Stan Kenton

Stan Kenton

[ken-tn]
Stanley Newcomb Kenton (December 15, 1911August 25, 1979) was a pianist who led a highly innovative, influential, and often controversial American jazz orchestra. In later years he was widely active as an educator.

Early life

Stan Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised first in Colorado and then in California. He learned piano as a child, and while still a teenager toured with various bands. He attended Bell High School, in Bell, California, where he graduated in 1930. In June 1941 he formed his own band, which developed into one of the best-known West Coast ensembles of the Forties. In the Mid 40's Kenton's Band and style became known as "The Wall of Sound", a tag later used by Phil Spector.

Career

Kenton played in the 1930's in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, but his natural inclination was as a band leader. In 1941 he formed his first orchestra, which later was named after his theme song "Artistry in Rhythm". As a competent pianist, influenced by Earl Hines, Kenton was much more important in the early days as an arranger and inspiration for his loyal sidemen. Although there were no major names in his first band (bassist Howard Rumsey and trumpeter Chico Alvarez come the closest), Kenton spent the summer of 1941 playing regularly before a very appreciative audience at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford (who, like Kenton, enjoyed high-note trumpeters and thick-toned tenors), the Stan Kenton Orchestra struggled a bit after its initial success. Its Decca recordings were not big sellers and a stint as Bob Hope's backup radio band was an unhappy experience; Les Brown permanently took Kenton's place.

By late 1943 with a Capitol Records contract, a popular record in "Eager Beaver", and growing recognition, the Stan Kenton Orchestra was gradually catching on. Its soloists during the war years included Art Pepper, briefly Stan Getz, altoist Boots Mussulli, and singer Anita O'Day. By 1945 the band had evolved quite a bit. Pete Rugolo became the chief arranger (extending Kenton's ideas), Bob Cooper and Vido Musso offered very different tenor styles, and June Christy was Kenton's new singer; her hits (including "Tampico" and "Across the Alley From the Alamo") made it possible for Kenton to finance his more ambitious projects. A popular recording of "Laura" was made, the theme song from the film Laura (starring actress Gene Tierney), and featured the voices of the band.

Calling his music "progressive jazz," Kenton sought to lead a concert orchestra as opposed to a dance band at a time when most big bands were starting to break up. By 1947 Kai Winding was greatly influencing the sound of Kenton's trombonists, the trumpet section included such screamers as Buddy Childers, Ray Wetzel, and Al Porcino, Jack Costanzo's bongos were bringing Latin rhythms into Kenton's sound, and a riotous version of "The Peanut Vendor" contrasted with the somber "Elegy for Alto". Kenton had succeeded in forming a radical and very original band that gained its own audience.

In 1949 Kenton took a year off. In 1950 he put together his most advanced band, the 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra that included 16 strings, a woodwind section, and two French horns. Its music ranged from the unique and very dense modern classical charts of Bob Graettinger to works that somehow swung despite the weight. Such major players as Maynard Ferguson (whose high-note acrobatics set new standards), Shorty Rogers, Milt Bernhart, John Graas, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne, and June Christy were part of this remarkable project, but from a commercial standpoint, it was really impossible. Kenton managed two tours during 1950-1951 but soon reverted to his usual 19-piece lineup.

Then quite unexpectedly, Kenton went through a swinging period. The charts of such arrangers as Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich, Johnny Richards, and particularly Bill Holman and Bill Russo began to dominate the repertoire. Such talented players (in addition to the ones already named) as Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, Sal Salvador, Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Sam Noto, Bill Perkins, Charlie Mariano, Mel Lewis, Pete Candoli, Lucky Thompson, Carl Fontana, Pepper Adams, and Jack Sheldon made strong contributions. The music was never predictable and could get quite bombastic, but it managed to swing while still keeping the Kenton sound.

Later years

Kenton's last successful experiment was his mellophonium band of 1960-1963. Despite the difficulties in keeping the four mellophoniums (which formed their own separate section) in tune, this particular Kenton orchestra had its exciting moments; the albums "Adventures in Jazz" and "West Side Story" each won Grammy awards in 1962 and 1963. However from 1963 on, the flavor of the Kenton big band began to change. Rather than using talented soloists, Kenton emphasized relatively inexpensive youth at the cost of originality. While the arrangements (including those of Hank Levy) continued to be quite challenging, after Gabe Baltazar's "graduation" in 1965, there were few new important Kenton alumni (other than Peter Erskine and Dick Shearer). For many of the young players, touring with Kenton would be the high point of their careers rather than just an important early step. Kenton Plays Wagner (1964) was an important project, but by then Kenton was expending much energy on jazz education and by encouraging big band music in high schools and colleges, by instructing what he called "progressive jazz." In the early 1970s Kenton split from his long-time association with Capitol Records and formed his own label, "The Creative World of Stan Kenton". Recordings produced during the 1970s on this new label included several "live" concerts at various universities and are a testament to his devotion to education. In addition, Kenton made his charts available to college and high-school stage bands.

