Stanley Newcomb "Stan" Kenton (December 15, 1911 – August 25, 1979) was a pianist, composer, and arranger who led an innovative, influential, and often controversial American jazz orchestra. In later years he was active as an educator.
Stan Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised first in Colorado, then in California. He learned piano as a child, and while still a teenager toured with various bands. He attended Bell High School, in Bell, California, where he graduated in 1930. In June 1941 he formed his own band, which developed into one of the best-known West Coast ensembles of the 1940s. In the mid-1940s, Kenton's band and style became known as "The Wall of Sound", a tag later used by Phil Spector.
Kenton played in the 1930s in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, but his natural inclination was as a band leader. In 1941 he formed his first orchestra, which later was named after his theme song "Artistry in Rhythm". A competent pianist, influenced by Earl Hines, Kenton was much more important in the early days as an arranger and inspiration for his loyal sidemen. Although there were no major names in his first band (bassistHoward Rumsey and trumpeter Chico Alvarez come the closest), Kenton spent the summer of 1941 playing regularly before a very appreciative audience at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford (who, like Kenton, enjoyed high-note trumpeters and thick-toned tenors), the Stan Kenton Orchestra struggled a bit after its initial success. Its Decca recordings were not big sellers and a stint as Bob Hope's backup radio band was an unhappy experience; Les Brown permanently took Kenton's place.
Stan Kenton with Eddie Safranski, 1947 or 1948
By late 1943 with a Capitol Records contract, a popular record in "Eager Beaver", and growing recognition, the Stan Kenton Orchestra was gradually catching on. Its soloists during the war years included Art Pepper, briefly Stan Getz, altoist Boots Mussulli, and singer Anita O'Day. By 1945 the band had evolved quite a bit. Pete Rugolo became the chief arranger (extending Kenton's ideas), Bob Cooper andVido Musso offered very different tenor styles, and June Christy was Kenton's new singer; her hits (including "Tampico" and "Across the Alley From the Alamo") made it possible for Kenton to finance his more ambitious projects. A popular recording of "Laura" was made, the theme song from the filmLaura (starring actress Gene Tierney), and featured the voices of the band.
Calling his music "progressive jazz," Kenton sought to lead a concert orchestra as opposed to a dance band at a time when most big bands were starting to break up. By 1947 Kai Winding was greatly influencing the sound of Kenton's trombonists, the trumpet section included such screamers as Buddy Childers, Ray Wetzel, and Al Porcino, Jack Costanzo's bongos were bringing Latin rhythms into Kenton's sound, and a riotous version of "The Peanut Vendor" contrasted with the somber "Elegy for Alto". Kenton had succeeded in forming a radical and very original band that gained its own audience.
In 1949 Kenton took a year off. In 1950 he put together his most advanced band, the 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra that included 16 strings, a woodwind section, and two French horns. Its music ranged from the unique and very dense modern classical charts of Bob Graettinger to works that somehow swung despite the weight. Such major players as Maynard Ferguson (whose high-note acrobatics set new standards), Shorty Rogers, Milt Bernhart, John Graas, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne, and June Christy were part of this remarkable project, but from a commercial standpoint, it was really impossible. Kenton managed two tours during 1950-1951 but soon reverted to his usual 19-piece lineup.
Then quite unexpectedly, Kenton went through a swinging period. The charts of such arrangers as Shorty Rogers, Gene Roland, Gerry Mulligan, Marty Paich, Johnny Richards, and particularly Bill Holman and Bill Russo began to dominate the repertoire. Such talented players (in addition to the ones already named) as Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, Sal Salvador, Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Sam Noto, Bill Perkins, Charlie Mariano, Mel Lewis, Pete Candoli, Lucky Thompson, Carl Fontana, Pepper Adams, and Jack Sheldon made strong contributions. The music was never predictable and could get quite bombastic, but it managed to swing while still keeping the Kenton sound.
Stan Kenton in Munich, September 25, 1973
Kenton's last successful experiment was his mellophonium band of 1960-1963. Despite the difficulties in keeping the four mellophoniums (which formed their own separate section) in tune, this particular Kenton orchestra had its exciting moments; the albums "Adventures in Jazz" and "West Side Story" (arrangements by Johnny Richards) each won Grammy awards in 1962 and 1963. Kenton Plays Wagner (1964) was an important project, produced in concert with his interests in jazz education and encouraging big band music in high schools and colleges instructing what he called "progressive jazz." Stan knew what he had in the body of work that was The Stan Kenton Orchestra and in the remainder of his life and career, he took on the challenge of ensuring his legacy that was Progressive Jazz.
A somewhat ironic twist to his jazz roots emerged in his 1962 single "Mama Sang A Song". His last US Top 40 (#32 Billboard, #22 Music Vendor), the song was a narration, written by country singer Bill Anderson. He re-released it in the 1970s on his Creative World label.
