Clifford Bell’s Excellent Venture: Music Empresario Celebrates 40 Years on LA Scene
by Dawn Lee Wakefield
Leave it to Clifford Bell, the L.A. entertainment scene’s “host with the most” to know where, when and how to throw a good party. Bell’s musical evenings of joy and jazz deserve a category of their own—Cabarabia. The name stems from Bell’s life motto: “Life is a cabaret, ol’ chum…” Then, when a wise friend bestowed on him the compliment, “Well, you’re just a regular Lawrence of Cabarabia,” the moniker said it all and has ever since. Who else has their own music genre?
On August 18, Bell is presenting an evening at Rockwell’s showcasing around why he’s been “livin’ in LA and lovin’ it” since 1979. Bell explains, “For the last ten years or so, I have spent a lot of time venturing over to the Jazz world.” Producing events for Cabarabia “has given me the opportunity to befriend and present some of the tastiest musicians on the scene.”
Cabarabia is often a themed assembly of musical talent that Bell selects for various programs. It might be a show at Rockwell’s, or he could gather a group to celebrate Barbra Streisand’s birthday, or he’s inevitably in the midst of preparing a program to benefit Project Angel Food, his longtime favorite nonprofit to which he has devoted countless hours to raise funds.
So, after 40 years of living in Los Angeles, Bell said, “This anniversary has made me want to make this show sort of a retrospective of what forty years in Los Angeles has given me. It’s not a comprehensive overview of all the milestones but it is a roster of the people who I am currently most proud to call my circle of professional colleagues and all performers that I am eager to share with the August 18th audience.”
“One of the professional friendships I have made that has been exceptionally meaningful to Clifford is with legendary Composer/Arranger/Producer Artie Butler, who (with collaborator Phyllis Jean Molinary) wrote one of the most enduring modern classics, “Here’s to Life.” As Butler shares with others, the song took him about twenty minutes to write because he was inspired by entertainer George Burns’ outlook on the “second half” of his life. It’s rare for Clifford to perform at his own shows, but when he does, this may well be the song he chooses because the lyrics chose him.
“There is no ‘yes’ in yesterday
And who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away
As long as I’m still in the game I want to play
For last, for life, for love
So here’s to life
And every joy it brings
Here’s to life
To dreamers and their dreams”
Bell met Butler socially many years ago, but says, “It wasn’t until I began doing my podcast, ‘Cabarabia,’ on Global Voice Broadcasting (www.gvbstudios.com/show/cabarabia) that I really became friendly with him. After he did an hour-long interview with me, he began making appearances in my live variety shows, which to me remain a career highlight.” This week marks the sixth year of Bell’s Cabarabia podcast.
The magic of Butler’s song goes beyond a poignant melody with lovely lyrics. Bell has a way of spotting talent, even if the people he sees it in don’t see it in themselves at first. Often, Clifford sees courage over talent, willingness to learn over natural skill, and an appreciation for the opportunity exhibited by natural talents who’ve been looking for someone to open a door. And so with each show you’ll see some performers who fit each category, although he’s never going to share with you who is from which grouping. He just calls friends, assembles his show and then lifts up each performer in his own inimitable style, and then goes forth to program unforgettable fun evenings.
Bell is excited about the lineup for August 18. “We’ll have Catte Adams and Marc Hugenberger, two of the most celebrated music makers in my community.” Adams is a familiar name to many, from her earliest days as the Grand Champion winner of “Star Search,” season 2 with Ed McMahon. In Los Angeles, Adams often performs with Marc Hugenberger (piano), Al Garcia (bass) and Tom Bowe (drums) in Cabarabia events. Here is Adams singing “Some Other Time.” Hugenberger has composed for TV shows including “Desperate Housewives” and “General Hospital” and he’s toured with Chaka Khan, Wilson Phillips and Go West, in addition to his studio work with many jazz artists.
Bell notes, “We also have Black Market Reverie, a new Jazz duo featuring the highly acclaimed bass player Lyman Medeiros and Renee Myara.” Medeiros, of course, doubles as Musical Director for vocalist Steve Tyrell, who travels the country with sold-out jazz shows. Myara is a singer-songwriter proficient in Americana, hip hop, French pop and jazz.
Here’s a sample of Black Market Reverie from a 2018 Cabarabia special event, singing “After You’ve Gone”:
Bell continues, “We also are delighted to have powerhouse vocalist Mary Bogue, who received the Living Jazz Legend award in 2015, performing in our showcase.” Mary is both song stylist and jazz reviewer, a frequent contributor to highly regarded publications. Bogue’s performance deliver sexy and sassy renditions of steaming blues and cool jazz tunes, so no matter what she sings, expect a dynamo.
