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.