By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
The evening’s moderator steps onstage. He tells us that three years ago the Soraya , a magnificent Center for the Performing Arts, started a jazz club on its premise. Located in “the Valley” of Los Angeles, at 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge, California, on the campus of California State University Northridge (CSUN), this huge theatrical facility simulated a smaller area inside the building that features an evening of intimate jazz. It’s my first time visiting this architecturally beautiful, all glass, building. This is the ninth year of the award-winning Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center. The 1,700-seat theatre was designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. It was recently cited by the Los Angeles Times as “a growing hub for live music, dance, drama and other cultural events.” Tonight, the small room they’ve created seats about 250 people. Several patrons swarm around the wine-tasting table and there’s a full bar available just outside the jazz room. There is table seating upfront and theater seating in the rear.
The evening’s featured artist is Luciana Souza. She is a Brazilian vocalist with Sao Paulo roots. She took the stage with two other musicians who she introduced. Ms. Souza told us she met Scott Colley (bassist) in New York and fell in love with his playing. “He is an architect of our music,” she gushed. Next, she introduced Chico Pinheiro, a guitarist also from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Luciana and Chico met at Berklee College of music and Souza told us he is a great storyteller on his instrument and a very popular instrumentalist in Brazil. She went on to say that poetry deepens our humanness. “It’s always fertile ground,” Luciana asserted. That’s why she adopted some of the poetry of Leonard Cohn and set his prose to music. She spoke the words of Cohn over the silence in the packed auditorium. Then, her two-man band began to play. First Scott Colley’s bass set the tempo. Ms. Souza, standing before a snare drum and a single cymbal began gently stroking the cymbal with her brushes. She tilted her head back and began to sing. Enter Chico Pinheiro on guitar. Our concert has begun.
The second tune was more energetic with tempo changes from hot, Latin rhythms reduced fluidly to a sultry ballad. Souza plays her percussion instruments effortlessly, tossing the Portuguese language into the mix on the fade of this song. Her vocal notes fall like shiny pebbles onto a rushing musical stream. At the conclusion of this song, the applause is generous, as she tunes her tambourine in preparation for their third song. Scott opens with a deep, bass solo introduction, setting the mood and tempo. It’s a happy tune that makes me want to dance. I wish Ms. Souza had told us the titles of the songs they played. She mentioned a few along the way, but not many.
“Being from Brazil means a wealth of music we get to drink,” she spoke to the attentive audience. Speaking of drinks, we sat there sipping our wine, enjoying the music with beverages sponsored by WINC, an online wine distributor. Luciana Souza told us one composer she loves is Milton Nascimento. She explained, he was born in a hilly state inside Brazil, lush with mountains and she tells us his music is open and elevated like his countryside. On this tune, she features the poetry of Charles Simic, a Serbian/American poet and former co-poetry editor of the Paris Review.
Continuing, Scott pulls out his bow and the bass trembles in a beautiful way. There are no words on this tune. Souza scats her way atop the music, making warm sounds like tropical bird calls and mountain winds. She is consistently singing and playing percussion, which is impressive. However, I do wish her percussion had been more dynamic, instead of just the whisper of rhythm. It was teasingly pleasing. A few bursts of percussion to vibrantly support these amazing musicians would have escalated her production and elevated her percussive playing. Her voice, however, is a lovely instrument and one of the songs she sang was very much a ‘saudade’ ballad that hauntingly floats across Chico’s beautiful guitar background. It’s almost a blues. On this song, the improvisation between guitar and bass is palpable and excites everyone at my table. Luciana Souza sings long, legato lines, holding the final notes of her phrasing tenderly, as though they are her babies. She swings on the end of this tune and scats. On this song, I finally hear some energy in her percussive playing.
Luciana Souza adds a small taste of activism to her program on her second set. She tells us, “we are living in strange times. I couldn’t vote in Brazil for a while when the military took over. So, I have seen some things,” she shared and then sang:
“These are the roads we travel. I don’t know how to get back to you. … These are the wars we fight. These are the tears we shed. … I don’t know how to get back to you.” Scott Colley, during his bass solo, is brilliant and her voice is like a soft blanket that gently covers his booming bass sound. His instrument bleeds through, accenting the lyrical content.
“These are the duties of the heart. These are the books we read. These are the roads less travelled. I don’t know how to get back to you,” she sings, floating on a second-soprano cloud across a misty, emotional stage.
I long for a program insert, in the main Performing Arts Booklet, that listed tune titles. I enjoyed her patter between songs, describing her beloved Brazil and sharing spoken word or stories about the poets, but I wish she had told us the titles of her repertoire as she celebrated “The Book of Longing” (her latest CD release) that tributes poets like Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christina Rossetti with original music.