Here’s a sample of Mary Bogue’s “Sneakin’ Around” in a Bell-organized Cabarabia event to benefit Project Angel Food last year:
When it comes to Kiki Ebsen, Clifford has much to say: ‘Probably the most recent professional friendship with someone who will be performing on August 18 is with the multi-talented and multi-faceted Kiki Ebsen. I met Kiki about four years ago when she was recommended to me to perform at one of my charitable benefits and I seriously can’t remember the last time that I was so gobsmacked by someone. Although sometimes identified as the daughter of the iconic actor and song and dance man Buddy Ebsen, Kiki is so much more than that. In addition to being a very distinctive beauty with the long angular grace of her father, she is a consummate musician who is masterful at a variety of genres and has an extensive resume singing background and playing in some of the biggest bands of the last several decades – Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, and the weekend before our show, she’ll perform with Wilson Phillips.”
Kiki is also an accomplished Singer/Songwriter with seven CDs of originals and covers to her credit. “I crossed paths with Kiki when she was embarking on a turn towards “Jazz,” which coincided with her labor of love project dedicated to her father ‘TO DAD WITH LOVE.’ Kiki had released a CD of exquisite Jazz influenced arrangements of songs associated with her Father’s long career from Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood. She followed the CD with one of the best one-person shows I’ve ever seen. I came onboard in the early days of Kiki’s emergence as a Jazz singer and introduced her to the premium clubs in Los Angeles, which immediate became Sell Out /Return Engagements for her.”
Bell continues, “I’m so thrilled that Kiki will be joining me on August 18 since her dance card is so full. She recently played a Sold-Out Tribute to Classic Hollywood show at the newly branded Feinstein’s at Vitello’s and next month has a three-weekend engagement at the prestigious Theatre West with an expanded theatrical version of To Dad With Love.” Here’s Kiki singing her father’s song, “Missing You,” in Cabarabia:
Ilene Graff and Ben Lanzarone are two names familiar from music and television. You know Ilene Graff as a Broadway actress who successfully transitioned to TV on “Hart of Dixie” and “Mr. Belvedere,” among numerous other roles. As entertainers, Bell says, “I refer to this duo as Show Business Royalty, having been celebrated on Broadway and on TV for decades, from the original production of ‘Grease’ to ‘Mr. Belvedere’ and through decades of TV orchestrations.”
Ben Lanzarone is the brilliant musician who scored at least twelve episodes of “Dynasty,” surrounding the unforgettable Bill Conti opening theme. Yes, the same gorgeous Aaron Spelling serial featuring Joan Collins and Linda Evans fighting over Blake Carrington, aka John Forsythe, or Wednesday nights on ABC.
For a preview of Ilene and Ben, check out “Love Revolution” here:
Bell explains, “As I made the decisions about who I wanted to feature in this evening, I was forced to keep the program at around two hours, which is so difficult for me because I have the blessing of many, many talented friends. Ultimately I decided to focus on a group of people who have consistently showed up for me, time and time again, bringing their large followings along when I reached out to them to support my main fundraising effort for Project Angel Food, www.angelfood.org.
Clifford noted he was pleased that Kirsten Holly Smith will be part of the evening as well, she having starred as Dusty Springfield in concerts, cabaret and off Broadway shows. The blonde beauty will surprise you, shown here in a recording session for “Seth Speaks” for Sirius radio:
As a final note, Clifford laughs as he explains, “Audiences will be thrilled to know that the show will be precisely two hours as Rockwell’s built in a penalty clause if he goes one minute over!” Seriously, when the empresario of showcases gets rolling, if you don’t have an agreed-on stop time, you might just very well party all night.
Other performers include Eileen Barnett, Cabaret performer and accomplished theatre actress, with two CDs showcasing her talents, “Live at the Cinegrill” and “Broadway with a Beat.”
Cheryl Crandall with William Sigismondi, award-winning Latin American cinematic composer, producer and pianist. Check out their EPK here.
Musical Directors David Scott Cohen and Michael Collum are delighted to have Mitch Kaplan on piano, Kirsh on bass, Tom Bowe on drums, and Julie Sax on, of course, sax!
Tickets are only $20 per person for the 7:30 pm downbeat on Sunday, Aug. 18. You can get your tickets here. Rockwell Table & Stage is located at 1714 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90027. You’re invited to join the crowd for the fun parties that are always part and parcel of Clifford Bell’s world of Cabarabia, where the music begins at the corner of jazz and cabaret.
By Scott Yanow
One of the most significant alto-saxophonists of the past 30 years, Kenny Garrett always puts a great deal of passion and intensity into each note he plays. That was certainly true at the Moss Theater before a packed house in a performance sponsored by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery. With solid support and fiery moments from pianist Vernell Brown, bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Samuel Laviso, and the colorful percussionist Rudy Bird, Brown was in top form. He started with a modal original in 6/4, got into a Pharoah Sanders late-1960s groove on the next number (his playful solo over a fairly simple chord structure hinted at Sonny Rollins in the 90s), and improvised with great fury on an uptempo original that was climaxed by five minutes of his unaccompanied playing. Other performances included a rhythmic piece on soprano-sax that ended with Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre,” a beautiful rendition on alto of “My Foolish Heart” that included some phrases worthy of Charlie Parker, and a 5/4 groove that had Garrett (on soprano) and Brown taking inventive solos over a one-chord vamp. The audience loved everything that Kenny Garrett played, but he did unnecessarily showboat a bit, signaling on several occasions that he wanted more applause from the audience which took away a bit from the spontaneity. Otherwise, it was a great show.
