Peter Erskine

Thanks to Stan Kenton, and my parents, I play the drums. My first real exposure to professional jazz musicians occurred when I had just turned 7 years old and attended Stan's National Stage Band Camp held on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana in the summer of 1961. Other students at that camp included Randy Brecker, David Sanborn, Keith Jarrett and Don Grolnick.

There had been a slight administrative mix-up: the Camp didn't realize that I was so young until I had arrived.  Since my family had driven me all the way from New Jersey to Indiana, however (and this was before the days of a completed Interstate Highway system), I was allowed to play personally for Stan and he kindly saw to my being able to attend the camp as a student. From the moment we met he was always 'Stan' to me . . . never 'Mr. Kenton.'

Thus began a relationship that had me 'sitting in' with the Kenton Orchestra whenever they played near my  hometown of Linwood, New Jersey . . . usually at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. I followed the band and all of Stan's recordings throughout the years, confident somewhere in my thoughts that I would one day be the drummer on the band.

When I was in high school (the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan), the jazz band there played a number of Stan's charts. After 1 year in college (Indiana University), I met the percussion instructor, George Gaber, through composer Johnny Richards' recommendation. Gaber had played timpani on several tracks for the Kenton Orchestra's 'Cuban Fire' album. 

Several days later my father received a telephone call from Stan:

"Do you think Peter is ready to play with the band?" 

Of course my Dad said "Yes!"

My audition consisted of going to New York and playing with the band at a rehearsal with June Christy as part of the band's appearance at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival at Lincoln Center. Except for Stan, bassist John Worster, conga drummer Ramon Lopez and outgoing drummer Jerry (Lestock) McKenzie, the rest of the band just assumed that this long-haired kid was June Christy's drummer. 

As I played down the charts I thought to myself, "Gosh, I don't remember the cymbals being this BIG!"

Later I was told I would be doing the show that night. After that it was a matter of coordinating my travel so that I could meet the band somewhere in the Midwest as it continued its tour. It turns out that my first gig with the band was an afternoon concert and clinic, followed by an evening concert at my alma mater, Interlochen, during the summer camp season.

I remember it all as being big, exciting, thrilling . . . and hard work. I loved every minute of it!

About one week into the tour, while sharing a ride in the elevator of a hotel somewhere in Iowa, Stan casually remarked:

"You know, Peter, we haven't discussed money yet."

I innocently replied, "So . . . how much do you want me to pay you?"

I was treated very well by all of the members of the band. The band was like family. I was young and I had a tremendous amount to learn! By the time I had joined the band I had become pretty interested in the activities of bands like Miles Davis and Weather Report, Chick Corea's 'Return to Forever,' the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the music of Keith Jarrett. Stan welcomed this part of my developing musical personality, while the band patiently waited for me to come to grips with some big band stylistic necessities I had yet to conquer and master.

Life on the road . . . playing virtually every night (or day and night, as in the case of the numerous clinics we did), traveling all over the country, meeting some of my jazz heroes at festivals and jazz clubs . . . and meeting girls . . . cool!  And, occasionally meeting other drummers who coveted my chair! 

The band was big and as such had a very big sound. I played with a lot of energy, but also with as much respect as I could muster . . . particularly for the ballads; and especially for the Johnny Richards' ballads from 'West Side Story' or 'Adventures in Time!' Since I had been a fan of the music of Don Ellis I also welcomed the chance to play the wonderful charts of Hank Levy.

It was not always easy to stay completely content while on the road so much of the year. During my first year on the road we had 10 days off for the Christmas Holidays . . . otherwise, we were working the entire rest of the year. Relationships came and went, but, hey, I was young, so that was okay. 'Mail Day,' when our mail was forwarded to us on the road from Stan's office in Los Angeles was always a big event. 

Sometimes there was friction between various factions of the band, which fortunately never lasted too long. I also sensed that my touch on the instrument wasn't getting any lighter . . . whenever I would sit-in with a small group somewhere I didn't always sound like I wanted to sound!

Nor did I always sound like I wanted to sound with the band. However, Stan was an incredibly patient bandleader, allowing me time to explore and discover my own mistakes. At times he could be a stern taskmaster . . . particularly with the trumpet section (they had an incredibly demanding job), but more often than not he was never anything less than gracious, encouraging and loyal to me and every other member of the Orchestra: 'fatherly,' you might say.

The audiences loved the band. Stan had fans like no other bandleader. It was a glorious experience to share and take part in all of that excitement.

I made my first professional recording with Stan, which was the 'National Anthems of the World' album. That began a friendship with composer/arranger Bob Curnow which lasts to this day. We made that recording in the old United-Western studios in Hollywood during the summer of 1972. We worked there during the day, then had to pack everything up and drive to Anaheim to play 4 sets each night at Disneyland. We did this every day for one very long week.

Exactly 25 years later I found myself in the same room (now known as Oceanway Recorders), making the Sinatraland' recording with the Pat Williams Big Band. I could only smile at my good fortune; for having been lucky to have met Stan when I was so young; to have been inspired by his music; for getting to be part of his organization for three years; for getting my professional start in the business; and most of all, for getting to know Stan so well.

I have only the fondest memories of the man for his drive, his passion and his commitment for his music.

'Why those Kenton cymbals were so big . . .'

"Stan's music was made for unusually large cymbals.

"In fact, most of the large cymbals produced by the Avedis Zildjian Company were designed and made expressly for the Kenton Orchestra!, including the uncommoningly large 28" ride cymbals. 

"It takes an enormous amount of metal (created from a skillful blending of various alloys which has remained a Zildjian secret for over 500 years and is known only to family members) to create the kind of 'shimmering sound' Stan wanted to hear from the drums while the Orchestra took each arrangement to the next level of emotional intensity.

"A large portion of the Kenton library called for the drummer to 'roll' on the cymbals, usually with timpani mallets and almost always with a massive crescendo. 

"Relatively smaller cymbals would have reached their peak in sound and vibration far too soon and would not have kept pace with one of those famous Kenton crowd-pleasing crescendos, which one of the arrangers referred to as 'Stan's sweet sound of thunder.' 

"Consequently, the large cymbals were critical to play in this band.

"I consider drummers like Shelly Manne, Jerry McKenzie, Dee Barton, Ed Soph and John Von Ohlen experts in the use of gracefully handling those large cymbals so their sound arcs just beneath the trumpet lines, then swiftly cascades down and around the arrangement in order to push it forth with just the right momentum.

"The largest cymbal I play now is a 22" Ride Cymbal or Swish 'Knocker' cymbal. When I joined the band the two crash cymbals were 24" in diameter and the smallest a 22" Swish. The ride cymbals were a hefty 27" in diameter. Several years later Stan asked Zildjian to increase the diameter to 28" which certainly put their artistry to the supreme test. Being the perfectionists they are they went through innumerable prototypes before they presented Stan with a dozen of their finest maker's art. 

"I'll say one thing: there were some physics involved, as well as the requirement of an intuitive understanding of ergonomic motion in navigating the drum set with those cymbals. 

"But what a glorious sound they made and what fun it was to watch Stan's face light up as they sent a dazzling display of Kenton Orchestra firepower out through the audience, lifting the faithful out of their seats and onto their feet night after night."

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