The Stan Kenton Hardly

   Anyone Knew
noel wedder

Stan was everything and nothing like his audiences imagined him to be. He was the antithesis of his  stage persona: brilliant, but tortured; generous to a fault  yet tight-fisted when it involved salaries and expenses. He could also be unfathomably complex at times but just as quickly transform himself into someone rather naive about the world he lived and worked in. I, for one, was continually amazed at how innocent he was when it came to dealing with less than trustworthy promoters and deal makers.


Standing before an audience Stan had a magisterial presence; a patriarchal sense of power and authority. There was no doubt he had more than his share of charisma, but how much of it was real, and how much of it was a figment of someone’s unrealistic imagination we’ll never quite know.

People he had only a passing acquaintance with (his phenomenal gift for remembering names more often than not was a burden, rather than a helpmate) led them to believe he was genuinely interested in catching-up with everything that had been happening in their lives.

Nothing was further from the truth. Small talk bored him. He was not, as many close to him  were aware, an articulate conversationalist since he hardly ever opened a newspaper or read a book.  He was interested in only three things; his music, the Orchestra and gossip. He thrived so much on hearing juicy tidbits about people in and out of show business we nicknamed the ‘Rona Barrett of the bus'.

No one had to tell Stan how the Orchestra sounded. He, more than anyone, knew what it took to keep the it sounding like a well-oiled, precision disciplined machine capable of creating a breathtaking range of dazzling emotions, which was one of the reasons he kept the arrangers busy expanding the  library.

It was not unusual for us to leave Los Angeles with a library of 200 scores and return with more than 350. Many of which were played only once, then relegated to the bottom of the book never to be played again.

An exception was Dee Barton’s brooding, brilliant arrangement of  ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’ which was used as the set piece that opened a concert or dance engagement and was often played twice in a night depending upon Stan’s mood.

On the road, Stan’s mercurial personality was a study in contrasts. For weeks, sometimes months, he would be out-going, tolerant of minor missteps both on the bus and bandstand, generous to a fault and take great delight in his role as a surrogate father to 22 wandering minstrels. He also possessed seemingly inexhaustible reservoirs of energy belying the fact he had spent over 25 years on the Road.

Then, like lightning, his temperament would turn dark, brooding and malevolent. For no apparent reason he would became mean, sarcastic, petty, unforgiving and unreasonable. When this happened everyone gave him a wide berth, both on the bus and on the date, because no one wanted to run the risk of having him ream them out over some petty transgression. Or, worse yet, decide to fire them a thousand miles from home.


I think he was acutely aware the Orchestra's temperament was dependent upon his mood. That when he was happy everyone was happy. Yet there were times he could have cared less if the guys were under real or imagined pressures or going through a tumultuous period in their lives. Being away from home and their girl friends or wives for months at a time took its toll and could make for some frazzled personalities. Stan felt the pressure, too, and for days he walked through the dates like a zombie unable to disentangle himself from the many problems that had begun manifesting at home and on the Road.



Eventually, the problems at home and the problems on the Road would become so burdensome Stan merely went through the motions as our leaderless Orchestra moved listlessly from job to job. The strenuous emotional challenge involved in keeping Stan's home life separate from his professional life was compounded by his excessive drinking.

There were problems with his pending divorce from Ann Richards . Problems with the kids rebelling against school and being left in the care of a less than competent housekeeper. Problems meeting the payroll. Problems with Capitol not promoting his albums . Problems with his career veering off center because of inept personal management. Problems with a musician or two who had begun slacking off and missing cues. Problems with alcohol which were becoming ever more serious as he grew older. Problems with his health. Problems. Problems. Problems. They never seemed to go away.

For the most part he was able to keep his professional life separate from his personal life. There was the Stanley Kenton (none of his friends or the Band ever called him Stan) who lived with his children in Los Angeles. Then there was the Stan Kenton, who led an orchestra and lived 300 days on the Road.

Two vastly dissimilar alter egos which merged together and often clashed for no apparent reason. The Stanley Kenton who lived at home was a caring, loving Father devoted to his children, who couldn’t wait to get back out on the Road.

The Stan Kenton who spent 10 or more months on the Road and who was a surrogate father to 22-extraordinarily talented musicians, was constantly racked with guilt because he wasn’t spending more time with his two young children, Lance and Dana.

Although he never drank before or on the job, he would begin consuming copious amounts of alcohol minutes after the final notes of the Band’s theme drifted off into the late night and within 40-minutes be totally inebriated. Yet, In a fit of perversity he often lashed out at the men, castigating them for drinking too much and working the job with a roaring hangover. The men found it bewildering, given his own problems with alcohol, that he thought nothing of singling one of them out for a severe tongue-lashing, followed by calling him a 'juice head', a label which usually signaled the guy’s demise on the Band.