Criticism

Criticisms of Kenton are not confined to his musical style. In 1956, when the band returned from its European trip, the Critics Poll in Down Beat reflected victories by African-American musicians in virtually every category. The Kenton band was playing in Ontario, Canada, at the time, and Kenton dispatched a telegram which lamented "a new minority, white jazz musicians," and stated Kenton's "complete and total disgust [with the] literary geniuses of jazz." Jazz critic Leonard Feather, alone of all the critics, responded in the October 3, 1956, issue with an open letter which questioned Kenton's racial views and disparagement of African-Americans like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Feather implied that Kenton's failure to win the Critics Poll was the major reason for the complaint; that his long-standing prejudice for many years had now come to the surface; that Kenton had not hired enough African-American musicians over the years.

Other writers have disagreed. Nearly three years before this, in the December 16, 1953, issue of Down Beat, critic Nat Hentoff had written that ". . . Stan is as free from prejudice of any kind as any man I know." In the fall of 1960, Stan toured with the Count Basie orchestra. However, although African-American jazz stars appeared with the Kenton Orchestra from time to time as featured soloists, very few black musicians ever played in his band.

Legacy

Kenton was a salient figure on the American musical scene and made an indelible mark on the arranged type of big band jazz. Kenton's music evolved with the times throughout the 1960s and 70s, and although he was no longer considered a contemporary innovator, he promoted jazz and jazz improvisation through his service as an educator. The "Kenton Style" continues to permeate big bands at the high school and collegiate level, and the framework he designed for the "jazz clinic" is still widely in use today.

His music has experienced a resurgence in interest, with later critical "rediscovery" of his music and many reissues of his recordings. An alumni band tours to this day, led by lead trumpeter Mike Vax, which performs not only classic Kenton arrangements, but also new music written and performed in the Kenton style.

Kenton continued leading and touring with his big band up to his final performance in August, 1979, a week before he suffered a stroke while on tour in Reading, PA. Kenton did not recover and passed away on August 25, 1979 . He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles.

Noted band personnel

Composers and arrangers:

Famed vocalists Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Chris Connor were featured with the Kenton orchestra. Kenton discovered The Four Freshmen performing in a small club in Dayton, Ohio, and gave them a huge boost.

Discography

Most of Kenton's early work (1941-1950) was pressed onto singles or 78s, and has been collected in a variety of compilations. This discography lists recordings that were intended for album-length distribution, rather than collections of singles.

  • A Presentation of Progressive Jazz (1947)
  • City of Glass (1951)
  • New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (1952)
  • Portraits on Standards (1953)
  • Kenton Showcase: The Music of Bill Holman and Bill Russo (1954)
  • Contemporary Concepts (1955)
  • Kenton in Hi-Fi (1956)
  • Cuban Fire! (1956)
  • Back to Balboa (1958)
  • Lush Interlude (1958)
  • The Stage Door Swings (1958)
  • Viva Kenton (1959)
  • Road Show (1959)
  • At the Las Vegas Tropicana (1959)
  • Standards in Silhouette (1959)
  • Sophisticated Approach (1961)
  • The Romantic Approach (1961)
  • A Merry Christmas (1961)
  • West Side Story (1961)

  • Adventures in Blues (1961)
  • Adventures in Jazz (1961)
  • Adventures in Standards (1961)
  • Adventures in Time (1962)
  • Stan Kenton - Tex Ritter (1962)
  • Artistry in Bossa Nova (1963)
  • Artistry in Voices and Brass (1963)
  • Kenton/Wagner (1964)
  • The Jazz Compositions of Dee Barton (1967)
  • Hair (1968)
  • Finian's Rainbow (1968)
  • Live at Redlands University (1970)
  • Live at Brigham Young (1971)
  • Live at Butler University (1973)
  • Birthday in Britain (1973)
  • 7.5 on the Richter Scale (1973)
  • Kenton Plays Chicago (1974)
  • Fire, Fury and Fun (1974)
  • Kenton '76 (1976)
  • Live in Europe (1976)
  • Journey into Capricorn (1976)

References

External links

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