Stan Kenton
 Innovator, experimenter, this controversial leader

 rounds out twenty years as a pace-setter for jazz

 Leonard Feather for 'International Musician' in 1961


Last Memorial Day, Stan Kenton celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the date when, at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, he made his first appearance as a bandleader.

Since his 1941 debut Kenton has built and maintained a unique reputation, not simply as a leader, pianist or composer/arranger, but as a dynamic personality and possibly the most controversial figure in jazz history. His turbulent and catalytic career has been followed by fans whose intensity and devotion is extraordinary. In 1958, when the band was playing its first European tour but was unable to work in England, the London 'Melody Maker' arranged for the chartering of a dozen planes, as well as a special Kenton boat excursion across the Irish Sea, that took jazz starved enthusiasts to Dublin.

The strong emotions that Kenton inspires in those who admire his music as well as in those who reject it can be attributed in large part to the forceful character of the man himself. Though he spent several years jobbing around the West Coast as a sideman with various bands, it was inevitable that he would establish himself as a leader.

Kenton's first band, a relatively small one by his later standards (five saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones and four rhythm) was a more direct reflection of its leader than the subsequent groups, since he himself was responsible for a large proportion of the arrangements. Their dominant characteristic was a choppy, staccato manner of phrasing that was especially noticeable in the writing for the reed section. In retrospect this emerges as one of the most readily identifiable of all the Kenton ensembles.

A study of that early group, and of all the later ventures provides a complex, many-sided answer to the question: What does the Kenton name mean in the annals of modern music?

Specifically, for those who have examined his work cursorily or read about it in the lay press, Kenton is primarily a symbol of ambitious, big band jazz, a man on whom the label of 'progressive jazz' was still pinned many years after he had dropped the slogan. To others Kenton has been a pioneer in the incorporation of Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms into jazz contexts. Not long after the dissolution of his original band in the Spring of 1946, Kenton began recording with a group  that included maracas, bongo and conga drums, and the unique finger-style Spanish guitar of Brazilian-born Laurindo Almeida. Kenton's intermittent romance with South America has produced some of his most colorful and durable music, notably the CD 'Cuban Fire,' written by Johnny Richards in 1956.

Still other Kenton followers identify him principally with the attempt to incorporate into his library a body of 'classical' concert music, composed and brilliantly orchestrated by writers well qualified to blend the European classical and American jazz elements. This sort of fusion has become a relatively common phenomenon in the past two or three years. Paradoxically the experts who have spent much of their time dissecting the recent efforts along these lines, by such talented writers as John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, rarely acknowledge that more than a decade ago Kenton was engaged in just such a series of amalgamations, recording classical and semi-classical compositions by Franklyn Marks, Pete Rugolo, the late Bob Graettinger and others. These works, performed by a forty-piece orchestra with a large string section, were heard in a concert tour undertaken by Kenton in 1950 under the banner 'Innovations in Modern Music.' The orchestra and its tour marked a vital phase in the Kenton career.

Though nothing he has done since that period is the equal of the 'Innovations' in terms of instrumentation or of experimentation, there have been several ventures during the past ten years that are, in the opinion of many observers, closer to the core of jazz, and represent Kenton's most swinging efforts. It is with the 1953-1958 period, when his band was concerned more with the beat than breaking new ground, that many of his younger followers associate him most closely.

In addition to the four phases outlined above (the original band, the Latin period, the Innovations and the modern swinging band) there were, simultaneously with some of the later undertakings, a series of commercially geared recordings with which Kenton was heard with a vocal group; playing lush arrangements with a string ensemble; and trying out novelty numbers for the single record market. Obviously, then, for anyone who has followed his career observantly through all these stages, these greatly varied divagations, it is illogical to state that there is any such firm entity as 'the Stan Kenton style.' The Kenton musical identity has changed according to the particular objective he was seeking at any given juncture and most important, the style of the arranger working for him.

Recently, after a brief period of inactivity, Kenton embarked on a fifth major phase. Discounting all the danger signals, unwilling to write off big band jazz as a spent force, he organized a new orchestra with no less than fourteen men in the brass section alone. This brass team included four exponents of a new instrument designed to his specifications and known as the mellophonium. Its range is a fifth below that of the trumpet and Kenton feels it fills the gap between trumpets and trombones. With the addition of five saxophones, and a rhythm section that includes a second percussionist, Kenton now has a twenty-two piece orchestra. His courage in embarking on an undertaking of his kind, at a period when big bands are encountering so many problems, has been applauded by his colleagues in the profession. It is perhaps symbolic of his stubborn refusal to concede defeat that his twentieth anniversary as a leader was spent, not at home celebrating, but at Crystal Beach, Ontario, playing a one-night stand.

An extraordinary aspect of the Kenton story is the continuous stream of talents for which the band has served as a proving ground. In this space it is possible only to give a random sampling. Among the most distinguished Kenton alumni and alumnae are such arrangers as Pete Rugolo, Gene Roland, Johnny Richards, Shorty Rogers and Bill Holman; singers Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor; trumpeters Maynard Ferguson, Ernie Royal, Conte Candoli; trombonists Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, Jimmy Knepper, Bob Fitzpatrick; alto saxophonists Bud Shank, Charlie Mariano, Lee Konitz, Boots Mussulli, Art Pepper; tenor saxophonists Bob Cooper, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Vido Musso; bassists Eddie Safranski, Don Bagley; drummers Shelly Manne and Stan Levey.

No less remarkable has been Kenton's ability to achieve his objectives with little or no help, from the critics. Most of the leading so-called experts, including this writer, have taken issue with him at one time or another on musical or other matters; yet the jazz public has systematically ignored the critics and supported him loyally. Certainly the best measure of Kenton's contribution can be found in the comments of those who have worked for him and have thus seen at first hand his strength and determination of purpose.

'Stan's most important contribution,' says Johnny Richards, 'is his constant devotion to music and support of young talent. And the most amazing thing about him personally is his tirelessness. I tried to keep up with him once on the road and I had to quit -- it made a wreck out of me. He can travel eight hundred miles by bus in two days, and then, instead of resting in a hotel room, he'll push right out to appear on three radio shows before the job starts. His energy is endless."

'Stan has had several different kinds of fine bands,' recalls Shelly Manne. "The Innovations' one was great, but not as significant to me as a 1948 concert band I played in for which Rugolo and Graettinger were writing. And his best jazz band ever, several years after I left, was the 'Contemporary Concepts' one in 1955."

Several former Kenton sidemen agree with Manne that this was the best band. Others, including Stan Levey, vote for the 1953 orchestra that toured Europe, with Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Bob Fitzpatrick, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims and Stan Levey in the cast. 

Perhaps the most eloquent summation of his alumni's feelings toward him were expressed by Bill Holman, the composer/arranger who, like so many during the the past two decades, has progressed from the Kenton band to individual recognition and the direction of his own recording groups.

"Stan Kenton has improved the image of jazz and its musicians," said Holman. "He was one of the first big band leaders to utilize the concert approach; he was able, through a dramatic musical presentation and, through his forceful personality and eagerness to discuss jazz, to reach many new listeners and remove some of the stigma from the word itself."

With the big-jazz-band scene reduced to a point at which he has only two permanently active contemporaries, Ellington and Basie, one can only add the hope that Stan Kenton and his orchestra will continue the pattern of experiment, contention and catalysis that have marked their past twenty tumultuous years.