In the early 1970s Kenton split from his long-time association with Capitol Records and formed his own label, "The Creative World of Stan Kenton". Recordings produced during the 1970s on this new label included several "live" concerts at various universities and are a testament to his devotion to education. In addition, Kenton made his charts available to college and high-school stage bands. When Kenton took to the road during the early 70's and up to his last tour, he took with him seasoned veteran musicians (Willie Maiden, Warren Gale, Graham Ellis and others) teaming them with relatively unknown young artists to mentor America's youth and take advantage of the unchecked energy in those young players while at the same time preserving the legacy of his work as an active art form. New Kenton arrangements (including those by Hank Levy, Bill Holman, Bob Curnow, Willie Maiden and Ken Hanna) expanded the creative foundation that nurtured original musical exploration by these younger artists long after Gabe Baltazar's "graduation" in 1965. Many alumni became educators and itinerant clinicians caught up in the art of inspiring younger players (Mike Vax, The Baron Jon Von Ohlen, Chuck Carter, and Richard Torres). A few went on to take their musical careers to the next level (Peter Erskine, Dick Shearer) and beyond.
Jack Sandmeier, Road Manager during these years, tells the story of an unusual meeting in a hotel lobby lounge between Woody Herman and Kenton. Unusual because they both toured more than fifty (50) weeks a year "one-nighters," in order to keep their respective bands on the road, they hardly ever met. In discussing a chronically late band member, Herman said to Kenton..."Fire his ass, there's thousands of them and only two of us."
He had a skull fracture from a fall in 1977 while on tour in Reading, PA. He entered Midway Hospital on August 17, 1979 after a stroke and later died.
In 1956, when the band returned from its European trip, the Critics Poll in Down Beat reflected victories by black musicians in virtually every category. The Kenton band was playing in Ontario, Canada, at the time, and Kenton dispatched a telegram which lamented "a new minority, white jazz musicians," and stated his "disgust [with the so-called] literary geniuses of jazz." Jazz criticLeonard Feather, alone of all the critics, responded in the October 3, 1956, issue with an open letter which questioned Kenton's racial views. Feather implied that Kenton's failure to win the Critics Poll was probably the real reason for the complaint, and wondered if racial prejudice was involved.
Fellow DownBeat critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote that Feather's verdict was passed on Kenton "...without, unfortunately, any real forethought or public statement from the only musicians really in a position to know.” Jazz writer Jack McKinney stated that the night Kenton wrote the telegram, there were two African-Americans trombonists touring with him. Previous to Feather's letter, in the December 16, 1953, issue of Down Beat, critic Nat Hentoff had written that ". . . Stan is as free from prejudice of any kind as any man I know."
Feather's allegation of prejudice ignored Kenton's well-known close friendships with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In July to September, 1955, the year before Feather's letter, Kenton hosted the CBS summer replacement, Music 55, for which he invited Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, and many other African-American artists to participate.He toured with Basie and his Orchestra in Fall, 1960, and released a single with the Nat King Cole Trio in 1962 that included Orange Colored Sky.
McKinney wrote further, in 1965, that "All points [of the Feather letter] except the last were based on conjecture, and events preceding and following Feather's complaint have shown how ridiculous they were." He further pointed out that many budding African-American jazz musicians, such as Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, were given more exposure on Kenton-sponsored tours than elsewhere. One Kenton band member, trumpeter Donald Byrd, in discussing Kenton's hands-on college and university music program, said, "My experience with the Stan Kenton clinic at the National Band Camp has left me in complete ecstasy ... The camp was interracial, both in the teaching faculty and the student body..."
Feather himself realized his error, and in August, 1960, apologized for the letter he then claimed was a "result of sorrow." Kenton later lamented of Feather's apology, "I think it was on the back page of the Pittsburg Inquirer." Kenton reportedly felt that Feather had created a great ill feeling toward him by African-American musicians, and no matter how apologetic Feather would be, much of that "prejudice-in-reverse" would remain.
Kenton was a salient figure on the American musical scene and made an indelible mark on the arranged type of big band jazz. Kenton's music evolved with the times throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and although he was no longer considered a contemporary innovator, he promoted jazz and jazz improvisation through his service as an educator. The "Kenton Style" continues to permeate big bands at the high school and collegiate level, and the framework he designed for the "jazz clinic" is still widely in use today.
His music has experienced a resurgence in interest, with later critical "rediscovery" of his music and many reissues of his recordings. An alumni band tours to this day, led by lead trumpeter Mike Vax, which performs not only classic Kenton arrangements, but also new music written and performed in the Kenton style.
Kenton donated his entire library to the music department of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), and the Stan Kenton Jazz Recital Hall is named in his honor. His arrangements are now published by Sierra Music Publications.
Kenton continued leading and touring with his big band up to his final performance in August 1978. He suffered a stroke in August 1979. Kenton did not recover and died on August 25, 1979. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles.