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Did Stan Kenton Swing? You Bet Your Walkin' Shoes He Did...

Jack Bowers By

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I've been listening to a lot of Stan Kenton's music recently while coming to grips with the age-old question, did the Kenton orchestra really swing? The answer, to me, is a no-brainer: Yes, Kenton swung. Liberally and often. [Note: This of course depends on how "swinging" is defined; opinions may vary]. In his own way—although he'd have been loath to admit it—Kenton's series of orchestras swung as hard as anyone, even Basie, Herman or Rich. For assurance, one need look no further than some of the arrangers Kenton employed—die-hard swingers such as Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan and Marty Paich, to name a few. There's no doubt that Bill Russo could muster a swinging groove too, as could Pete Rugolo, Johnny Richards, Gene Roland, Dee Barton, Manny Albam, Neal Hefti, Willie Maiden, Lennie Niehaus, Hank Levy, Bob Curnow and their kin. With master craftsmen of their stature calling the tunes and writing the charts, how could any band not swing?

Kenton's brand of swinging, of course, neither began nor ended with the arrangers. He also hired musicians to whom swinging was second nature, guys like Zoot Sims, Art Pepper, Frank Rosolino, Stan Getz, Charlie Mariano, Conte Candoli, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Carl Fontana, Richie Kamuca, Sam Noto, Bud Shank, Stu Williamson, Pepper Adams, Jack Sheldon, Milt Bernhart, Buddy Childers, Jack Nimitz, Bill Trujillo, Lee Konitz, Bobby Burgess and so many others. Shorty Rogers was on the band for a time, as were Russo, Holman, Barton, Maiden, Niehaus, Curnow and Roland (who kept leaving and coming back). Kenton also employed a number of superlative big-band drummers, from Shelly Manne to Stan Levey, Mel Lewis to Jimmy Campbelll, plus Frank Capp, Peter Erskine, Ed Soph and John Von Ohlen—not to mention the McKenzies, Jerrys One and Two. Barton, a trombonist, also doubled on drums.

There were times, of course, when the Kenton orchestra did not swing, but that was always Kenton's choice. He had larger purposes in mind, and swinging sometimes got in the way. But when Kenton chose to swing, he did so as well as anyone. To be more specific, there aren't, in my opinion, many charts that swing more lustily than Holman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" (still the No. 1 big-band arrangement in my catalogue). Holman also contributed such powerhouses as "Kingfish," "Fearless Finlay," "Zoot," "Royal Blue" and "The Opener" to the Kenton library, along with high-energy arrangements of the standards "What's New," "Limehouse Blues," "There Will Never Be Another You," "Crazy Rhythm," "Tico Tico," "I Remember You," "Stella by Starlight" and others including a dynamic arrangement of the Spanish classic "Malaguena." Speaking of swingers, Paich wrote "The Big Chase," Mulligan "Swing House," "Young Blood," "Limelight" and "Walking Shoes," Rogers "Round Robin," Maiden "A Little Minor Booze," Richards the Cuban Fire suite, Levy "Hank's Opener" and "Chiapas," Barton "The Singing Oyster" and "Turtle Talk," Roland "Reuben's Blues," Ray Starling "Mellophobia" and "Four of a Kind."

Like Holman, Russo's contributions were extensive, starting with his memorable salute to Cuba, "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West," and including "Frank Speaking" and "Portrait of a Count." He also arranged lively versions of many standards: "Fascinating Rhythm," "Jeepers Creepers," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "You and the Night and the Music," "Crazy Rhythm," "How High the Moon," "There Will Never Be Another You" and so on. While the bulk of Niehaus' arrangements were written for Kenton's "dance library," many of them swing with abandon, as for example, "Lullaby of Broadway," "Younger Than Springtime," "Begin the Beguine," "Too Close for Comfort" and "On the Street Where You Live." Besides "Reuben's Blues," Roland wrote "Puck's Blues" and "Fitz" while arranging a number of Kenton staples including "Jump for Joe" and "Tuxedo Junction." Richards placed a swinging stamp on a number of standards including "Begin the Beguine" and "I Concentrate on You." I know I've left some (perhaps many) out, but the point is that Kenton's orchestra swung more often than not, and that anyone who holds a contrary opinion should certainly listen more closely.

The Commodores Drop Anchor

When it comes to luring big bands to Albuquerque, Manzano High School seems to be the only game in town, thanks to the school's director of Jazz Studies, Brad Dubbs, who keeps throwing his line in the water and reeling them in. Last year it was the Army Jazz Ambassadors who graced Manzano with their presence, and last month it was the Navy Commodores who made Albuquerque the first stop on an extended tour of the Southwest and Southeast with stops in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Thursday evening concert (October 25) was held in the school gymnasium, which wasn't quite filled but hosted a fairly decent turnout for a service band that is pretty much an unknown quantity to most of those who live in this part of the country. The Commodores didn't let anyone down, displaying their genial temperament and incisive musical skills in a program that opened with Sammy Nestico's "Dimensions in Blue" and ended about ninety minutes later with an "Armed Forces Salute" and an eloquent rendition of "America the Beautiful" by the band's vocalist, Casey Elliott. Earlier, she had sung "I Love Being Here with You," "I Just Found Out About Love" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "So Many Stars."

Also on the program (which, according to emcee / alto saxophonist William Mulligan, changes with every performance) were Frank Rosolino's "Blue Daniel" (featuring the Commodores' jazz trombonist, Jamie Way); a medley of big-band hits from the '30s and '40s; Frank Foster's "Blues in Hoss' Flat"; the standard "Just in Time" (featuring flugel Jonathan Barnes and alto Steve Williams); Bob Curnow's arrangement of Pat Metheny's "The Gathering Sky" (with superb solos by pianist Dan LaMaestra and guitarist David Malvaso); a Latin charmer, "La Cosa Labria" (I hope I got that right) by the band's senior chief musician / unit leader / tenor saxophonist Phil Burlin (who also soloed with baritone saxophonist Rob Holmes); and last but not least, a spirited rendition of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" with saxophonists Mulligan and Luis Hernandez doubling on piccolo. The Commodores are one of a number of topnotch service bands, all of whom are battle-tested and ready to deliver a pleasurable performance whenever and wherever they face an audience. Their concert at Manzano High School was no exception to the rule.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !

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