Down Beat Magazine Interview, December 20, 1973

Conducted by Peter Newman

Big band jazz these days is in a period of minor renaissance. Among its most active and controversial  exponents is Stanley Newcomb Kenton, the pianist-leader-arranger who has influenced and haunted contemporary American music since his first band opened the 1941 season at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California. His current reincarnation marks a curious turn in the long musical life of a man who has seldom been in tune with the rhythms of his time. After thirty years of fronting just about every format into which the jazz orchestra can be expanded and playing nearly all the musical tempos known to man, Kenton is back with, of all things a road band  airy and free that is gaining recognition and converts everywhere it plays.

The Kenton band, which started as a hybrid offshoot from the rhythm machine put together by Jimmie Lunceford in the late 1930s, has never stopped groping for new sounds. Late in his middle age, Stan Kenton continues to evolve his concepts of jazz, and it remains as difficult as ever to be neutral about the man and his music. Critics and jazz buffs are more sharply divided about the true worth of his music than about any other jazz giant.  But Kenton goes on, playing his craft with dignity and humor, a man and a musician firmly in command of his worth. After a recent concert in Ottawa, Canada, I recorded the following interview.

Newman:  While you’ve never had any problem communicating with your listeners, it seems to me that you have often been misunderstood or misrepresented by the critics.

Kenton:  I really don’t know whether the critics just haven’t been able to communicate with the music, or whether they find my personality repulsive.  I don’t know what it is. Yet a lot of them will say, “one of the nicest guys in the business, but forget the music.” I haven’t worried about it too much. Most critics are super-sensitive, kind of withdrawn, and are repulsed by out-going people. But most of the crap you just let go in one eye and out the other.

Newman Maybe the problem is that your music is too subtle, too complicated. It isn’t jazz that just swings.

Kenton:  They seldom complain that it’s too complicated. They say the music is contrived, pompous, melodramatic and things like that. But, you know, it’s pretty hard to contrive anything, especially music. Take an author, for instance, he might think. “Well now, maybe this is a little complicated. Am I going to lose a few readers if I publish this?” And he might retrace his steps and say, “I believe I should edit this in or out or something.” And I do that with my music, but you don’t ever move too far from what you basically believe in, from what you are.

Newman:  With such a large band (19 pieces), and such intricate arrangements, how do you maintain the spirit of improvisation in your music?

Kenton:  I think there is a great fear of a band that’s playing the same music all the time, starting to play by rote, and I can’t have that, because I like the thing to be almost like a new experience every time the band plays. So I always keep after the soloists and tell them to take chances, not to get involved with clichés and all that kind of stuff. “Take wild chances,” I tell the rhythm players, “because if you don’t take chances you aren’t going to come up with any fresh excitement.” When I’m conducting the band, they never know what the hell I’m going to do because if they knew where my hand is going to come down, they  just look off into the trees somewhere. But they never know what’s going to happen.  It keeps everybody on their toes so that the band has a spontaneous sound  that’s a form of improvisation too.

Newman: You’ve been on the road for more than 30 years now and you’re 61 years old. It must be a really tough grind.  How do you keep going?

Kenton:  I don’t think it’s so tough, if you have the privilege to do what you want to do and to enjoy the freedom that I enjoy. All the little inconveniences that I might suffer on the road are more than compensated for by the freedom I have. If I had taken a job conducting a television show somewhere, or doing background music, I’d be at the mercy of some idiot producer and I wouldn’t have any freedom. As it is, I am free.

Newman: That freedom is reflected in your music. It seems to me that your road bands have always been better than your studio orchestras.

Kenton: Yes, there’s nothing like an organized band. Los Angeles and New York are full of musicians who used to play with me, but they could never sign up with this band. Not even if you got the finest of them together. It’s a whole different approach to playing. These guys are together all the time, and when they leave the band and try to start fitting into freelance jobs, they have to water down what they believe in. I doubt if some of the musicians who have left the band could ever even play this kind of music. It would be too hard for them. Funny thing about the band, too, is that most of the guys who’ve left it in the past still refer to it as their band. We’re all very good friends. They come around and we see each other all the time and there’s a great feeling of belonging to each other.

Newman:  What is the Kenton sound? Is it mostly a matter of broad voicing?

Kenton:  It’s a lot more than voicing, but I can’t really define it. It’s one of the mysteries of the communication that exists between the guys and myself. And it’s something that’s almost on a subconscious level. I’m not really conscious of it, and I don’t think they are either. But you could put me in front of a strange bunch of guys and sure as hell, after a few weeks, they’d sound like the Kenton band.

Newman Yet there has been a very constant sound to all of your orchestras. Perhaps you look for it when you’re picking your musicians.  Lead trombone, for example: Kai Winding, Milt Bernhart, Bob Burgess and Dick Shearer (who’s with the band now), sound remarkably similar.

