Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Stanley Newcomb Kenton, 19 February 1912, Wichita KS; d 25 August 1979, Los Angeles) Pianist, bandleader, composer. He wrote his first arrangement in 1928; played with Gus Arnheim, Vido Musso; debuted with his own band Memorial Day at Balboa Beach CA in 1941, recorded for Decca '41-2. Early arrangements were by Kenton and Ralph Yaw (b 22 October 1898, Enosburg Falls VT; d 1963: wrote 40 fine arrangements for the early band, gave up arranging '47, worked in Bakersfield in C&W; wrote 'No Longer A Prisoner' for Hank Snow). The Kenton band recorded its theme 'Artistry In Rhythm' at its first Capitol date '43 and soon became famous; George T. Simon had described it '41 as 'one of the greatest combinations of rhythm, harmony and melody that's ever been assembled by one leader', but also wrote of its 'continual blasting'; others complained it didn't swing. From '44 Kenton hired people like Musso, Stan Getz, Shelly Manne, Kai Winding, Bob Cooper, Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, bassist Eddie Safranski (b 25 December 1918, Pittsburgh; d 9 January 1974, L.A.), vocalists Anita O'Day, June Christy, Chris Connor; also Jeri Winter, Jean Turner, Ann Richards (his wife for a while; she posed for Playboy, committed suicide '82). Musicians who sang included reedman Red Dorris '43, trumpeter Ray Wetzel later; Gene Howard was a straight ballad singer (too straight). (In Hollywood '97 on Mr Music was two CD vols of AFRS broadcasts from '44 with O'Day.) In the late '40s Kenton's band was an innovative white band along with that of Woody Herman; listening to the '43-7 recordings in the Mosaic set (below) there are a lot of fine arrangements, but it is true that the brass rarely played other than loud: Kenton said that he had started out 'to thrill as much as possible. I strove for flash.' As with most other bands, the hits were vocals: six top ten hits '44-6 included 'And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine' (with O'Day), 'Tampico' and 'Shoo-Fly Pie' (with Christy); 'How High The Moon' '48 with Christy also charted. 'September Song' and 'Laura' were top 20 hits '51, lovely arrangements with chorus, modern harmony and autumnal colours; 'Delicado' '52 was a noisy cover of the year's hit instrumental.

Kenton was a hard worker, a good businessman and a bundle of nerves who often suffered from ill health and once threatened to quit music to become a psychiatrist; he was good to his employees, who were fiercely loyal. He disbanded, rested in '49; assembled a 40-piece group with strings '50, calling the act 'Innovations in Modern Music', thereafter organizing and disbanding once a year; in '56 his was the first US band to play the UK since '37, helping to break down the UK musicians' union's restrictions.

Kenton was driven to try to bridge the gap between the big jazz band and classical music. He apparently formed a band initially to play his own music, but soon hired other people to do the writing; his own scores like 'Suite For Saxophones' '41 (pretty, pastel-coloured writing for reeds included 'A Reed Rapture'), 'Eager Beaver' and 'Painted Rhythm' '41-4 (all on Early Concepts in Charly's budget Le Jazz series in UK) were good enough at the time, but he hired some of the best writers over the years, including Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers and Pete Rugolo (b 25 December 1915, Sicily; d 16 October 2011, Sherman Oaks CA). Rugolo, like Gil Evans writing for Claude Thornhill, understood that composition (for a big jazz band or for any other ensemble) must be organized internally; Rugolo's 'Impressionism', 'Monotony' and 'Abstraction' were based on motifs of only a few notes, going on to build more complex structures. 'Lament' (for guitar and Latin percussion) and 'Chorale For Piano, Brass And Bongos' were an antithesis to Kenton's 'screaming' image; 'Interlude' and 'Collaboration' were lyrical without going soft at the centre (unlike Kenton's own 'Theme To The West', which sounded like movie music. All this was in '47.) Rugolo wrote for Kenton for several years, led his own band '54, wrote film/TV music including The Fugitive in the '60s; when Rugolo recorded some of his own pieces they were less impressive than the Kenton versions. Bill Holman said that 'Kenton is the guy that makes it happen.'