By Chris Walker
KJZZ 88.1 FM’s Summer Benefit at Disney Hall was headlined by Grammy and Tony-winning singer/actress/UN Goodwill Ambassador/NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater, with on-air personality Bubba Jackson serving as the emcee. The singer was supported by Michael King-keyboards, Tabari Lake-bass and Kush Abadey-drums, and chose to honor departed legends Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson. In Carter fashion Bridgewater scatted profoundly and spotlighted her young backing group as they each soloed to excite the crowd, in addition to rendering “My Disposition Depends on You.” In typical fashion, the singer pranced around flirticuously, directing her attention to the blushing bassist and talked about a recent disastrous blind date.
Returning to music, the singer delved into “Lover Man Comeback to Me” spaciously and ephemerally similar to Lincoln, along with “Monk Blues.” For Wilson things got a lot more refined, starting with a soulful version of “Teach Me Tonight” with organ soloing. In the same vein was “Save Your Love For Me” with Bridgewater singing more fluidly. Breaking out of the tribute material the singer went into B.B. King classic “The Thrill is Gone” from her latest project R&B inspired Memphis…Yes I’m Ready to garner a standing ovation.
Opening for her were guitarist/vocalists Raul Midon and Lionel Loueke, who performing solely and together. Benin-born Loueke began singing sweetly in his native tongue and playing African rhythms, along with percussion on his acoustic guitar. Shifting to electric he played “Vi Gnin” from his latest CD The Journey that was both atmospheric and gentle. Midon came on stage afterwards, first playing with the African musician for a light jam, highlighted by them playing and scatting away with the audience clapping along.
Blind Midon took over solely and mimicked horns vocally and pleasingly sang “I Love The Afternoon” that included his trumpet scatting. From his latest release If You Really Want produced by Vince Mendoza with the Metropole Orkest’s “God’s Dream ” was performed and astonished the crowd with fiery singing and clean acoustic guitar. Showing his confident aura was title track from his 2017 recording Bad Ass And Blind with rapid-fire rapping and bluesy guitar to totally blow the audience away. Closing out his set Midon honored his earlier stage mate with “Loeke” an African flavored piece, with his friend later joining in to sing and play to receive a standing ovation. For more info go to: kkjz.org.
By Dawn Lee Wakefield
Just two weeks ago, the great ambassador and preservationist of the Great American Songbook, five-time Grammy nominee Michael Feinstein, welcomed Hollywood royalty for three nights at his newly redesigned “40’s style supper club,” Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. Spotting beloved entertainers Liza Minelli, Dick Van Dyke, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr., Mitzi Gaynor, and Melissa Manchester, audiences enthusiastically took note of a venue they wanted to see for sure. Sold-out audiences have followed ever since the opening.
Continuing the trend, sultry song stylist Kiki Ebsen will debut an all-new jazz show on the 5th of July at Studio City’s Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, designed to stir the souls of those who loved the grandest days of early Hollywood. From Kiki you’ll hear a variety of standards, including several you’ve never heard her sing, designed to transport you back to hot nights and cool, swinging sounds when life was less complicated.
Three special guests join Ebsen to Jazz Up July 5th—Lee Meriwether, Debby Boone, and Grant Geissman. Audiences have loved Lee Meriwether since her Hollywood debut. The elegant, gracious Meriwether, beloved star of stage and screen, continues to shine. She’ll offer one of her favorite songs and reminisce with Kiki about some of the best days of Hollywood.
Ebsen’s longtime friend, Grammy-winner Debby Boone, continues to tour the country today, having created the successful “Reflections of Rosemary” (Clooney), both album and stage tribute. Boone has released 12 studio albums covering American pop, Christian, and country music, all of which began with her 1977 No. 1 Billboard hit, “You Light Up My Life,” pluse “Are You on the Road to Lovin’ Me Again” (on Billboard’s country charts).
World-class, Emmy-nominated composer and guitarist Grant Geissman will pair with Ebsen on “Easy to Love” and the Peggy Lee/Dave Barbour Quartet version of “Why Don’ You Do Right?” and more. Geissman has released 16 albums including his recent jazz trilogy “Say That!, Cool Man Cool, and BOP!, BANG! BOOM! Geissman has recorded with Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Chuck Mangione, and most recently, with Kiki Ebsen on her newest CD, coming soon. Also, for three years, Geissman has been a dynamic part of Kiki’s Joni Mitchell Project tribute band, set to return to the Laguna Arts Festival for their third appearance next month.
A dynamic quartet powers the evening’s offerings: Noted Musical Director/pianist Jeff Colella, bassist Granville “Danny” Young, drummer Kendall Kay, and saxophonist Kim Richmond create the perfect Hollywood jazz bistro experience at Feinstein’s. Audiences can anticipate some great instrumentals from this premier ensemble.
Surprise selections from Feinstein’s favorite “Great American Songbook” are promised, along with “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’” and “You Are My Lucky Star.” Both are from MGM’s musical, “Broadway Melody of 1936.”
