HIS MUSIC ENDURES DESPITE HIMSELF
that’s an interesting premise. he was controversial while he lived and remains an enigma. Stan Kenton, towering physically, hired some of jazz’s greatest arrangers and let them have reign. names like Shorty Rogers, Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Manny Albam, Robert Graettinger, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan, Neal Hefti, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards
his female singers began the vibrato-less, cool trend: June Christie, Chris Connor and Anita O’day.
he featured Latin percussion, nay, gave them prime seating, often down front rather than the traditional rear. sidemen went on to greatness (see below).
even in death he was controversial. his head remains in a cryogenic state and he refused in his will to allow survival bands in his name. yet his music endures.
those arrangers and reflections of his sideman were celebrated by the Manhattan School of Music in two concerts in February and March: “The Innovations Orchestra” and “Big Band Retrospective.” Wynnton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra also dedicated a weekend to the Kenton Centennial.
MANHATTAN SCHOOL OF MUSIC JAZZ PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
for the initial concert with its dedication to the late educator, percussionist and MSM alum, Clem DeRosa (see my blog), conductor Justin DiCioccio opted to present the “often inaccessible” Kenton.
as if “Artistry In Rhythm,” the Kenton band’s theme, isn’t enough of an American musical icon, the band’s opening gambit alluded to Gershwin. perhaps that wasn’t merely an allusion as the Kenton/Rugolo arrangement is similar in concept to Gershwin’s Rhapsodies and Preludes. most of the remainder of the pieces have rarely been “reformed.”
the orchestra dug right in with the Pete Rugolo Innovation Suite: ”Mirage,” “Interlude,” “Machito.” and “Conflict.” originally performed by the Kenton 43-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, the Suite included classical as well as jazz devices weaving in and out of written improvisations with the occasional solo. those cross cultural goings-on harken to John Lewis and Gunther Schuiller’s Third Stream experimentation. other writer/arrangers who signed on for 3rd Stream were J,J, Johnson, who later partnered with Kenton alumnus Kai Winding, and Albam.
some in the mostly sold out Kenton fanatic audience were already squirming. whispers were heard to ask,”are they gong to swing?” “will there be something we can hum?” then there were those who proudly called out that they had a 2-sided 78 rpm recording of some rara avis. i imagine Kenton himself endured any number of brickbats when he played these pieces in 1950-51.
Russo’s Improvisation goes still further afield. the total improv near the close is a precursor to the “free jazz” movement of the 1960s strings and all. i had never heard much of this; i was hooked, and hypnotized.
other innovative pieces followed some with titles i remember others less so: Lonesome Road, Shelly Manne, written by Kenton for his then drummer, Evening in Pakistan, Albam’s Latined Samana, Russo’s Ennui, and Kenton’s own Opus in Pastels. but the piece which remains in my mind was the famous City of Glass.
the Graettinger piece is easily the most artistic in terms of strength of composition and depth of intent. it is an atonal work as in Alban Berg. but did he swing? does City of Glass “swing” ? there is room for sax and brass exclamations as only Kenton’s could, but as the program notes assert you have to dig for the jazz as it is hidden and abstracted. but then again, that’s what Kenton was all about.
the stuff sounded like it was written tomorrow.
HITS OF THE ’40S, ’50S AND ’60S
we’re talkin’ sidemen emphasis here: names like Manne, Mel Lewis, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Maynard Ferguson, Rogers, Pepper Adams, Laurindo Almeida and the vocalists mentioned above.
the more-than-capable students hit us in the face on Artistry Jumps, another Kenton flag waver. but it was his Latin side which most affected me as a jazz comer. my parents loved to dance so we had all the big bands in the house. as a pianist i led a small group beginning in JHS. the drummer was Terry Snyder’s nephew. Snyder was the house drummer for many back-ups including Columbia a & r man Mitch Miller and RCA vocalist Perry Como. it was Snyder’s 78 record collection which added zing to our understanding. interestingly no Stan Kenton. “couldn’t dance to it,” came the reply to my query.
i investigated further and discovered The Peanut Vendor with its multi-layered Latin rhythms and instrumentation including a Winding trombone solo. Vendor was the first Cuban hit to enter these shores via radio and Desi Arnaz. (a later Kenton congero Candido Cemero was in the audience.) there was a very Latin-ed “rhythmelodic” piano solo followed by clarinet and flute which added some spice to the arrangement.