Holman (see his entry) and Bill Russo (b 25 June 1928, Chicago; d there 11 January 2003) were among the best arrangers; the Mosaic four-CD/ six-LP set The Complete Capitol Recordings Of The Holman And Russo Charts is one of the most desirable Kenton compilations. But the '95 reissue Stan Kenton Plays Bob Graettinger/ City Of Glass on Capitol comes as a revelation. Graettinger (b 31 October 1923, Ontario CA; d 12 March 1957, L.A.) played sax and wrote for Benny Carter and others, then arranged or composed 16 tracks for Kenton '47-53 included two suites, 'This Modern World' (six parts) and 'City Of Glass' (four): it is astonishingly original and challenging music, dense yet beautiful, as uniquely American as Charles Ives. Graettinger travelled with the band and wrote for the individuals in it, as Duke Ellington did for his band; he wrote 'City Of Glass' '48 but expanded it for recording, one of the few arrangers of the era who did anything original with strings. He lived deliberately as an outsider, and grew more and more solitary; as Max Harrison wrote for the reissue, 'As the ferocious detail of Graettinger's music crowds in on us -- harsh, stark, subtly alien like an unleashed natural force -- we tamed consumers glimpse a set of values that severely questions our own.'

(A new recording of Graettinger's music was City Of Glass '93 on Channel Crossings, conducted by Gunther Schuller. That CD also included two arrangements by by Rugolo and one by Franklyn Marks from '49. The band was the Ebony Band, formed by Werner Herbers in 1990; Herbers played oboe in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and also was a member of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. Herbers and his band were also heard on that label in Robert F. Graettinger: Live at the Paradisio '98, with vocalist Claron McFadden, a collection of 21 more of Graettinger's compositions and arrangments, many previously unrecorded.)

Kenton's output as a whole showed no sense of direction or growth, but had good work within it. He had a need to be seen as 'progressive', an adjective usually denoting music which will date quickly; he later described the Beatles as 'children's music' and country music as 'a national disgrace', while he made an album with country singer Tex Ritter in March '62, and on other occasions pointlessly revamped 'Stardust' as a boogie and dabbled in bossa nova etc as though the mere application of a technique was an end in itself. Much of his own later work appealed mostly to high-school bandmasters, which could be a backhanded compliment in that the music may be fun or challenging to play, but the difference between Herman and Kenton was apparent: both bands could be loud, but Herman always entertained (and swung), while Kenton was often pretentious. His Kenton/Wagner album '64 was merely bombastic, yet Adventures In Time '62 (written by Johnny Richards; see his entry) is both excellent and original; and when Kenton made a solo piano album (Stan Kenton Without His Orchestra '73) he turned back to earlier material such as Rugolo's '47 compositions.

Kenton had hit albums of the lighter stuff; chart entries included albums of 78s, then 10-inch LPs '46-53, then Stan Kenton In Hi-Fi '56 (hits remakes), Cuban Fire! '56, music from West Side Story '61 (won Grammy), two-disc Stan Kenton Today '72 (made in London for high-tech Phase Four label). He led summertime Stan Kenton Clinics '59-63, led a 27-piece group '61 with four specially-made mellophoniums; launched the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra '65 for 'third stream' music by various composers with guests Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy DeFranco, European crossover concert pianist Friedrich Gulda, etc. He testified before the US Senate '67, working for revision of music copyright law. More compilations included The Formative Years on Decca/MCA; Greatest Hits on Capitol ('40s masters); The Kenton Era, a four-disc set with a booklet on Capitol compiling '41-55 tracks; The Complete Capitol Studio Recordings 1943-47 on Mosaic, eight CDs/twelve LPs; more on Hindsight. Capitol had allowed Kenton's work to go out of print; around '70 he made a deal for his master tapes and issued early work as well as new, over 40 albums on his Creative World label were still listed in Schwann '95.

Kenton's long career with its extreme highs and lows in terms of quality needed sorting out, but for a long time there wasn't a good book on the subject. Straight Ahead '73 by Carol Easton gave some details and an incomplete portrait of Kenton, but was no use on the music. He was seen as very straight, never appearing in public without a suit and tie, but his daughter Leslie says in her book Love Affair (2010) that he was a lifelong alcoholic dominated by a crazy mother, and that they had an incestuous relationship when Leslie was 11-13 years old. Michael Sparke's Stan Kenton: This is an Orchestra! 2011 is more to the point, sorting out the bands and the music.