The Stan Kenton Legacy
“ Kenton took the criticism because he followed his vision, and the musicians he ”
Submitted on behalf of George Harris
Before there were Dead Heads, Trekkies and even Beatlemaniacs, there were Kentonites. It’s difficult to believe that people like your father or uncle could have such unadulterated devotion to a leader, a band and an attitude about music, but it’s true. Sixty years ago, Stan Kenton put the musical world on notice that he was going to add his signature sound to American popular music, and pop/jazz fans have been rabidly divided on his merits, akin to the Tories and Loyalists. Only the likes of Chet Baker or Sun Ra have as strong a cult following as Kenton, born in Wichita, Kansas in 1911. On Google.com, there are over 64,000 sites for Kenton; in comparison, only a little over 300 sites are for Ludwig Van Beethoven.
There is no neutrality on Kenton; people either can’t stop talking about his band, or simply dismiss it. Why is there such a devoted following to this band? "I haven’t the slightest idea," states Kenton arranger Bill Holman. "The same people keep showing up at the Kenton (reunion) concerts. I know half of them by name now. There’s also a big contingent of Kenton fans in England and Europe." "It’s an abstract thing," adds trumpeter Tim Hagans. "Stan had a different type of fan following him. These people wanted Kenton’s music. They were more loyal and devoted than any other fan. We’d have people come to us that were not jazz fans, not big band fans, but they just loved Stan."
Peter Erskine has insight as well, "Stan, like his music, had a bigger than life presence. Stan's music was not afraid to be big, emotionally and sonically. I actually don't intellectually understand why his music still has such a powerful effect on me, but I'm grateful for the feeling every time I listen to one of his albums." When asked what attracted the fans to Kenton and his music, "First, he looked like a Hollywood actor," answered Hagans, "he had a Hollywood build. He was dynamic in front of the band, and people were attracted to that image." Altoist Lee Konitz agrees, "He remember people by name all over the world, even if he’d met them only one time. People were attracted to him." Kenton also pioneered, along with Dave Brubeck, the idea of building up a fan base by playing in colleges. "The freedom of playing in a college campus, instead of a concert hall created a good, intimate environment. I first met Stan when he came and played at my school," remembers Hagans.
But it takes more than good PR to develop such intense devotion. "He had a vision for his music, and believed strongly in what he did," adds bassist Don Bagley. "He did not play his music to be popular. He had a vision of what he wanted in music, and he didn’t water it down to give it a broader appeal. The people who understood that loved him for that and were devoted to him for it." Konitz concurs, "The audience could tell he was trying to accomplish something by hiring the best musicians." Hagans adds, "He’d get the music as close to the fire as you can get. He’d take the music to it’s extreme. He’d try to find out what the music possibilities were. He’d make the band play as loud as it could, and five seconds later, he’d bring it to an almost silence. People were attracted to see what he would try. It was an exercise in extremes. It created a great vibe, and people loved to see what he would try to do. People are attracted to, and loyal to, someone who takes chances."
As the Bible says, without a vision the people perish. Kenton had a vision that drew fans and attracted musicians, who were just as loyal to him. "He believed strongly in what he did," states Bagley. "He was dedicated to the music, but he never told me how to play. That’s important from a musician’s point of view." "He gave us young musicians a chance to play," gathers Konitz.