In addition to a newly redesigned menu (including more vegan and gluten-free selections) you’ll hear stories from what it was like to grow up in Hollywood, courtesy of three ladies who have fascinating stories to tell.
[Debby Boone, photo by Donavan Freberg]
As a child, Debby’s family lived across the street from Dean Martin’s family, so childhood was definitely in the heart of Beverly Hills, but with very strict parents who maintained extremely watchful eyes on Debby and her three sisters. Debby and her husband were invited to stay at a private bungalow on the estate of Frank Sinatra early in her solo career. If that’s not slightly surreal, it’s at least definitely Hollywood at its best. But, for her, it was just normal life. It’s more about how you react to life that makes it normal or extreme one might project.
[Photo: 2015, Kiki Ebsen, Le Maire (daughter of actor Jack Le Maire), and Debby Boone, after Kiki performed “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” at a fundraiser for St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal School.]
Reflecting on the music that framed her own life, growing up as the daughter of Pat Boone, Debby recorded “Swing This,” in 2013 as reference to songs that inspired her own singing career. The CD contains beloved standards, such as “I’m Gonna Live till I Die,” “More Than You Know,” and “Everybody Loves Somebody.” On Friday night, Debby will sing that signature Dean Martin tune and talk about growing up and knowing their family.
Kiki Ebsen began life on Hutton Drive in Beverly Hills, where the family babysitter was James Brolin (nee Bruderlin), whose family lived right up the street. When the family moved to Newport Beach to follow her father Buddy’s love of the sea, the family quickly embraced all water sports. Yet, by her teens, the family had relocated even further away from Hollywood, where Kiki found one of her passions. It was in the beauty of nature, the mystery and mystique of the Santa Monica Mountains, backing up to the western sets of 20th Century Fox and Paramount Ranch.
One invitation for a backyard barbeque included riding on horseback to the Reagan Ranch, of family friend (future Governor and President) Ronald Reagan. They’d also ride over to Rex Allen’s ranch for an afternoon visit. Hollywood in the Old West. Kiki loved nature, but the call of her love of music was stronger.
Sadly, both iconic film villages were destroyed last November by the Woolsey Fire. Fortunately, Kiki remembers the excitement of her own experiences at her ranch, where family guests were many contemporaries of her dad’s Western film career. Today in her spare time she continues to operate her nonprofit Healing Equine Ranch, where she teaches workshops to help empower and enlighten people through natural interaction with horses. Recently, Lee Meriwether, her daughter Lesley Aletter and dear friend, the late Linda Rand, were regular visitors to Kiki’s ranch when she added four young rescues to her herd. That’s just one more facet of her busy world.
[Photos courtesy of The Healing Equine Ranch]
Choosing California Institute of the Arts to study classical piano and voice offered Ebsen a Disney-backed educational institution. Degree in hand, Kiki chose a career as a keyboard player and background vocalist, touring internationally in support of Grammy-winning, Platinum-selling rock musicians including Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs among many others.
The prolific singer-songwriter released six albums in between touring the world, her first “Red” featuring the talents of drummer Kendall Kay and sax player Boney James (the future four-time Grammy nominee who’d been part of one of Kiki’s earliest bands in Los Angeles). With each CD release, Kiki expanded her genres from pop and rock to country, the Great American Songbook, squarely landing on her new home base—jazz.
All the while, she recalled that her father had told her decades earlier that she should sing jazz, advice that went gently ignored until six years ago, when Kiki began a journey to (re)discover her father and his career.
From that journey, Kiki found acclaim and new fans among audiences who loved her recording “Scarecrow Sessions,” an album comprised of exquisite jazz standards that were taken from movies and stage roles that defined Ebsen’s seven-decade entertainment career, including his composition, “Missing You,” cowritten with his writing partner Zeke Manners.
[Photo: Kiki, Lee Meriwether, and Lesley Aletter at Catalina Jazz Club, after “To Dad with Love,” Father’s Day, 2016]
Inspired by the excitement the album generated, Kiki created a cabaret show, which now takes flight in its Hollywood debut as a full stage show at Theatre West this fall, “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” will showcase a deeply personal story about daughter and father that revels in heart and reveals heartache experienced growing up in a Hollywood aura. It’s not as easy as it appears, but the music is magical.
[Kiki admiring her father’s star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, June 19, 2016, Photo TCV Media]
Lee Meriwether has her own memories and stories to share, stemming from a young beauty crowned Miss America who quickly became a household favorite on the “Today Show” with Dave Garroway. Although television roles on “Barnaby Jones” (with Buddy Ebsen), “The Time Tunnel” and “All My Children” made her seem a household name, a film role as Catwoman in
“Batman’ earned her bona fides that still attract today’s generations, who greet her with awe at Comic Cons she attends.