By Scott Yanow
There is no real explanation as to how Buddy Rich became the most remarkable of all drummers. He was self-taught starting when he was only 18 months old, and by the time he was three (when he was billed as “Traps – The Drum Wonder”), he was helping to support his family in vaudeville. He could play faster, louder and with more technique than any other drummer of the past or present. Just look at any film of Buddy Rich taking a drum solo on You Tube and try not to be amazed.
While there have been several fine books out on Rich including Mel Torme’s 1991 Traps: The Drum Wonder, the recent work by Pelle Berglund titled One Of A Kind is quite definitive. Conducting interviews with 25 of Rich’s associates, friends and family members and adding the highlights to the most interesting and illuminating stories and quotes from books, newspapers, magazines and early interviews with the drummer, Berglund has put together a continually fascinating and informative biography.
While the outlines of Buddy Rich’s life are well known, this book fills in the gaps. One learns quite a bit about Rich’s early years, his period in vaudeville, his struggle as he outgrew being a child his performer, and his discovery of jazz. There are full chapters on his periods with Joe Marsala’s Chicagoans, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. One learns of his difficult time in the Marines, his big bands of the bebop era, his association with Norman Granz and Jazz At The Philharmonic, Rich’s relationship with Harry James, and finally his unlikely emergence as the leader of his own successful big bands in the 1960s and ‘70s. Along the way Berglund discusses Rich’s love/hate relationship with Frank Sinatra, the three-month period after he broke his arm in the 1940s that he spent playing one-handed with his band (still taking solos that scared other drummers), his friendship and rivalry with Gene Krupa, and his personality and infamous temper. The latter are dealt with in an even-handed way. The author correctly recognizes that Rich gave 120% of himself on stage and expected the same of his musicians. They did not have to be perfect but they had to work hard at all times, and when they fell short because they were lax or did not care, he tended to blow up. Rich could also be quite kind at times, but he was certainly never dull.
In addition to the colorful biography, an extensive bibliography, and 16 pages of photos, the book has reviews of 21 film appearances that Rich made during 1930-60. One Of A Kind, published by Hudson Music and distributed by Hal Leonard, is available from www.hudsonmusic.com and is a must for all jazz collections. It comes as close as any work to covering the life and career of the World’s Greatest Drummer.
By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist
Eileen Strempel, dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music said, “Wadada Leo Smith’s life and work exemplifies the fertile intersection of theory and creativity that we encourage our students to explore. We are delighted to honor him at UCLA for his brilliance, his genuine care for others and the scholarly significance of his work.”
Internationally acclaimed Trumpeter, composer, arranger, Wadada Leo Smith, received the UCLA Medal in a ceremony and concert Friday night, November 8, 2019 at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Former recipients include iconic artists like trumpeter, philanthropist and record mogul, Herb Alpert; opera icon, Plácido Domingo; the mother of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and producer, arranger extraordinaire, Quincy Jones. The UCLA Medal was also awarded to civil rights activists like James M. Lawson Jr., and congressional leaders like Representative John Lewis; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. secretaries Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon. Two presidents have received this award; both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Obviously, Wadada Leo Smith shines in stellar company.
“Wadada Leo Smith is a category-defying composer whose achievements have profoundly shaped American music,” spoke Chancellor Gene Block who presented the award to the avant-garde jazz giant. “His work exemplifies a diversity of original thought that has enriched the lives of others, and demonstrated UCLA’s highest academic and professional values.”
So, you may wonder, who is this amazing jazz musician and educator? We know he is a prolific recording artist and serious composer. He regularly earns multiple spots on the DownBeat International Critics Poll. In 2017, he topped three categories including ‘Best Jazz Artist,’ ‘trumpeter of the Year’ and ‘Jazz Album of the year.’ Wadada Leo Smith is also the originator of the musical language he calls, Ankhrasmation. Professor Eddie Meadow’s featured a musical class where Wadada Leo Smith recently taught aspects of this musical language in a hands-on workshop at the Schoenberg Music building Additionally, Smith’s music scores are considered works of art and have been exhibited at numerous museums including UCLA’s own Hammer Museum, The Museum of Rhythm, Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland; The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, the Kalamazoo Institute Art Museum in Michigan and at Kadist in San Francisco, a gallery and educational center.
