were in reality pretty threadbare: "Stan really believed that Hank's music was a good direction [to move in]. But once you got past the time signatures, Levy's charts weren't nearly so involved musically as the Holman things, or even Ken's and Willie's, because basically it was a theme that was set up, and then there were interludes and backgrounds and solos. Hank's music wasn't something that built in a classical manner, say like a Russo piece. There wasn't a theme that was built upon and changed around and things done with, like in classical music. It was basically like a bebop band. OK, let's play the head, now we're going to have a bunch of solos, we'll have some backgrounds, and then we'll replay the head or go out on a shout chorus. So I guess that's why some people thought Hank's music wasn't as meaningful as that of earlier bands, because it didn't build in the same way compositionally, and that's also the reason a lot of Hank's pieces sound rather alike. Holman's the master at compositional building. How many counter-melodies and different things go on in a Holman chart! That's almost classical composition, and of course, Bill Russo also. And Pete Rugolo—boy, is his stuff challenging! Levy's things were sort of fun, but I don't think I'd have been happy if that had become the focus of the book."

If Mike was ever-so-slightly circumspect in expressing his views, Willie Maiden had no such qualms. At 42, Maiden was set in his ways, a swinger very opposed to Levy's difficult scores. Many regard Willie as the more innovational writer of the two, including Kenton researcher Terry Vosbein: "Willie Maiden was by far the most experimental, creative composer from the '70s era. His arrangements frequently were the hardest swinging pieces in the book, as well as the most innovative."

Noel Wedder concurred: "Willie Maiden made major contributions to the 1970s library, and thanks to his writing those bands roared. Willie wrote within the frame-work of the Kenton sound, yet artfully manipulated phrases so as to place his own personal signature on his charts. Granted Willie wasn't the snappiest dresser on the scene—his insistence on wearing argyle socks with his band uniform drove Stan into a tizzy— but none of us could ever figure out why Stan picked on him so much.

Maiden stretched the boundaries with his cleverly designed constructions, and although Stan sometimes felt the need to 'beat him up’ he had the utmost respect for Willie's compositional and soloing skills."

As a final testimonial, Mike Vax played alongside Maiden and gave me his opinion: "Willie Maiden was a curmudgeon! Willie Maiden was great! I don't know if I ever saw him sober, but I never saw him drunk, and I certainly never saw him when he couldn't take care of things. The band probably liked his charts better than Stan, because they were more like Willie wrote for Maynard, in swing style. The definitive 1970s swing chart is 'A Little Minor Booze' — maybe one of the best swing charts ever written for the band, and that includes Holman and Niehaus. Willie did all his writing on the bus, and I asked him once how he wrote so fast. And he said, “I don't write fast. When I put it down on score paper, the arrangement is done, I'm just transcribing what's in my head.' And there was never a mistake. If there ever was a mistake in a Willie Maiden chart, it was due to the copyist."

The third figure in the triumvirate was the writer I personally admired the most. "Ken Hanna," said Stan, "has been very important to the band. He's one of the greatest romantic writers ever, and a very talented composer. Ken went through a lot of difficult challenges. He wanted to sail around the world — he's quite a skipper — but got caught in a storm somewhere off the coast of Mexico, and the boat got beached. So Ken was in trouble in Mexico for quite a while around 1969, and became very depressed.

"So when Ken came by the office to say hello, I asked him what he was going to do, and he said he didn't know, and I told him, I know what you're going to do. You're going to start writing your butt off. There's manuscript paper in the back, and I want music brought in here as fast as you possibly can.' Ken was reluctant at first, but after a couple of weeks around the band he became very enthusiastic, and Ken is now writing better than he's ever written in his life. Some of the new things he's written for the band —'Tiare,' 'Lonely Windrose,' 'Bogota,' 'Fragments of a Portrait' —are just thrilling."

A soft-spoken, kindly man, rather uncertain of his own abilities, Ken Hanna was the most gifted melodically of all the arrangers, and his writing closest to the Kenton tradition of changing tempos and varied tonal colors. "I enjoyed playing Hanna," said Mike Vax, "his music was so beautiful. But it could be a real endurance test for the trumpets, because he'd write these slow backgrounds, and we'd be playing long notes up high in Harmon mutes. But I thought Ken's writing was fresh and modern, it didn't sound like what the band had played in the '40s and '50s. To me his writing was almost like romantic-period classical music. There was so much emotion in songs like 'Tiare' and 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.'"