[Lee Meriwether and Kiki Ebsen visit following Theatre West’s Jan. 2018 tribute, “Love Letters to Lee,” photo courtesy of Theatre West]
No greater home, however, does Lee find than the warmth and comfort of live theatre, especially at Theatre West in the heart of Hollywood. For decades now, Lee joined with Betty Garrett, Linda Rand, and other beloved Hollywood actors in producing, writing and starring in productions that have sustained Theatre West as the oldest continuously operating theatre in Hollywood.
In addition to marvelous music and Hollywood friends meeting to celebrate the newly redesigned Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, the event offers music lovers a chance to revisit a gentler time where friends met up for an evening on the town, building memories to last a lifetime, all with a fantastic soundtrack. You’re invited to come and be a part of a “once-in-a-lifetime” evening you’ll remember for years to come.
Prices for Kiki Ebsen’s Jazzing Up the 5th of July range from $25 to $40 (for VIP Seating) and are available online. Doors open at 6:30 pm and show at 8:00 pm. Click here for tickets.
Feinstein’s at Vitello’s
4349 Tujunga Ave.
Studio City, CA 91604
By Scott Yanow
Pianist, composer and bandleader Abdullah Ibrahim, who is 84, has been a major musician since at least 1959 when he was a member of the Jazz Epistles, the first important jazz group from South Africa (Hugh Masekela was their trumpeter). In 1962 the worsening apartheid situation resulted in him moving to Europe where the following year he was sponsored on a record date by Duke Ellington. Since moving to New York in 1965, he has led many groups that perform his originals which are inspired by folk music and memories of South Africa, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
Abdullah Ibrahim had not appeared in Los Angeles for quite some time. His performance for the Jazz Bakery at the Moss Theater featured his Ekaya Septet which also included Cleave Guyton Jr on alto, flute and piccolo, tenor-saxophonist Lance Bryant, baritonist Marshall McDonald, trombonist Andrae Murchison, Anoah Jackson on bass and cello, and drummer Will Terrill. Ibrahim mostly played gentle piano, starting off the set with ten minutes of thoughtful reveries. He did not speak to the audience at all and did not always play behind the other soloists but Ibrahim directed the proceedings with a quiet dignity. The music was consistently picturesque, sometimes tightly arranged, included tone colors worthy of Ellington, and contained its share of wit (with Bryant at one point quoting “The Pink Panther”). Guyton was particularly impressive on piccolo, trombonist Murchison displayed a boppish style reminiscent of J.J. Johnson, baritonist McDonald was always inventive, Bryant on tenor had a commanding presence, and Jackson’s occasional periods on cello were impressive. Ibrahim was at his best during a tribute to Thelonious Monk in which he quoted a variety of tunes in his own style.
By Chris Walker
It was a very special evening when harmonica player extraordinaire Grégoire Maret and genius keyboardist Kenny Werner came together for —Requiem for a Heavyweight!—Tribute to TootsThielemans. The concert was at the Moss Theatre as part of the Jazz Bakery’s Movable Feat series. Maret who has worked with David Sanborn, Cassandra Wilson, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Kurt Elling, Jacky Terrasson and many others often got the called when master harmonica player Thielemans who died in 2016 wasn’t available. Werner, on the other hand over the years worked with the legend many times in a variety of settings. Overall, Maret and Werner were very knowledgeable in regards to Thielemans and perfect musicians for the tribute.
The duo began playing “Days of Wine And Roses” with Maret beautifully soloing and Werner taking a more divergent and abstract, yet tasteful course. “The Dolphin” by lesser-known Brazilian composer Luis Essa followed and was remarkably rendered. “All Blues” was one of Thielemans’ favorites to play and Maret arranged a slightly elongated and relaxed version that was interesting and stimulating. Another of the legend’s picks was Jobims’ “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues)” and “Wave” that were pleasingly more upbeat than the previous selections as the duo elegantly interacted.
Werner between numbers mentioned that Thielemans’ enjoyed playing songs by vocalists, which led to keyboard strings tinged ballad “All The Way” that Frank Sinatra sang. In the same vein was “I Remember April” with the harmonica player and keyboardist
adroitly interweaving. The pianist talked about Thielemans range of genres and noted Jaco Pastorius’ music among them leading to intriguing “Three Views of a Secret.” Additionally, Jacque Brel’s “Je T’Aime” by the duo was romantic and captivating to draw strong response. During the remaining moments of the engagement the harmonica icon’s “Bluesette” was showcased, along with keyboard string aided “What a Wonderful World.”
by Scott Yanow
Stan Kenton was a charismatic figure, a bandleader who gained the love and respect of his sidemen and those who enjoyed his music through his personality, sincerity and sense of purpose. In addition to leading a series of top big bands, contributing arrangements and playing piano, Kenton made major contributions to jazz and American music that are still felt today in at least three areas.
Maturing during the swing era when big bands primarily played for dancing audiences, Kenton had a different goal in mind than swinging like Count Basie. He wanted to have an orchestra that performed adventurous music primarily for audiences who quietly sat down and listened, just like they did at classical concerts. In addition to employing top-notch musicians, he wanted to premiere the works of major young arranger-composers, introducing challenging music that brought aspects of modern classical music into a jazz setting. He achieved that goal, separating jazz from dancing and jazz orchestras from commercial elements.
