STAN KENTON: THIS IS AN ORCHESTRA! / By Michael Sparke / North Texas University Press, 400 pp. $14.95 (paperback), $24.95 (hardcover)
Is it possible to be an admirer of Stan Kenton’s music without enjoying that harsh, screaming trumpet section? If you ask a true-blue Kenton fan, of which Michael Sparke is one, the answer is no; you either buy into his “wall of sound” and get immensely thrilled by it or you don’t. But I’ve been a Kenton fan since I first bought his “Greatest Hits” album on Capitol back in the late 1960s, and I hate those constantly screaming trumpets.
Why? Because, if you really listen carefully to the music he made over a career that lasted almost 40 years, you’re going to find a lot of complex, fascinating music, more than any other avant-garde jazz orchestra of his time ever produced, and in a wider variety of styles than anyone else (even including Artie Shaw, who had so many orchestral personas over his 18-year career that it’s hard keeping track of them all). Yes, the trumpets screamed too much, although they backed off considerably during most of the 1950s when he led a sort of West Coast swing-bop band, and yes, his insistence on a foursquare rhythm played in very straight time for much (but not all) of his career inhibited swing, but you can’t really throw out the baby with the bath water. In general, I much prefer the looser sound and less screechy scores played by Boyd Raeburn’s magnificent band in the 1940s, but Raeburn had terrible business sense, never had a single hit record, only recorded for small labels with limited distribution, and couldn’t draw enough people to hear his band to even break even. Kenton, as we learn from this wonderful and remarkable book, had just enough business sense to understand his market, just enough media savvy to be able to turn out a few hit records here and there in order to keep his name before the public, and best of all, surprisingly good musical taste in his pursuit to combine jazz and classical music.
Not that everyone appreciated the latter, then or now. As I’ve complained on this blog, most classical lovers hate jazz and want nothing of it in their music, and most jazz fans, even if they like classical music, don’t want it mixed in with their music…yet they’re more than happy to play a God-awful rock beat while improvising and consider it jazz.
All of this and more is brought to vivid life by Sparke, a retired English teacher who must be close to 90 years old as of this writing since he first became a fan of Woody Herman’s First Herd in 1945 and soon thereafter discovered Kenton. Aside from the fact that he glosses over the myriad Jazz Clinics that Kenton led—most at his own expense—from 1959 until his last years, this is far and away the closest you’re ever going to get to knowing how Kenton’s mind worked, musically, professionally and personally. In addition to his own reminiscences, which include a couple of interviews he was able to conduct with Kenton himself, Sparke interviewed a huge number of Stan’s former sidemen, dating from the 1940s through the ‘70s, and they give one a real feeling of knowing how the various bands operated and how the interpersonal relationships within them went. And there were a lot of jealous musicians in those bands who wanted first chair or primary solo status!
Without trying to spoil too much for the reader, the short version of the story is that Kenton was largely self-taught in music although he did have some piano lessons, he was in some ways bipolar (one of the musicians said, “When Stan was happy, you were never that happy, and when he was down he was really down!”), and in both musical and personal relationships he saw everything in back and white. You couldn’t like some, or even most, of what he did without liking ALL of it; if you nitpicked on anything in his music, you were his enemy and That Was That, so he’d probably have written me off as an enemy for not enjoying his hyper-screeching trumpets.
Which is a shame because he had so much to offer, not least of which was the grace to allow his writers and arrangers a completely free hand if he trusted them—and most of them he trusted implicitly, from Pete Rugolo in the 1940s to the late arrangers of the 1970s. In return, they gave him everything they had and then some, knowing that he’d probably play (and record) 95% of what they turned out, without editing or interference. In addition to Rugolo, this included such names as Bob Graettinger, Shorty Rogers, Franklyn Marks (a studio composer for Walt Disney who wrote some of the finest music the band ever played), Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Russo, Johnny Richards (who had been one of Raeburn’s top arrangers in the ‘40s), Dee Barton, Willie Maiden, Hank Levy and Ken Hanna, not to mention all the writers who submitted their scores to him for consideration to be played by the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra in the mid-1960s. Stan was exceedingly generous with his time for these writers, supportive of their efforts, and believed wholeheartedly in what he, and they, were doing.
Yet there were problems because, following his heart rather than his head, Kenton overextended himself either personally or financially too often for his own good. He had two nervous breakdowns, one in 1947 and another in late 1949-early 1950, went deeply into debt twice by insisting on his large-scale, concert-sized “Innovations” orchestra (the one with strings) and once more in the late 1950s by leasing the old Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California where he had gotten his start during the winter months when no one came to see bands play, and later had a crisis of faith in his own abilities to the point that he quit music altogether for nearly two years (fall 1963 to the fall of 1965). Although he was skilled enough and understood the music scene well enough to turn out some big hit records during the 1940s (Eager Beaver, which took several months to take off, And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, Tampico, Shoo Fly Pie, Intermission Riff and a real turkey called I Been Down in Texas which sold like wildfire), he, like Duke Ellington, lost his touch during the 1950s simply because the music scene had changed from instrumental jazz to pop vocals, either MOR stuff or the new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll. His last really big hit was a Milton DeLugg song from 1950, Orange-Colored Sky with Nat “King” Cole, though he did have a somewhat tepid hit in 1956 with Stardust Boogie (a record not even mentioned in Sparke’s book). Without hit records, he had to rely on hit albums, but since some of these were flukes like Cuban Fire! (1956) and his late-1950s rather vanilla album of standards, he had a hard time discerning the trends. Kenton’s West Side Story took off like wildfire and won him a Grammy, but none of the other Mellophonium Orchestra LPs did particularly well, and when the band bombed in Britain in 1963, he drank himself into a blue funk and took two years off, partly in order to raise his two small children and partly to get his head together.