Kenton:  Yes, there is that. Certain guys are attracted to the band. A Tommy Dorsey-type trombone player wouldn’t make it.

Newman: How did you get into the time signature experiments that Hank Levy is writing for you now?

Kenton: Hank claims the first thing that really got him interested was Johnny Richards’ Adventures in Time'. The first music Levy wrote for us was very much more crude and simple than the music we’re starting to play now. He claims it’s because he didn’t want to get too involved harmonically or melodically, because we were having such a hassle trying to get used to the time signatures.

Newman: Is it really possible to play jazz in 7/4 time, or 20/16 time?

Kenton When you get right down to it, it’s divided into accents. If a thing is in 7/4 time, it’s never divided into more than three units. In other words, if it is in 7/4 time it can be divided one-two; two-two-three; three-two; or you could have one-two; two-two; three-two-three, etc. Those are the basic accents.  When you get up into advanced time signatures you’re really familiarizing yourself with a series of accents.  But you count, at first, in order to get the feel of the thing; once it’s going, then you know what kind of accents it’s in.

Newman:  I heard that Levy was starting to use violins in his own band.

Kenton: Yes.  You see, we all feel morally obligated to the kids, and none of them want to play violin.  They just want to play trumpets and trombones and drums and saxophones. I don’t know what the hell the symphony orchestras are going to do for violin players one of these days. That was my idea with the Innovations Orchestra, to see if we couldn’t break the strings loose into a modern way of playing, and get over the old European gypsy thing. Things we did with strings in the Innovations Orchestra were very good, but we couldn’t afford to keep going with it. I think that if kids knew that string players could sound a different way than they do, they might be attracted to the instruments.

Newman: Would you ever go back to the mellophonium?

Kenton: Yeah, I’d like to, one day. It was strictly a money thing that caused us to have to do away with them.  Oh boy, I loved those horns.

Newman:  How do you recruit new musicians? How did you sign Mary Fettig?

Kenton I get musicians mostly through the recommendations of guys in the band. Now I’ve known Mary ever since she was 13 years old. She used to come down to the Redlands jazz clinics. Two years go I was sitting on the lawn under a tree, trying to cool off, and she came along and sat down next to me and introduced herself. I asked, “This is the year you’re going to graduate from high school?” And she said she’d just graduated. So I said, “What are you going to do? Are you going to go to college?” And she said, “Yeah.” I said, “What do you think you’re eventually going to do with your music? Are you going to teach?” She said, “No.” And I said, “Well are you going to give it up and get married?” And she said, “No.” So I asked, “What are you going to do?” and she said, “I’m going to play saxophone in your band.” That was two years ago. (She’s 20 now.)

Everywhere we went in the States, the girls were playing everyplace, and they always came up to me and said, “Don’t you want my girls in the band?”  So in the back of my head I thought about Mary. When the chair opened up I said to John Park, “You’re the boss of the section, you pick the guys you’re going to play with, would you consider having a girl, if she could really play?” He said, “Sure.” So I contacted Mary. And I said, “Let’s be honest about this thing, John, if she doesn’t make it you let me know and get her out of there.” So after we played a set, a couple of weeks after she came with us, I went over to where John was and I said, “John, what do you think?”  He told me, “She scares the hell out of me. She reads better than any of us.”

Newman:  I don’t know the genesis of it, but there’s always been a story floating around about black musicians in the Kenton band.

Kenton:  Well, we’ve had a lot of them.  What set the whole damn thing off was, years ago, we were in Canada when I saw the Down Beat Critics Poll, and I sent them a wire that read: “It’s now plain for me to see there’s a new minority group in jazz white jazz musicians.” And it just blew the lid off everything.  Leonard Feather wrote a story about Jim Crow sitting on my bandstand, even though, at the time, we had four colored guys in the band.  A few years ago, when we were at a bar, some critic came up and was making a damn sloppy, drunken mess out of himself. He said, “How come you never have any Negroes in the band?” So I didn’t even get into an argument. I went into the back room and I sat down and brought him back a list, and I said, “Tomorrow when you sober up you look at this list,” and I counted 25 guys we’d had.

Newman I notice that a lot of kids come to your concerts.  How do they learn about your music?

Kenton:  Four or five years ago, when mass merchandising of records prompted me to fight back by starting the Creative World label, agents and bookers kept thinking of the band as being old-fashioned. They were constantly trying to book us into American Legion Halls and Elks Clubs. So I said, “There’s got to be another way to reach those kids. Now, we can’t reach them through the radio because radio won’t play the stuff, but we’ve got to get these kids to hear our music,” because I firmly believed that once the kids heard it, they would buy it.  So with the Redlands album, we first started pushing this concept of “jazz orchestra in residence” to get into the schools.  And boy, I sure was right.  They are organizing their own live bands and jazz ensembles now and the thing is going crazy. I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve done it for as many as 2,000 young musicians and 50 band directors at one time.

