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The Stan Kenton legacy: innovative sounds from the big band

By Amy Duncan / April 28, 1981



Boston

Bandleader Stan Kenton lived his life by those words, seldom compromising his ideals, in spite of advice from his peers and more-than-occasional attacks from the critics. His music was always on the edge of innovation, grating to some ears and tremendously exciting to others.

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And the Kenton legacy lives on: Kentonites, who have hoarded his albums over the years and remained true to the Kenton vision, will want to check out a new book: Stan Kenton -- Artistry in Rhythm, (Creative Press of Los Angeles, 6193 Rockcliff Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90068). It delineates the character of Kenton and his music in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail.

Dr. William Lee, dean of the University of Miami and longtime associate of Kenton, has written what could be the definitive biography of the Stan Kenton orchestras. This weighty tome, more than 700 hundred pages long, is essentially a collection of press releases, newspaper and magazine articles, and comments by the myriad members of Kenton bands over the years. What Dr. Lee himself has written about Kenton is minimal, and merely serves to string together the quotes from these various sources.

But the book is of interest to those who have admired Kenton and his music, and to those who wish to know more about Kenton as bandleader, composer, arranger, pianist, and music educator, and about big band life on the road in general. What emerges from the pages is a picture of an extraordinary man, a phenomenally talented musician, possessed of an alsmost saintly character. Despite Dr. Lee's protests that the book tries to present both sides of Kenton's character, the scale definitely tips to the superpositive -- is this accurate, or is it unfarily one-sided? The answer to that question doesn't lie within the pages of this book.

"One of my goals was to write a chronology of a person who had something to say, who spent his life saying it," explains Lee.

Kenton was a pioneer in jazz education, the famous Stan Kenton clinics -- for the purpose of teaching jazz to teenagers -- being the first of their kind. Even though Kenton made no provision for the continuation of the clinics (or his orchestra) under his own name, the concept of jazz education in the schools has continued to grow over the years as the result of his early efforts.

"Stan was interested in young people. He predicted thirty years ago that the most quality jazz would be found in the colleges," says Lee. "He was right."

What about Kenton the pianist and orchestra leader?

"Well, one thing about Stan, he wasn't the world's greatest jazz piano player. But in the early '40s he began to extend the sound of the orchestra. Prior to the Stan Kenton big band, even in the great black bands, like Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb, the brass players were never challenged to their capacity. Then along came Maynard Ferguson and there was no end to it!"

Ferguson, who played with Kenton's band, is famous for hitting impossibly high notes on the trumpet.

"Also, before Stan there was very little use of the baritone saxophone," says Lee. "And there was certainly no bass trombone. So Stan brought the bottom and the top to the orchestra."

Lee also describes Kenton as the "master coordinator." The personnel of his orchestras over the years, which is carefully documented in Lee's book, reads like a Who's Who of jazz, including such names as Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Frank Rosolino, Laurindo Almeida, Mel Lewis, and Anita O'Day. And Stan was able to coordinate all these talents and still maintain the famous "Kenton sound."

"That's a trick in itself," says Lee. "Even if he couldn't write a note, couldn't play the piano or conduct an orchestra, but just have the ability to pull all those personalities together -- it makes the guy unique."

The most enjoyable and readable aspect of the book are the passages -- principally quotes from Kenton sidemen --about life on the road.One really gets a sense of what it must have been like to travel cross-country in a bus, doing one-nighters, passing the time, learning how to live and get along with one's fellow musicians in a cramped space. The countless funny situations -- with Stan himself at the center of many of them -- lend a real flavor to the book.

The appendices include a complete list of personnel from the Kenton bands, lists of all of Kenton's records and films, as well as his arrangements and compositions, all of which make this a valuable reference work.