As the time drew near for the first original Creative World recordings by the new band, Stan was still uncertain whether leaving the security of Capitol's womb had been a wise move. All his career he'd simply had to lead his men into the studio and be paid to concentrate on the music, with (generally) Lee Gillette on hand to offer advice. Then he simply waited until a 12-inch vinyl LP housed in a pretty cardboard cover emerged at the other end. Now the choice of music was his alone, but so was the responsibility of recording, mixing, mastering, packaging, promotion, and distribution, all of which had to be paid for out of his own pocket. Freedom came with a heavy price tag!

The cost and accountability weighed heavily, and Kenton became over-anxious that the first album under his own aegis should be successful. "Stan was pretty scared about leaving Capitol," Mike Vax explained, "and not too long before our first recording for Creative World, Stan became an ogre. Stan became a Buddy Rich! We all understood the reason, but we were scared to death. He was threatening to bring in Joe Romano for lead alto, and Buddy Childers or Al Porcino for lead trumpet, and Conte and Rosolino for the jazz, 'cos he was afraid that without any big names, the record wouldn't sell.

"And it was Willie Maiden, rest his soul, who pulled Stan over to one side, and said, 'Stan, if you bring in one ringer, you can't record any of my music. You've got a band with some of the best young kids in the country right here, and they've been playing for you every night on the road, and this band is swinging, you don't need any ringers. This will sell!' And that sort of knocked Stan back into reality. He wanted so much for this first Creative World album to really do something, and the funny thing is, of all the stuff issued, and all the years of Creative World, the biggest selling album is Redlands."

Stan chose to record during the August Clinic at Redlands University to avoid expensive studio costs, and being "live," as much music as needed could be recorded for free, with musicians paid recording fees only for those titles actually selected for release. As engineer, Stan chose Wally Heider, who had privately taped the band so often under similar conditions. And as Mike Vax says, "Redlands was just magic! We recorded over several evenings, with an audience mainly of students at the camp. We'd be dead tired, because we'd been teaching and rehearsing the students all day, but boy, the band would just come up for it every night."

Kenton played it safe, with only around half the music on the double-LP Redlands set being brand new. In fact, the earliest titles are from the Forties, with Stan's "Artistry in Rhythm" (1941) and "Peanut Vendor" (1947). Two rearranged "mellophonium" charts (played without the horns) are Bill Holman's vigorous ideas on "Tico Tico" and "Granada," while Dee Barton is represented by "MacArthur Park" and the iconic 1967 ballad "Here's That Rainy Day,” which features mournful trombones at dirge-like tempo alternating with blistering trumpet crescendos. "Even the '70s ballads," noted Mike Vax, "had an even-eighth note sort of rock feel to them. They weren't like the older-time dance-band ballads, because we played them so slow. We used to open every night with “Rainy Day” and the funny thing was, the more we played it, the slower it became. Stan loved ballads, and when he found something like 'Rainy Day' he really milked it. By the time we recorded the song at Redlands, Jim Kartchner had started having 'chop' problems and was afraid of messing up at the concerts, which is why I took over the lead two days before we began recording the album. Kartchner was a great guy and a real mentor to me, and it was only later that we found out Jim had been suffering from a brain tumor that eventually killed him."

The most striking role on "Rainy Day'' fell to the trombones, which played the authoritative opening voicings, and according to trombone alumnus Mike Suter, it is Dick Shearer who deserves most credit: "He's sometimes maligned as a caricature of all who preceded him, but that's a very unfair assessment. Dick changed the concept of how the trombones played as a section, by playing softer. The concentration needed to pull off the choir sound on 'Rainy Day' was enormous, and Dick wanted us all to play these things at the same volume—almost inaudibly, with no voice dominant. By changing the dynamic balance in this way, for much of the time the trombones functioned as the foundation upon which the rest of the band played, allowing for more varied and challenging voicings in the other instruments. And by 1974 the opening trombone soli on 'Rainy Day' was played at a true classical pianissimo (as soft as possible), so that the fortissimo climax (still no louder than it had ever been) was perceived by the audience as pure and utter thunder."

