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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.

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