Newman Where will all this lead?  What kind of outlet for their talents will all these young musicians have?

Kenton:  A lot of us used to get the guilt's around the clinics years back, we’d ask ourselves, “What are we doing teaching these kids this kind of music when there’s not going to be any place for them to work?” Finally, I began to see another side. They don’t have to play music for a living. But it’s given them something and they’re going to go out and be creative human beings.  An education in jazz music is a very important part of developing a mature, creative mind. I don’t think there’s any subject other than music that can contribute to so many different facts of the development of the mind.  It’s a universal language. And specifically jazz, because honest to God, every guy I’ve met who is a successful, achieving human being and is tuned in and aware, either used to play jazz as a kid or else was addicted to it. It’s the wildest thing. I’d like to see jazz music become compulsory in schools some day.

Newman:  What’s your reading of current trends in the music industry?

Kenton:  Oh, I have some wild theories. Every time I get to talking about them, people think I’m nuts, but I think that one of these days record collections are going to become antiquated. I think people are going to look for a “now” experience in music and seek out live performances, more than anything they’ve ever experienced in the past. It’s not going to be a static thing anymore. The idea of people wanting to hear music played live and in person is very healthy thing.

Newman:  What about the direction of jazz itself?

Kenton Anytime something comes along, like new time signatures, or this talk about different scales and getting into quartertones and 35-tone scales and all that, I feel that we still haven’t scratched the surface as far as the 12-tone scale goes. I think that what we need most is composers, guys who can write great themes. The trouble is, many writers get restless and they start to go in for freak things, using gimmicks and a whole lot of crap like this electronic music today. It’s a cover-up for talent. It distorts the communication between a player and a listener. It takes on a synthetic sound.

Newman:  How do you read the future for big bands?

KentonAbout five or six years ago we were having all kinds of trouble getting booked, and one time I went out to lunch with the head guy of an agency in Chicago, and he said, “Well, Stan, let’s face it.  What do you play for the kids?” I said, “I’m not playing anything for the kids. If I start playing for the kids what the hell are they going to shoot for?” He said, “Well, after all, it’s a kids’ market today.” I said, “Oh, bullshit, it’s not a kids’ market.” And thank Christ, in the last four or five years I’ve proved my point, and when the kids hear the band blowing, boy, they want some of that.

But the parents, they haven’t done much good either.  They keep nagging at their kids and telling them, “You should listen to music like I used to listen to when I was a kid.” The kids finally say, “O.K., play me some of it,” and they get a little Tommy Dorsey record out and nothing happens and the kids say, “Phew!”  But when they hear some of the modern bands play the strength and the energy that comes out of those horns  boy, then they say, “That’s for me!”

Newman How do you treat the whole concept of nostalgia?  People must be pretty disappointed if they turn out to hear your band and expect to hear 'Eager Beaver'.

Kenton I think that people who are constantly dwelling on the past have a form of sickness. Maybe there’s a psychological reason for it, maybe they’re reluctant to accept the present and are afraid of the future.  Maybe they feel that if they made it 20 years ago, they can go back and make it again. There’s got to be something like that which motivates nostalgia.  And of course, there’s no more commercial commodity today than nostalgia. I don’t care if it’s Europe, or here, or anywhere. It makes you sick. When somebody comes running to me and says let’s talk about the good old days I say, “Christ, I’ve got more appointments than I can muster up, and phone calls I’ve got to make,” and I get out of their clutches.

Newman:  But it would be very simple.  You could run a band on nostalgia now.

Kenton Yeah, but have you ever gone to hear Buddy de Franco and the Glenn Miller band? God, I heard him in Chicago one night at Mr. Kelly’s. We had a night off and they played 'Serenade in Blue' and 'Pennsylvania 6-5000' and 'I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo' and all that awful stuff.  It was all right at the time but Goddamn, this is 1973.

Newman:  Are you saying that there will be no Kenton ghost band?

Kenton Well, I don’t think there will be. I’ve told everybody connected with me, “When I die, the thing dies.” I don’t want anybody running around trying to play 'Intermission Riff'.

Newman:  Why do so few people in our society recognize jazz as an art form?

Kenton:  Well, the problem is, you have to be gifted with a certain amount of perception to communicate with jazz. Many people don’t have that kind of perception. After all, jazz is an abstract form of communication and you have to have perception to communicate with abstracts. Your mind has got to work for you, your fantasies have to come alive. People who don’t have any fantasies can’t communicate with anything abstract. So that’s why jazz can never be a mass music, the masses aren’t gifted with perception. It’s only a small minority group. It’s painful to think that that’s the way it is, but I guess that’s the way it’s always been, and the way it always will be.