Swingin' Into Spring, Poston-Style
There's a line in the old popular song "Casey Would Waltz with the Strawberry Blonde that says "his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded . . . Having run the latest Ken Poston/Los Angeles Jazz Institute-sponsored marathon in Los Angeles, billed as Swing Into Spring, I can understand how Casey must have felt. The morning-noon-evening endurance contest showcased no less than twenty-two big bandsnot to mention a tentet, sextet, five films and a similar number of panel discussionsin only four days! Even sardines are given more wiggle room than that. There would have been twenty-three big bands but Bob Florence was under the weather and unable to attend, and Phil Norman's Tentet stepped in to sub for Bob's Limited Edition. As if that weren't far too much for any one brain this side of Einstein to absorb and process, there's even more! Those who chose to arrive a day early were treated to a "bonus eventa bus trip down the California coast to Balboa, where the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra made its debut on May 31, 1941, with lunch at the elegant Balboa Pavilion and yet another concert, this one by the superb Mike Vax Big Band featuring a number of Kenton alumni.
Before delving into specifics, let's set the scene. Swing Into Spring was held May 24-27 at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel, more precisely in two ground-level rooms, with concerts in the California Ballroom, most films and all panel discussions in the nearby San Diego Room. The low-slung, dimly lit ballroom is large enough to accommodate several hundred people, yet small enough to spark a number of well-aimed rants about the sound system in general and the volume level in particular. More about that later. As for the level of musicianship, trombonist Bill Watrous summed that up nicely during his set when he observed that "all of the musicians you're hearing this week are world-class. Yes, a number of the sidemen and women were seen and heard more than once (trumpeter Bob "Iron Man Summers played in no less than nine ensembles and was given the tongue-in-cheek "ubiquitous award by Gordon Goodwin), but without their remarkable talent and chameleon-like ability to perform brilliantly in any framework such a spectacular event wouldn't be feasible.
Betty and I arrived in L.A. on Tuesday evening, as we wanted to be alert and ready when the buses rolled at 9:30 Wednesday morning. The trip to Balboa took less than an hour, and we disembarked under sunny skies with the temperature around 70. Our "tour guide, Ken Poston, led us to the site of the former Rendezvous Ballroom, now an apartment complex (the Rendezvous burned down in 1966) and to other sites associated with Kenton including a nearby gazebo with a plaque listing the names of members of Kenton's first band (including bassist Howard Rumsey who was there for the occasion). We were free to wander around Balboa for an hour before heading to the Pavilion for lunch. The Mike Vax band was setting up as we chose our seats, and shortly thereafter we experienced one of those rare moments in life that should always be cherished. Seated in an opulent ballroom on a gorgeous spring day, I was about to take a bite of chicken cacciatore when Vax counted down and the band launched into Bill Holman's definitive arrangement of "Stompin' At The Savoy (played at precisely the right tempo). It was the perfect beginning to a wonderful afternoon of music.
The band followed "Savoy with Willie Maiden's "Walk Softly and Holman's "Song for Buddy, the last written for trumpeter Buddy Childers and featuring Vax and Carl Saunders. A phone call was placed to Childers' home so he could hear the piece played over the phone in his honor but the response was that he was napping and couldn't be wakened, a moment whose import was amplified the following afternoon when another fine trumpeter, Steve Huffsteter, disclosed to the audience during his band's performance that Buddy had passed away during the night. Needless to say, a great loss to the Jazz community, and I'd say more about it here but Buddy deserves an article of his own, which will be forthcoming next month.