The Stan Kenton Legacy
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.
Hagans remembers, "When he put me in the jazz chair, I’d be playing these odd times and rhythms over just chords. I’d be out there in front of the band for 2-3 minutes and be playing with one chord. It forced me to look for other avenues than simply melodies and scales. Stan wanted the soloists to play differently every night. He’d yell at us on the bus afterwards, 'You’re repeating yourself!’ So, to avoid getting yelled at, I experimented with all sorts of other notes and wrong notes. From that experience, I developed a foundation for what I do now." Hagans elaborates, "The last thing we’d do every night would be those last three notes in 'Artistry in Rhythm.' This last thing would be the hardest part of the whole gig, and we’d be thinking about it all night. That was typical of Stan. He made us work. He pushed the musicians as well as the audience." Holman admits, "Kenton offered me a lot more opportunities for writing. He gave us arrangers and composers a lot more freedom and credit than other bandleaders." For all of his grandiose gesturing and musical pomposity, Kenton made sure that credit was given to whom it was due. This created an undying loyalty of the band members to their leader.
"He gave everyone in the band credit every night, even on the broadcasts," recalls Bagley. "An example of the antithesis would be Buddy Rich. He had marvelous musicians, Phil Woods and Gene Quill, but the only people he’d introduce were the movie stars in the audience. Stan gave us credit, and we appreciated him for that." "He hired only the best, and made them popular by letting everyone know who they were," says Bagley. "When he was working the same venue, by the second or third time, the musicians were stars because the audience knew them." Konitz affirms, "He tried to find good and interesting writers, like Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, and Marty Paich." In fact, even Nelson Riddle was impressed with Kenton’s arrangements, as he admittedly stole Bill Russo’s intro to "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" and turned it into the famous segue in Sinatra’s "I’ve Got You Under My Skin." Konitz remembers, "A lot of people ridiculed me when I left Tristano to join the Kenton band. Later on I learned these same musicians were copying down the solos I made with Stan." "He was a great boss, a kind man, and he was not afraid to try new things. He was also what you could call a warrior for the music. Not many men around these days like that," summarizes Erskine.
But what about his rumored reputation of racism? After all, his orchestras consisted of "white" music played by white musicians. "Stan was one of the most open-minded guys on earth," defends Hagans. "There wasn’t a racist chromosome in his body. You circulate around people you know. Stan was a white guy in a white world at that time in the Forties and Fifties. He did have black players in his band later on. Look, Herman, Rich and Maynard had white bands, and no one accuses them of racism." Bagley agrees, "He had Ernie Royal in the band and we toured with Cole, Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Erroll Garner. Stan loved these people. Color had nothing to do with him. He just wanted to hire the best that he knew."
In fact, if anything is to be remembered for Kenton’s legacy, it will be the musicians he hired. People will certainly remember dating and marrying to "Eager Beaver" and "Intermission Riff," but that is an exercise in nostalgia, a la Glenn Miller. The true legacy of Kenton has to be the number of incredible musicians that he gave the jazz world as a result of of his tempering them. With one band consisting of Art Pepper, Anita O’Day, Buddy Childers, and Bob Cooper, and then replacing them with other bands consisting of Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne, June Christy, with further additions of Lee Konitz, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Bill Perkins, Pepper Adams, Mel Lewis, Charlie Mariano, and Lucky Thompson, borders on the phenomenal. Not even Duke Ellingtons’s orchestra could boast that many alumni having successful solo careers. "Because I worked with Kenton, I had no problem getting a job," concludes Bagley. "I was a known quality." Erskine agrees, "I felt very lucky to be in Stan's band. I had just turned 18 when I joined. After playing with the band for a few days, Stan and I shared an elevator in the hotel after a gig, and he said to me, 'You know Peter, we haven't discussed money yet.' And I replied, 'OK, how much do you want?'"
My parents tell me that the success of a father is determined by how his grandchildren turn out. If the Kenton orchestra was his child, then the success of his grandchildren, and their influence on the jazz world is a testimony to the vision of the controversial, but never compromising leader. Kenton took the criticism because he followed his vision, and the musicians he’s left us in his wake have made the jazz world a better place.