Ken Hanna's "Tiare" had been played by the Neophonic in 1968, and it was Kenton who suggested Ken rescore it for the jazz band, without French horns, but still in concert format. "That's what Stan liked so much in later years," Hanna said, "the idea of making almost every tune a concert piece." Ken's other Redlands chart was "Bon Homme Richard," a sophisticated showcase for the trombone solo styling of Dick Shearer. Hanna's titles were sometimes based on his love of the sea and sailing. "Bon Homme Richard" was the name of one of America's first eighteenth-century warships, though the musicians facetiously interpreted the title as "Go Home, Richard"!

The verve, vivacity, and excitement of the unrestrained Redlands band blowing up a storm hit the moribund big-band jazz world in 1970 like a whirlwind of fresh air, earning a justified five-star Down Beat review. Exceptional virtues of the album were its variety and musicality — with a couple of exceptions. The Joe Ellis vocal tribute to Clark Terry's "Mumbles" called "Terry Talk" was just a piece of fun, but the Beatles' "Hey Jude" was agonizingly awful. "Stan would often play a lighter piece of music that he hoped would have a broad appeal," noted Dennis Noday. "Maynard did the same. Both leaders were concerned with finances, and had to play pop tunes that attracted a younger audience. It's nothing new—bands have been doing it since bands began." "'Hey Jude' was like a comedy show," opined Mike Vax. "Willie Maiden wound up conducting the piece, so to me this was just time to have some fun, and forget about anything serious. The problem was, we were doing it every single show, and a lot of the guys became real bored with it. It certainly wasn't my favorite."

Enthusiast Neal Finn was a 16-year-old student at Redlands in 1970, and attended all the concerts: "It was an interesting week. The band played several of the charts every night, including 'Hey Jude'—-we were getting sick of it by Wednesday! One night they brought in Don Menza and Joe Romano to solo with the band. Menza blew on 'Jude' and we loved it, but it pissed off many of the guys in the band, and the takes were never used. The one that gave the most trouble was 'Chiapas.' Hank Levy conducted it, but they just couldn't get a decent take. Hank had to stop them a couple of times. Later that night we heard the strains of the band emanating from the concert hall after midnight. Stan had called a rehearsal, and the band was hard at work on 'Chiapas.' The next night they got a usable take.

"The band recorded at Redlands in the 'V formation, with mikes on every chair and two solo mikes in front of the band, which the soloists used only occasionally. Most of the solos were taken from within the section." The "spread" formation Neal mentions was as controversial as the audio on the Redlands album, which underwent several mutations before its final digital transfer to CD in 1986. The musicians preferred the traditional stack or "three-tier" system, with sections on risers behind each other, because the wide spread (derisively termed "The Flying V" and "B-25") meant the end players were 20 yards or more apart, making it much more difficult for the guys to hear each other. "Very hard to play like that," commented Bobby Knight. "It looks great. Looked like the band was taking off. Stan was a great one for the dramatics." And John Harner confirmed, "Most of the guys did NOT like it. The distance between everyone made it really hard for the band to swing. We lived for the small jazz clubs where we had to sit in a stack set-up. And when we did, we swung our ever-lovin' butts off!" But Stan preferred the spread, because not only was it more exciting visually, it allowed the rhythm section to be brought down front, and he could lead from his seat at the piano. Originally the set-up as viewed by the audience looked thus:

SAXES                          TRUMPETS                          TROMBONES

PIANO               BASS               DRUMS               LATIN

Despite the opposition from the band, Stan maintained this spread formation to the end, though in 1973 saxes and trombones switched sides, because the trombones were better equipped to play over the piano than the saxophones.

To a large (some might say disproportionate) extent, public perception of a band's ability has always been governed by its phonograph recordings, which can give a very distorted picture of its actual accomplishments. By contrast, the Redlands album was an accurate representation of a rejuvenated orchestra with a new fire in its belly, playing modern, meaningful jazz music. 

At the same time, it is necessary to keep things in perspective. The new writers could not sustain the mega-achievements of past composers like Rugolo, Russo, and Richards. Nor could the soloists match the unsurpassable skills of the likes of Conte, Konitz, and Kai. 

But this was 1970, with the desert that was now the landscape of popular music firmly established. For many it was achievement enough that a revitalized Kenton was back playing an uncompromising brand of concert-jazz, and had opened Creative World with a "hit" album that did much to restore Stan's position and prestige among both his devotees and the wider jazz fraternity.

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