The Stan Kenton Orchestra, particularly during 1943-64, was an important step in the early careers of a long list of young jazz artists who later became top jazz artists and studio players, many on the West Coast. An incomplete list of his most significant alumni, some of whom were fairly unknown when he hired them, includes trumpeters Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli, Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Ernie Royal, Sam Noto, Stu Williamson, Al Porcino, Jack Sheldon, Rolf Ericson, Steve Huffsteter, Marvin Stamm, Mike Price, Tom Harrell, Mike Vax, Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins, trombonists Kai Winding, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, and Carl Fontana, altoists Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Lee Konitz, Lennie Niehaus, Dick Meldonian, Charlie Mariano and Gabe Baltazar, tenors Vido Musso, Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, and Bill Perkins, baritonist Pepper Adams, guitarists Laurindo Almeida and Sal Salvador, bassists Howard Rumsey, Ed Safranski and Max Bennett, drummers Shelly Manne, Frankie Capp, Stan Levey, Mel Lewis, John Van Ohlen and Peter Erskine, and singers Anita O’Day, June Christy and Chris Connor, not to mention arrangers Pete Rugolo, Gene Roland, Bob Graettinger, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Hank Levy, Dee Barton, Willie Maiden and Ken Hanna.
The third area in which Kenton had a major impact on music was in jazz education. In the 1950s, very few colleges or high schools had jazz education programs or stage bands. By the 1970s, they were everywhere. Kenton was a very significant force in getting jazz into the schools through clinics and band camps, which is why there are a countless number of college and high school big bands today that sound like they are relatives of Kenton’s orchestra, 40 years after his death.
Stanley Newcomb Kenton was born on December 15, 1911 in Wichita, Kansas. His family moved several times and, by the time he was 13, he lived in Los Angeles where he grew up. Originally self-taught on the piano although he later had some lessons, Kenton first heard jazz through the records of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. His piano playing would be strongly influenced by Hines into the 1950s although without Hines’ time-defying breaks.
He began playing in public when he was 16 and, after graduating from high school in 1930, spent the next decade performing in a wide variety of settings. In 1936 he joined the Gus Arnheim Orchestra, making his recording debut on 12 selections cut by the swing band the following year, taking a few short solos. In 1938 he was a member of tenor-saxophonist Vido Musso’s short lived band and he also worked with the NBC House Band. In the meantime, Kenton dreamed of having his own orchestra and he wrote a set of arrangements in his spare time. By the spring of 1940, he was rehearsing with a saxophone section and a rhythm section, playing some of his charts. Eventually three trumpets and two trombones were added, he cut some audition records (first was “Etude For Saxophones” on Nov. 1, 1940) and then spent the summer of 1941 heading the new Stan Kenton Orchestra at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. This was the first of the nine big bands that he led in his career.
Kenton’s orchestra in the summer of 1941was a conventional 14-piece big band with five brass, five reeds and a four-piece rhythm section. While most of the musicians remained obscure the lineup included trumpeter Chico Alvarez, Red Dorris on tenor and vocals, baritonist Bob Gioga (the only musician to be in all of Kenton’s bands during the first decade) and bassist Howard Rumsey who, in organizing bands for the Lighthouse Café starting in 1949, was the first of Kenton’s alumni to make an impact on the West Coast jazz scene. The leader provided most of the arrangements. The music, while generally swinging, had denser chord voicings than the usual charts of the time. Kenton’s love for the sound of Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra was also felt.
A radio broadcast from July 25, 1941 is the earliest documentation of Kenton’s famous theme “Artistry In Rhythm.” The Kenton Orchestra built up a following in Southern California and was signed by the Decca label, resulting in nine titles (including “Reed Rapture” and “Taboo”) recorded at two sessions. None were hits and a period of struggle followed. The band (which also recorded an extensive series of radio transcriptions) traveled east but few in New York had heard of them, they did not always satisfy the dancers who attended their performances, and there were an increasing number of personnel changes.
The second Stan Kenton Orchestra, which started with only five musicians (counting the leader) from the first one, had a good break and a bad one in 1943. The latter came about when Kenton accepted an offer to accompany Bob Hope in his USO shows and radio broadcasts. It sounded like a good idea at first, but Hope was the star and Kenton’s band only had a chance to play an occasional number. By the end of 1944, Les Brown (who cared more about keeping his orchestra working than blazing new musical paths) had succeeded Kenton.
The good break was a great one, signing with the Capitol label. Kenton would be with Capitol for 25 years, and his recordings gave him a constant national presence. The first Capitol session, on Nov. 19, 1943, included a hit with “Eager Beaver” and the official recording of “Artistry In Rhythm.” Gradually during 1944-46, Stan Kenton became a major success and the sound of his band became solidified. While tenor-saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Anita O’Day (who had a solid seller with 1944’s “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”) passed through the band, the most important new member was arranger Pete Rugolo. Building on Kenton’s ideas and original sound, Rugolo arranged most of the band’s book during 1946-47, a period when the ensemble was referred to as the Artistry Orchestra.