During these times only a true Kenton aficionado might sense a lack of esprit de corps and realize something was missing between leader and Orchestra. To the trained ear the solo work sounded dull and listless and lacked the intoxication one underwent when touched by a brilliant player’s virtuoso performance. The ensemble work not only sounded flat and disjointed and had lost its buoyancy, it also had lost its ability to move out and across an audience like sheets of crackling thunder. Even the Orchestra’s signature, stratospheric trumpet work had lost its snap and sounded fractionated. These were not good nights and it amused us to hear some sycophant fan gushing to Stan between sets:

“God, Stan, the Band sounds fantastic tonight.”

Oddly enough, most fans had not come to hear the music. Most couldn’t tell a Kenton arrangement from one written by Holman or Richards or Roland. Although Stan was fond of describing his music as an “intellectual stimulus for a very select audience anxious to expand their musical awareness,” most Kenton fans were musical illiterates, incapable of being able to distinguish a quarter note from a sixteenth or understanding the difference between minor and major keys. They were there to bask in the aura of the Kenton mystique. To reach out and touch the mantle of someone, who, through their unfailing support, had been transformed into a mythical legend. It was not unusual to see someone tightly clutching a album cover or ragged piece of paper for him to sign, approach him and hyperventilate when he asked their name so he could personalize the autograph for them.


Eventually the day would come when Stan began gradually slipping the bonds of lethargy and came to grips with his demons before they completely paralyzed him. Once this happened he would be the first one on the bus effusively greeting everyone by name as they climbed on board, reaching out and patting them on shoulder as they struggled with their gear down the aisle. Even those who had awakened in a foul mood found they couldn’t resist his radiant smile and infectious laugh as he made small talk with those in the front compartment.


Moments after the bus was locked down and Eric began moving it into traffic Stan would take his command position in the side door well letting everyone know that once again he was off and running, anxious to pull the Orchestra back together again. We continually marveled at how his temperament could change from a borderline android, who had been fumbling his way from one job to the next, to the highly-energized, bigger-than-life Road warrior we all loved and admired. Today he might well have been diagnosed as a clinical manic depressive who forced himself to face the world, relying only on some inner strength to carry him forward until the black cloud of depression that had mysteriously and without warning enveloped him passed.

Every group, especially one as large and complex as the Kenton Orchestra, requires a captain with a steady hand to keep it sailing safely through uncharted waters. In our case the long, unpredictable Road. And no one was more aware of this than Stan, who knew when and how to bring the Band back from the edge of darkness.

Usually his ill-humor never lasted more than a day or two. Three at most. One incident, however, which lasted not quite a week took all of us to the breaking point with his abjection. 

It happened one night, about an hour out of Memphis, where we had performed to less than 500 people at a ballroom that had seen better days. Tennessee was predominantly a country-western culture and none of us ever understood why our booking agency accepted play dates anywhere other than Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee, both of whom thoroughly enjoyed having the Band perform at

their proms.


Adding to the disappointment of a less than productive date was the knowledge the county the ballroom was located in was dry. If you wanted a drink you had to bring your own bottle. The only thing served at the bar were setups and soft drinks. Once the word was passed that there would be no booze available the guys began exhibiting all the classic signs of withdrawal. Dry mouth. Stomach cramps. A slight case of the shakes. Irritability. They had been counting on being able to get a drink at the bar during the breaks since we hadn’t made a liquor stop in two days. There wasn’t so much as a can of warm beer left on the bus.


The Road Manager, who was charged with maintaining a weekly schedule of all the locations we would be playing at and any problems we might encounter buying liquor enroute had blown it. Even Stan, who enjoyed relaxing with a bottle of J&B Scotch every night, was put out and asked Eric, our bus driver, if he would mind returning to Memphis and picking-up whatever anyone wanted. Unfortunately for the one’s who were showing signs of early withdrawal  Eric wouldn’t be able to leave until the instruments were unloaded and the bandstand set up; at  least another hour. As one might expect the guys began wandering around, complaining they wouldn’t be at their best unless they had “a taste to loosen their tonsils." They made it quite clear they were not pleased with the Road Manager and would have no hesitation about leaving him behind when the dance ended around 1 o’clock.

Eric wasn’t too pleased either with having to drive back to Memphis, find a liquor store that was open and locate a place to park a 40-foot bus while he went in and picked-up 40 to 45 bottles of liquor. Even a skilled driver like Eric found it nerve-wracking to try and maneuver the bus down narrow city streets, searching for  wide enough intersections in order to negotiate right hand turns without climbing the curb. Everyone had put in a double order since the next day was Sunday and nothing within 400 miles would be open until Monday morning. Eric, however, was adept at handling assignments of this nature and after 20 years of driving  Kenton Orchestras all over the United States, Canada and Mexico, little, if anything, fazed him. Unfortunately the only place to park was on the street directly in front of the store.

He hadn’t been gone 5-minutes when a squad car, lights flashing, pulled-up and two officers leaped out. While one of them stood alongside the bus and began writing a summons the other one, who was so obese he hardly fit into his uniform strode majestically into the store and asked Eric if that was his bus parked outside and wasn’t he aware it was against city regulations to park it on the street? Eric politely explained to him he hadn’t seen any signs indicating there was no parking.