Smith was born on December 18, 1941 in Leland, Mississippi. As a young teen, he was introduced to the Delta blues and jazz traditions through his stepfather, Alex Wallace, who was a bluesman. In 1963, Wadada Leo Smith received a formal music education from the U.S. Military band program while serving in the army. He later attended the Sherwood School of Music and Wesleyan University. Around 1967, he found himself in Chicago, Illinois where he hooked up with the AACM and Anthony Braxton. Both he and Braxton were composing and seeking to stretch the boundaries of music. They both hoped to record and quickly became close friends. For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of this legendary AACM group. Wadada explained their art sensibilities ‘back-in-the-day’ during an interview with Phil Freeman that was published in the Wire.
“When I came to Chicago, I had already composed a pretty good body of work and already begun to understand music without metrical progression or modulation. I was never, ever working in a harmonic sphere where harmonic progression was important. And you look at Braxton, he’s working just the opposite. He was looking at how you make creative music with those connections. And I was not so much interested in that part of it as a way of making music. I always looked at how you make music without all those things everybody has inherited. The piece (I recorded) with the vocals on it and also ‘The Bell,’ those two have the most space. I would say that space was a very important component; still is. Most people have kind of crowded their musical contribution into narrow spaces, but space is still a very important component of my music and a lot of the AACM people. And by space, we don’t mean just horizontal space. We’re talking about vertical space and lateral space.
Wadada explained that vertical space is the relationship between low and high notes. Horizontal is going from section A to section B, or from one type of movement to another. But he feels the most important thing is not the direction, but what happens inside that direction. He believes in utilizing silence as part of musical expression and encourages playing solo. Music is a spiritual journey and he set up his own record label in the 1970’s so he could have complete creative control. Since then, he has released more than fifty albums as a leader. You can tell, by the titles of his work, this artist is constantly in search of a higher consciousness. With the New Dalta Akhri group, they recorded albums titled, “Reflectativity” and “Song of Humanity.” They also recorded “Spirit Catcher and “Divine Love.”
“That band, quite frankly, was the first band that began to introduce a clear idea about systemic music coming from my point of view. It was primarily involved in understanding how to use systems in making music, and it had a pretty good format. We rehearsed every week, looked at a lot of music. Some of it was performed, some was just rehearsed. One might say that New Dalta Akhri was the first laboratory for what I was looking at for musical languages,” Wadada Leo Smith explained to the Wire interviewer.
Always in search of expanding his knowledge of music, Wadada Leo Smith has worked with many ensembles and experimented with duo albums featuring himself on trumpet with just a drummer. This resulted in the album “America” with Jack DeJohnette and another duo album with Gunter “Baby” Sommer, (a German musician) and another with Adam Rudolph featuring hand-drumming and percussion. His most recent recording, released in 2019, is titled “Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an Oratorio of Seven Songs.” In 2016, he recorded “America’s National Parks” that earned a place on numerous Best of the Year Lists, including the New York Times and NPR music. His 2012 civil rights opus titled, “Ten Freedom Summers” was described as a staggering achievement and compared (by some) to the importance and beauty of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” In 2017, Wadada Leo Smith’s musical achievement of an album titled, “Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk” was written about by Adam Shatz.
Shatz wrote, “For all the minimalism of his sound, Smith has turned out to be a maximalist in his ambitions, evolving into one of our most powerful storytellers, an heir to American chroniclers like Charles Ives and Ornette Coleman.”
Perhaps Wadada Leo Smith clearly explained his “Ankhrasmation” music language during his NewMusicBox interview.
“Basically, my experiment is with instruments and people. … This experiment of using this specific language that I have, sometimes extracted from their history, sometimes using their history as well, tells me something about myself. Most things that artists do finds its course. … Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.
“…Take Lester Bowie, or Ted Daniels, or Don Cherry, or Miles Davis, everyone of them I guarantee you had four or five ‘C’s, and four or five D’s, or four or five ‘E’s they could play. … they could shade some of their attacks. So, the sound they played was still a C, or a D, but different. That’s because at some point you have to make the sound be different then it was before. … Only the soloists are allowed to have their own, individual sound. Not the ones sitting in the orchestra. They may have their own personality sound, but they can’t be too individualized. The conductor will say that chord is too out-of-tune. … But the soloist can have an individual sound. They can make that F sharp a little bit different. Who’s going to stop them? Nobody.
“… In my Ankhrasmation musical language, there are lots of commands. … There’s rule of thumb for success or failure. … There’s elements that have to be referenced. Like when there’s color involved, the colors have to be referenced. … There are velocity units. There are eight of them. Each velocity unit has a set of four. The left sphere is generally slow. The right sphere is generally fast. … There are six sets of rhythm units. Each set starts with a long and a short, and each set gets shorter as it moves. … I don’t mind the score evaporating, because it will create a new music object that is completely different. That’s ok. It will do it over and over and over. The only requirement is that the artists performing the music maintain a high level of sincerity.
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 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.