Kenton was just warming up in 1945 as was the band this night. Russo’s 23⁰ North-82⁰ West opens with a clave count-off and soars from there.
a word about the band. the ensemble, consisting of students who can read as well as improvise, is an enthusiastically well-rehearsed –by DiCioccio– 17-19-piece affair augmented by additional percussion. while not as many hand drum players as Kenton’s –who often added some half dozen plus band members doubling on “toys”– you get the point. i had heard that some students only wanted to do the hits as the Innovations Orchestra concepts were too difficult. DiCioccio insisted they play both or neither. the students rose to the occasion with two concerts which were nothing short of breathtaling.
they reprised Opus In Pastels with the sax section in the ascendancy. it was all written and pre-arranged, and beautiful. a couple of Kenton charts followed: Concerto To End All Concertos, with its challenging rhythms, and Dynaflow, named for Stan’s car (?).
the first half featured two re-worked standards: Porter’s Love For Sale (Rugolo) and Mandel’s A Time For Love (Hank Levy). but it was the second half which featured that dance band side of which the Kenton band was less critically popular.
Bob Haggart’s composition What’s New? shows what Kenton could do with a ballad. the melody is understated in this first of a quintet of Holman pop charts, while the ensemble is foremost. Stella By Starlight (Victor Young’s music from a ghost story flick called “The Uninvited”) is another ballad but with the added fillip of an up-tempo middle section.
drummer Mel Lewis spent a great deal of time in the Kenton organization. the heavily rhythmic influences on Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin utilize his concepts. it’s a straight ahead jazz blower with soli.
every jazz band worth its arranger has one on Ray Noble’s Cherokee. the MSM/ Kenton band is no different. it’s all Holman with saxist Cam Collins featured. ensemble is key in one of Holman’s more famous charts on Stompin’ At The Savoy. you don’t have to know the lyric to this world-famous Benny Goodman-Chick Webb melody. it’s the Swing era incarnate. for those who suggest that the Kenton band lacked swing, listen up!
Kern’s Yesterdays, the last we hear from Holman for the night, featured Jonathan Ragonese’s tenor sax. concluding, Mulligan weighed in with a piece he was to use in one form or another, big band or small ensemble, for the rest of his life, Limelight.
THE LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA
it was your classic momenta of musical comparisons, a journalist’s dream. Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra decided to ignore Stan Kenton’s dictum that swing, while important, was not the only thing. Kenton put swing on the back burner in favor of conception, composition and rhythm. not so the LCJO. damning with feint praise may i offer that while expertly performed, every tune had the swing for which they are famous. (the Marsalis canon?) an interesting concept, which the audience loved, cheeerd and stood up for. (there were two shows; i was at the Sat. night show.)
when i walked into Rose Hall i was sorely disappointed not to see Latin percussion. how in hell, i thought, are they going to play Stan Kenton’s Music sans hand drums? easy; just make everything 4/4 “ching-a-ding.”
it was all there: the famous tunes; the charts by the famous arrangers (see above); even a bonus or two such as the Lecuona/Holman Malaguena. but the feature of the night was guest artist, and Kenton alum, alto saxist Lee Konitz. the 80+ year-old veteran of innovative bands and groups led by Claude Thornhill, Lennie Tristano and Mulligan played two tunes, My Funny Valentine and Lover Man in the first half which had the band, with which i presume he rehearsed, paying close attention. Konitz jammed with them after the interval. tenor saxist Victor Goines told me later that they really enjoyed working on Kenton’s music. it showed in their enthusiasm.
Mulligan was represented by two selections this time, Limelight and Swing House. other surprises on the program included Kenton’s Southern Scandal, Holman’s In Lighter Vein and Zoot, Russo’s Portrait of a Count and My Lady. solid choices all.
personally i would have preferred more tonal color for which Kenton was famous, and less swng, for which he wasn’t.
in the final analysis, the crowd went wild. what do i know?!
- © arnold jay smith
LINKS OF INTEREST:
James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival and Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition: http://njpac.org/moody/default5,htm
for Jazz Standard’s 10th Anny line up: http://www.jazzstandard.com