Kenton loved screaming trumpets, big-toned tenors, brassy trombones, and complex arrangements; swinging was always secondary to him. With trumpeters Ray Wetzel and Buddy Childers, trombonist Kai Winding (succeeded by Milt Bernhart), tenor Vido Musso (plus the cool-toned Bob Cooper), guitarist Laurindo Almeida, bassist Ed Safranski and drummer Shelly Manne, he got the sound that he wanted. The always-appealing singer June Christy gave him a few hits (such as “Tampico” and “Across The Alley From the Alamo”) that made it possible for his large band to survive during a period when most other jazz orchestras were breaking up. By the fall of 1947, Kenton’s band had grown to 19 pieces with five trumpets, five trombones (counting a bass trombone), five reeds and a four-piece rhythm section not to mention Ms. Christy. The group introduced such pieces as “Southern Scandal,” “Opus In Pastels,” “Intermission Riff,” “Collaboration,” “Interlude,” and “Concerto To End All Concertos,” and reinvented “The Peanut Vendor.” Kenton competed with Woody Herman as the most popular big band in jazz, playing what was called “progressive jazz,” and he was also one of the first (slightly predating Dizzy Gillespie) to use Latin percussion (often Jack Costanzo on bongos) in his band.
The limited-edition seven-CD set The Complete Capitol Studio Stan Kenton 1943-47 (Mosaic) covers all of Kenton’s recordings from that era while the four-CD Retrospective (Capitol) gives one a fine overview of Kenton’s 35 years with Capitol. The recording strike of 1948 kept the band out of the studios for the full year although the two-CD set At The Hollywood Bowl 1948 (Sounds of Yester Year) from June 12 lets one hear this Kenton orchestra at its height and also near its unexpected end. In an exercise of poor timing, an exhausted Stan Kenton broke up his big band in late-1948, about the time that the recording strike was ending.
After a quiet 1949, Stan Kenton put together his third and most ambitious orchestra, called Innovations In Modern Music. It was a crazy idea that worked artistically if not commercially. Fighting the trend against big bands, Kenton and Pete Rugolo organized a 40-piece concert orchestra that not only had five trumpets (including Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, and Childers), five trombones, two French horns, tuba, five saxophonists (with Bud Shank, Art Pepper and Bob Cooper), Almeida, Manne, and Christy, but 16 strings. The arrangements were sometimes forbidding but innovative, displaying a wide variety of emotions, tone colors and sounds. One can hear this for themselves on the two-CD Capitol set The Innovations Orchestra, the Hep label’s Carnegie Hall Oct. ’51, and other live recordings from small labels. There was an occasional swing number (often by Shorty Rogers) and June Christy’s vocals were cheerful, but much of the music was dense and intense. Of the arrangers, which included Bill Russo and Johnny Richards along with Rugolo, none was more eccentric and radical than Bob Graettinger. His often-atonal works for Kenton (dating from 1947-53) can be heard on City Of Glass (Capitol).
But even with Stan Kenton’s fame, there was no way that this venture was going to pay for itself during its two tours of 1950-51, and he formed his fourth band, a 19-piece unit with ten brass, five reeds and four rhythm. The group in mid-1951 included Ferguson, Rogers, Alvarez, Bernhart, Shank, Pepper and Manne, but it would gradually evolve into the most swinging band of Kenton’s career, his New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra. By the fall of 1952 his band, which recorded one classic album (New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm), was featuring trumpeter Conte Candoli, trombonist Frank Rosolino, altoist Lee Konitz, tenor-saxophonist Richie Kamuca and guitarist Sal Salvador as its main soloists with drummer Stan Levey driving the ensembles.
There was a tug-of-war in the band that was split between the arranging talents of Bill Russo and Bill Holman. Russo’s writing was inspired by classical music and Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra while Holman’s charts (which were championed by most of the musicians) swung like a modern Count Basie. All of the Holman and Russo arrangements Kenton recorded in the studio, including New Concepts, are on the limited-edition four CD Mosaic box The Compete Capitol Recordings of The Holman And Russo Charts.
One can trace this band’s development in a remarkable series of weekly radio broadcasts, Concerts In Miniature, that date from Apr. 5, 1952 to Nov. 3, 1953. With Kenton as a genial and witty host, the orchestra was featured at its best performing both the Russo and Holman arrangements. All of the broadcasts (the later ones have Zoot Sims succeeding Kamuca and Chris Connor as the band’s singer) have been reissued by Sounds of Yester Year (that label’s releases are distributed by www.cityhallrecords.com) on 24 CDs, a must for the true Stan Kenton collector and a perfect memorial to a super band. Other worthy Sounds Of Yester Year live CDs by the 1953 band include Man Of Music, It’s The Talk Of The Town, Live At The Blue Note, no less than three CDs from a Feb. 19, 1953 concert (At The Armory, Eugene, Oregon, Vols. 1-3), and the double-CD Live In Munich 1953. Also from the band’s successful visit to Europe are Concert In Weisbaden (Astral Jazz) and the European Tour – 1953 (Artistry).
