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Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm - Portrait Of A Jazz Legend

Jack Bowers By

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Stan Kenton

Artistry In Rhythm: Portrait Of A Jazz Legend

Jazzed Media

2011

"I thought that [Stan] was an echo of life itself: that life is precious, life is exquisite, and life is magnificent. He lived it, and his legacy points to some of those values. Whether we are able to interpret them or not, they are there." That's noted jazz historian, educator and author Dr. Herb Wong, having (almost) the last word on Graham Carter's superlative documentary, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, and summarizing the legendary bandleader's life and legacy about as well as anyone could.

Kenton led such an extraordinary life, and there is so much ground to cover, it's remarkable that Carter is able to epitomize so much of it in slightly less than two hours. While there are brief glimpses into Kenton's personal life (some provided by former wives JoAnn and Audree Kenton), his music is the focal point, as it should be, and provides a melodic backdrop throughout the DVD's 117-minute running time, interspersed with perceptive comments by former members of the Kenton orchestra and others. The documentary, which helps mark the centenary of Kenton's birth in December 1911, was produced "in association with the Los Angeles Jazz Institute," whose director, Ken Poston, superimposes a low-key and even-handed narrative about the history and development of Kenton's various bands from their origin in 1941 at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA, to their last melancholy days before Kenton's death at age 67 on August 25, 1979.

The curtain rises with Kenton (young and old) at the keyboard, introducing the orchestra's familiar theme, "Artistry in Rhythm." After an opening section that embodies Poston's avowal that Kenton "took jazz from ballroom to concert hall," the chronicle is divided into a dozen well-drawn "chapters" beginning with The Early Years (1937-1943) and closing with The Kenton Era, in which Poston and a number of Kenton's former sidemen pore over his legacy. The other episodes are titled Artistry in Rhythm (1943-47), Progressive Jazz (1947-48), Innovations in Modern Music (1950-51), New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (1952-54), Contemporary Concepts (1955-59), Jazz Education, The New Era in Modern American Music (1960-63), The Neophonic Years (1964-69), The Creative World of Stan Kenton (1970-78) and Coda. Each chapter in Kenton's creative sphere is unique, showing, in Poston's words, that he was "always looking forward—trying to keep up with the times." In fact, no matter what new approaches rival bandleaders were considering, Kenton always seemed to be one long stride ahead of them.

Among the more poignant images in The Early Years is one of Kenton himself, standing in an empty field and explaining that "on this vacant piece of ground there was once a huge ballroom. It burned down twice—the last time was about two years ago—and I guess it's gone forever now. Here's where it began for me," he says, showing where once there stood a bandstand, soda fountain, entrances and a balcony that encircled the Rendezvous Ballroom, where the Stan Kenton Orchestra made its debut in August 1941. It wasn't long before Kenton's music was being heard coast-to-coast each week on the Mutual radio network, and the band was on the air on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the start of World War II.

Two years later, Kenton wrote his first hit song, "Eager Beaver," and the band was on its way, moving shortly thereafter from Decca to the newly minted Capitol Records label. The orchestra's resident singer, Anita O'Day, was replaced by Shirley Luster, who gained stardom under her new name, June Christy, delivering an immediate chart-topper in "Tampico." In 1948 arranger Pete Rugolo entered the picture, changing the direction and complexion of the orchestra from then on. Rugolo, says Poston, was "the architect of the Kenton sound . . . Pete's writing mirrored not only Stan's writing but Stan's ideas. He was as important to Kenton as Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington." Even so, Kenton broke up the band near the end of 1948. "He said he was going back to college and become a psychiatrist," says Bill Holman, who was to become one of Kenton's most respected arrangers. "Bill Russo once said everybody in the band was Stan's patient."

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