Stan Kenton at 100

Stan Kenton at 100

Stan Kenton, whose centenary was yesterday, was on the vanguard of the wash of “experimental” music produced after the Second World War, but has slid into relative obscurity only because of an affected disdain towards so-called “middlebrow” culture in the critical dialectic.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

I was sitting in the kitchen of my mom’s San Francisco apartment, grumbling about not being able to come up with something to write for this week, when she offered to write my entry for me. For a minute, I thought about taking her up on the offer (although not an improvising musician per se, she’s a good improviser when it comes to negotiating alien territory). We began talking about improvisation—how humans (and all living things, really) improvise as a matter of course—and the subtleties of musical improvisation. Our conversation fairly quickly deteriorated into an argument about whether improvisation is instinctual or cultural, invoking an analogy with walking that included Googling articles on feral children. We couldn’t agree on whether or not improvisation exists independently from culture before I saw a blurb announcing two concerts at the Manhattan School of Music to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stan Kenton next month.

Then I remembered the hours sitting in front of mom’s stereo, listening to Kenton’s Sketches on Standards, Artistry in Rhythm, and Back to Balboa, featuring the arrangements of Bill Holman, Pete Rugolo, and Johnny Richards as well as Kenton. I was mesmerized by the density of the Kenton sound and intensity of the band’s swing. What I sensed, and later learned to be the case, was that no matter how hard the band swung, Kenton was playing music he wanted his audience to listen to that primarily focused on the compositions and arrangements of his stellar orchestrators rather than on his star soloists (which included Maynard Ferguson, Lee Konitz, and Art Pepper, to name a very few).

So I searched out City of Glass, the landmark Bob Graettinger composition, and found that the entire body of Greattinger/Kenton collaborations can be heard online for no charge (other than an internet connection). These works were on the vanguard of the wash of “experimental” music produced after the Second World War but have slid into relative obscurity only because of an affected disdain towards so-called “middlebrow” culture in the critical dialectic. Because Kenton had a dance band, his attempts to create and present new music that embraced cutting-edge compositional and orchestration devices were marginalized. To sell his music, marketing strategies were employed that attached adjectives like “progressive” and “space age” to his name. To this day, Kenton’s contributions are somewhat marginalized, even in the jazz academy. I can remember hearing one of my professors describing him as a modern Paul Whiteman because he championed new music and mostly hired white musicians. Even if one discounts the disingenuity of pulling the race card on Kenton, the fact remains that Kenton’s music was jazz, no matter how many French horns, mellophones, or string players he added to the core big band. Another professor made regular asides about how he thought Kenton looked like a car salesman. But, for that matter, so do some professors (at least the healthy ones)!

But even discounting the “experiments” of Greattinger (like City of Glass, which so clearly influenced Bernstein’s West Side Story), Kenton produced a body of work that set a standard for big-band arranging and pedagogy. I wish I was the person who first noticed that one of the salient features of Kenton’s charts is that they can be played by almost any competent band and they sound like they’re supposed to. One doesn’t have to take the idiosyncrasies of a group’s personnel into account to perform Kenton’s music. All one has to do is play what’s on the page correctly and in tune—an interesting idiosyncrasy in itself!

I certainly hope that there will be many tributes and commemorative concerts during Kenton’s centenary. He left quite a legacy that deserves to be revisited. I don’t know if any of the radio stations that specialize in playing jazz noted the date (December 15, 1911). I’m sorry I didn’t it until it was almost over.

Happy Birthday, Stan Kenton!