“There aren’t any for cars,” the beefy cop said, taking his campaign-style hat off and wiping the perspiration off the inside band with a red checkered handkerchief. “The ordinance applies only to buses. Out of town buses!”

Eric, who had been around the block a few times, knew it was a setup. That the cops had seen the California license plates and were going to stick it to him.\

“That a tour bus?” the fat cop asked looking out the window at his fellow officer.

“No, it’s a private charter,” Eric quietly answered him.


“No, an orchestra.”

“Orchestra? Whose?

“Stan Kenton.”

“Never head of him,” the cop said taking out a fat plug of tobacco.

“What if I move the bus right now? Would I still get a ticket?”

“’Fraid so. We don’t tolerate much people breaking our laws. Let people do

what they want and all a sudden you got anarchy from one end of town to the next, can't have that. No siree, bub! ” the cop said with a benign smile.

By now the cop outside had finishing writing out the ticket and walked into the store and handed it to with a big smile to Eric.


“You’ll have to come with us and settle it now,” said the cop ominously as though Eric was a wanted felon.

“Can you tell me how much it will be?” Eric asked, sensing it would be stiff.

“$75.00, plus $10.00 court costs. Cash only. No checks. We don’t accept out-of-state checks!”

Eric knew he had $225.00, most of which was everyone’s liquor money. After paying the fine he’d only have enough to pick-up half the order. Unfortunately he had no alternative, knowing full well the cops would impound the bus if he couldn’t pay the fine. Thinking quickly he decided to buy as much vodka his depleted funds would allow and forego getting any bourbon or Scotch. That decision permitted him to add eight more bottles of vodka, bringing the complement up to 28 fifths. After paying the manager and loading the cases underneath the bus so they wouldn’t have an excuse to stop him on the outskirts of town for having liquor inside a motor vehicle he rode over to the station house with the two officers and paid the ticket.

Before leaving he politely asked the cops for a ride back to the bus.

“Sorry,” the beefy one said. “We can’t be chauffeuring people around this time of night. We’ve got to make rounds,” he said, swinging his rutabaga-shaped body into the squad car as they sped off into the night laughing.

Eric took his time walking the 10 blocks back to where the bus was parked since he was in no great rush to explain to Stan and the guys that half the money they had entrusted to him had gone to pay a parking fine. He knew they wouldn’t give a damn about the money. It was the thought of having to stretch the liquor out for two days before another run could be made that was going to cause all sorts of problems. Maybe, once they crossed over into the mountains tomorrow at noon they could pick-up some moonshine. A ghastly, but workable idea, which would appeal to only the most die-hard drinkers.

As he pulled back into the ballroom parking lot he could see several guys standing around the side door acting as lookouts so they could alert the rest of the Band he had returned.  They were still on break so a number of them rushed over and waited expectantly for Eric to open-up the swing-away luggage doors.

After explaining to them what happened and how he had to flush the initial liquor order out with extra vodka he went to find Stan, who was arguing with the promoter who wanted to cut the Band’s performance fee since only 500 people had come out to the date. The ballroom owner claimed he had expected at least 2000 people to show up to hear the Band, which was an out-and-out lie since there probably weren’t more than 1200 people within a  50-mile radius of the ballroom.

After listening to the owner moan, groan, belly-ache and wring his hands about how much this date had cost him in added security, parking attendants and advertising because “an attraction as famous as the Stan Kenton Orchestra was appearing at his ballroom,” none of which was true, Stan agreed to accept $500.00 less than the contract stipulated.

Thinking the guy would be delighted he had managed to filch the Band out of $500.00, Stan got up to see what Eric wanted. Before he had taken three steps the guy yelled after him, “Make it seven-fifty and we got a deal.”

Make it five hundred and we’ll play out the night,” Stan told him, rigid with rage that we had been booked into a date from hell., “otherwise we’re leaving.”

“You’ll take the seven fifty and finish playing or I’ll sue you for breach of contract,” the owner yelled back.

“Up yours!” an infuriated Kenton told him. “We’ll finish, but you’ll hear from Associated Booking’s attorneys.”

He then walked over to Eric and asked him what was up. Eric explained what had happened with the police, which made him even more tearass.

The Band had the last word, however.

They played the remaining hour and a half, improvising arrangements done in the style of Lawrence Welk, Blue Barron, Sammy Kaye and Freddy Martin. It didn’t take long before the ballroom began emptying out as one irate couple after another told the owner they had come to listen to the progressive sounds of Stan Kenton not “swing & sway” music. After demanding their money back they made it clear they would never return.

There was nothing the owner could do. Stan had honored the contract to the full letter of the law so he had to be paid, although it meant he was forced to accept seven hundred and fifty dollars less than what had been agreed upon. Such was life on the 'Big Bad Band from Hollywood, California.'

A week later Associated Booking Corporation went to court and secured a judgment against the owner in the amount of  $2500.00 for violating the contract.

Hearing that good news the Band continued on its merry way to the East Coast, where they were booked into 'Basin Street East' for three glorious weeks with Oscar Peterson and Chris Connor.

It was, for the 1961 Stan Kenton Orchestra, the date of dates!