But suddenly it all ended. Kenton had been driving the band mercilessly and, after a serious car accident on Nov. 10, 1953 (which luckily had no fatalities), the bandleader pushed his orchestra to fulfill engagements. Many of the star musicians chose instead to leave and the fourth band was no more.
During 1954-60, Kenton’s fifth orchestra swung well while also featuring more adventurous writing that focused on the trademark heavy sound identified with Kenton. Although it lacked the star power of the previous band, it had such key players as trumpeters Sam Noto and Al Porcino (who played lead), trombonist Carl Fontana, altoist-arranger Lennie Niehaus, altoist Charlie Mariano, Bill Perkins on tenor, and drummer Mel Lewis. Kenton’s wife of the time Ann Richards was their singer. Among their Capitol recordings were Contemporary Concepts, Sketches On Standards, Cuban Fire (a classic arranged by Johnny Richards), and some surprising easy-listening albums including Stan Kenton With Voices and Portraits With Strings. Of the live recordings (all from Sounds Of Yester Year), At Ernst Merck Halle and Live In Stockholm document Kenton’s 1956 tour of Europe, Swinging In San Francisco 1956 is a set dominated by standards, and Dance Date 1958 and Live At Humbolt State College show how Kenton’s band sounded in the late 1950s.
Stan Kenton, who was the host of a summer television series Music ’55, helped champion The Four Freshmen, and had reunions with June Christy (including making an album with her, Duet), in 1959 organized the first of a countless number of band clinics which essentially launched the jazz education movement.
By 1961 Kenton was leading his sixth orchestra, a group that included not only five trumpeters (with Marvin Stamm), five trombones (two of whom were on bass trombone), five reeds (including altoist Gabe Baltazar and two baritonists), and a three piece rhythm section, but four mellophonium players. The obscure instrument, which was difficult to keep in tune but had a warm sound that Kenton liked, was part of the band during 1961-63. The best recordings of this orchestra were the superlative West Side Story, Adventures In Time (written by Johnny Richards), and Adventures In Blues (with Gene Roland supplying the arrangements). The band also recorded a real oddity, Stan Kenton/Tex Ritter, that found it accompanying the veteran country singer.
The orchestra broke up by the end of 1963 and Kenton took time off from music. He devised and created a Neophonic Orchestra which could be thought of as an extension of his 1950 Innovations Orchestra but with some important differences. It was a part-time orchestra that just performed 11 special concerts in Los Angeles during 1965-68, debuting potentially major works by composers. There was no attempt to take this ensemble on the road. Eventually audiences lost interest in the dry music but it was a realization of one of Kenton’s dreams.
In September 1964 Stan Kenton recorded what could be considered his last major album, Kenton Plays Wagner, with a specially assembled orchestra. After that, to raise money, he put together what started out as a part-time orchestra (number. 7) for occasional tours and recordings but became more active by 1967. From that point on, the Stan Kenton Orchestra differed from the earlier ones in a significant way. Rather than acting as a stepping stone for many players who were on their way to becoming important contributors to jazz, for most of the musicians in the 1967-79 bands, being part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra was the highpoint of their career. The majority of the sidemen either became educators, local players or eventually dropped out of music altogether. Only a relatively few (trumpeters Mike Price and Mike Vax, altoist Ray Reed, and drummers John Van Ohlen and Peter Erskine) had major careers.
The Capitol contract ended after a few final commercial albums (including ones of the music of Hair and Finian’s Rainbow) were unsatisfying and did not sell. Kenton left Capitol and started his own Creative World label. His company’s Lps included both reissues of many of Kenton’s earlier recordings and the release of his albums of the 1970s. In 1970 Kenton organized his eighth and final band. There were only a handful of recognizable names (other than Vax and Von Ohlen) but the unit had plenty of spirit and the young musicians were pleased to be on the road with Kenton. Hank Levy, Ken Hanna and Willie Maiden supplied many of the arrangements. The enthusiastic band is in good form on a trio of albums from 1970-72: Live At Redlands University, Live At Brigham Young University and Live At Butler University.
Kenton began to struggle with health problems in 1971 but his road band continued on, performing at an endless series of concerts, clinics and colleges. Among his last albums are Stan Kenton Plays Chicago, Fire, Fury & Fun, Kenton ’76, and Journey Into Capricorn.
On May 22, 1977, Stan Kenton suffered a fall that resulted in serious head injuries; he would never recover. His band stayed on the road (under trombonist Dick Shearer’s leadership) for several more months before breaking up. Kenton made one last road tour in early 1978 but he was in such bad physical and mental shape that it was considered pretty sad by those who witnessed the concerts.
Stan Kenton passed away on August 25, 1979 at the age of 67, having been a major force in music for 40 years. His vast musical career is perfectly summed up in the definitive Kenton biography, This Is An Orchestra by Michael Sparke (University Of North Texas Press, 2010). The legacy of Stan Kenton lives on today in the playing of countless modern jazz orchestras, college and high school stage bands, and in the spirit of progressive jazz.