There’s a certain segment of the jazz critic fraternity who hated and still hate Kenton’s music, the good along with the bad, and even some who consider him a “cult figure” like Sun Ra. But Kenton had a lot more admiration and support from the established jazz community than Sun Ra ever had. Among the African-American musicians who admired him were Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie (who, along with Charlie Parker, toured with Kenton’s band in early 1954), Nat Cole (a close personal friend), Curtis Counce (who played bass for him in the 1950s) and Charles Mingus, who even used some of his sidemen on a 1949 recording session of his own. Latino musicians and bands like him a lot, too, from Machito and Candido in the 1940s to Perez Prado (who modeled his own mambo band after Kenton’s) and Tito Puente (who loved the Cuban Fire! album). And of course, just look at the names of the big-name musicians who played for him: trumpeters Buddy Childers, Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers and both Candoli brothers (Conte and Pete), trombonists Kai Winding, Frank Rosolino, Milt Bernhart and Jimmy Knepper, saxists Vido Musso, Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano and Pepper Adams…the list goes on and on.
I’ve written to great extent on some of Kenton’s most interesting experiments in jazz-classical fusion in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, but I have Sparke to thank for opening my eyes (and ears) to some really good music that Kenton made in the 1950s, early ‘60s and early ‘70s that I had not explored in much depth. Primary among these are the bands and recordings that succeeded his “New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm” orchestra of 1952. The period 1953-57 was an especially fertile time for this band, as they continued to swing (certainly more than they had since 1941) as well as present some truly outstanding arrangements of standards and new compositions by Holman and Russo. Then there was Cuban Fire!, an album I had always ignored because I just assumed that these were simplistic, brash, loud Latin music pieces; I hadn’t realized how much Johnny Richards had put into these compositions. As a sequel, there was also Adventures in Time, more Richards at his best, and some of those early-1970s pieces were truly amazing. Sparke has the gift of making you want to hear the music he’s so enthusiastic about, and that’s something few writers can claim.
Moreover, as it turns out, Sparke is actually a very discerning listener. He makes no bones about dismissing the “turkeys” that Kenton recorded although he, like so many of us (and as it turned out, Kenton himself), is ambivalent about Graettinger’s City of Glass suite. (My assessment is that a few pieces in it are exceptionally interesting, but much of it is just congested and confused-sounding.) Of course he and I had a few disagreements: he likes Chris Connor’s singing much more than that of Ann Richards, who became the second Mrs. Kenton, whereas I love Richards’ voice and don’t care for Connor at all; I like some of the Kenton/Wagner album whereas Sparke hates it; and he liked the Hair album whereas I didn’t. But for the most part, he and I are in perfect agreement on the music that Kenton left us on recordings and live broadcasts. I just wish I could hear some of the “live” things that Sparke raves about, particularly an extended work by Johnny Richards titled Festival—Toccata and Fugue. It was apparently available, briefly, on a pirate recording, but I couldn’t track it down on the Internet to save my life. Some guy named Frank Tirro, reviewing this book on an off-brand website called “ResearchGate,” carps about Sparke’s lack of musical/critical analysis of the music, but to be honest with you, I don’t think that was his goal. Sparke goes into just enough detail on the various pieces and albums he likes that he whets your interest to go and listen to those recordings, probably realizing that most of the readers of this book are going to be average listeners without a grounding in music theory. Besides which, the majority of the arrangements that Kenton played over the years can easily be analyzed “by ear” as discerning listeners absorb the recordings, and as someone who does read scores and understands music, I think Sparke gives the reader enough information about the pieces, arrangers and composers he writes about—Graettinger’s City of Glass, perhaps, excepted—that the reader can judge for his or herself whether or not they might like a particular piece or album.
Stan Kenton never did illegal drugs and for the most part frowned on musicians who did, but he was a lifelong smoker and drinker (vodka, which doesn’t give you hangovers), and these plus the stresses of running his own orchestra AND his own record label in the 1970s led to his system breaking down, little by little, until by his last three years he was a shell of his former self. And here, too, we see Kenton’s heart-leading-the-head in his business decisions. Because his very first live album with his new band sold very well despite its being a 2-LP set, Stan decided that all albums of new material by his bands would be 2-LP sets, and the successors never came close to the sales figures of the first. Then, upset about the declining sales figures, he fired the label’s manager, Clinton Roemer, who had been the only one to stop the money drain from getting too bad, and things got worse—until Kenton capitulated and recorded an almost completely jazz-rock fusion LP (7.5 On the Richter Scale), which DID sell well, but not because of Creative World management but because it was the loudest and heaviest fusion album he ever made. Then, predictably, he came to detest the music on that LP, and stopped playing most of it in his public concerts!
Thus the last few chapters are somewhat sad and painful to read as Kenton slowly breaks down, piece by piece, before your very eyes until you just know he doesn’t have much longer to go. But at least his stubbornness got a fairly large amount of fascinating and sometimes very excellent music recorded, thus he has a lot larger legacy than poor Boyd Raeburn.
This is really an outstanding biography and, whether or not you like Kenton, you might want to read it to see how brilliantly Sparke manages to hold your interest in his subject and keep the flow going as he moves between narration and interviews. Perhaps the only caveat I have is that there are too many exclamation points in the book, but those, too keep you involved in the text.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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