Bandleader, arranger, pianist Stanley Newcomb Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised in California. He played piano and arranged for local bands, and formed his own big band in 1940. After a difficult start, the Kenton orchestra, with its big ensemble sound and precisely executed arrangements, became popular from the mid-1940s through residencies, broadcasts and recordings.
It employed a galaxy of leading jazz musicians including Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Bob Cooper and Lee Konitz, and helped to make June Christy a singing star. Having initially tailored his orchestra to please dancers, Kenton moved, from the late 1940s, towards more adventurous and flamboyant musical forms, promoted as ‘progressive jazz’. He employed imaginative arrangers and composers and at times greatly enlarged his band, sometimes adding string sections and aiming his music mainly at concert hall audiences.
Kenton’s aim to make uncompromising contemporary music culminated in his performances of Bob Graettinger’s fiercely dissonant compositions such as “City of Glass” (1950–1). Thereafter, to retain audiences, he adopted a more varied repertoire but always with self-consciously modern voicings. From the 1960s he played extensively to student audiences on university campuses.
Kenton’s music is unique and easily recognisable, especially for its heavy use of brass, its dynamic extremes, and the always machine-like precision of the orchestra. But it has often been criticised as bombastic and pretentious, claims which his many loyal fans fiercely reject.
Biography by Roger Cotterrell
Les Tomkins interviewed Stan Kenton in 1972. Kenton talked in his usual forthright way about the current music scene, some of his notable arrangers, his differences with Gerry Mulligan, and how country & western music ‘appeals to the undeveloped mind’.
|Interview date||1st January 1972|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
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While you were ill for four months the band kept together and kept working with an unchanged lineup. I'd say that's a tribute to your leadership.
Well, I thank you for that. I think it's a tribute to them.
It's clear that they all have a very high regard for you.
And I for them. We're good friends. I rarely find it necessary to ever really scream at anybody, you know. I guess when I do I scream so loud they get scared to death! But that rarely happens. If some man should get out of line, then I'd have to—but they don't get out of line.
Do you have any particular plans other than continuing to tour and record with the band? Of course, you had previously got out of the habit of continuous touring, hadn't you?
The only reason I got out of the habit was because of my home life. No, I want to keep going with this thing, until other people start breaking through. And it will happen; I don't know whether it'll happen this year or next year, but there'll be a crash through generally.
Then, in the future, when this band is dissolved, I don't know exactly what I'll do. I have a great desire to write. I haven't written anything for two years or more. Maybe some of these days, after this breakthrough comes in music, I can stay at home and help run The Creative World record company, and perhaps write two or three days a week, too. And I think I'll always tour a little bit.
Wouldn't you feel like a fish out of water if you weren't leading a band on a regular basis?
Oh, I've gone for long periods without it. I really don't know, but I don't believe I'm a victim of habit, like a lot of people might think I am.
As regards other people writing for the band, do you give them any special directives?
Oh, I just talk generally about the writing, and what has to happen. I don't ever say: "Write this way, or that way." If we were trying to make a commercial record, then I'd enter into the thing. But one of the problems today is that one thing: writers, or composers. All the musicians now know how to orchestrate; they know theory, and how to arrange. The great problem is that very few of them have any ideas—and the ideas are the important thing. A composition is nothing without an idea, which has to have shape to it. It has to have a beginning, it has to develop, it has to be something.
Too many writers just put everything into a composition, and it's nothing, really—just a bunch of disconnected ideas. A lot of it, maybe, is exhibitionism. So it's very necessary that writers develop. It's just like improvisation. Everybody knows the theory of it, what you have to do to become an improvising soloist. But very few of them really have enough ideas to get up and create something.
You'd say it's knowing what to leave out, rather than what to put in?
To a great extent it's that, yes. Because a composition can be just one little idea, developed. It doesn't have to be five or six ideas; it'll destroy itself, if it is.
It does seem, though, that the compositions of people like Willie Maiden do have a definite Kenton flavour to them.
Well, I think that's partly because they know the environment in which they're writing. Then partly, too, is the way we interpret the music. If Willie were to write the same piece of music for us and for Woody, it would sound entirely different when played by Woody than by us. Of course, it's the interpretation that gives the composition its character.
In the cases of certain writers that have been with the band; we've had a hard time making a compromise with each other, because they had in their minds they wanted the band to sound another way. And, of course, I want it to sound my way; so there would be a conflict of taste there.
Well, there was once a kind of a contrapuntal sound that people associated with Bill Holman.
He tended to bring. that into the band, didn't he? Which was very good; it was very important. But Holman and I never had the conflict that Mulligan and I had. If Gerry had had his way, the band would have sounded entirely different. And you remember when Gerry had his own big band. That was when he got the sound he wanted. But I disagreed with him. So, for a number of years, Gerry said that I would never perform his music the way he had it in mind. I admit it—I wouldn't, because we couldn't have that kind of a character coming out of the band.
Because there has had to be some continuity?
Not so much the continuity; it's just the idea: why do I have a big band? Because of certain things that I believe in harmonically, and the structure of it. Gerry's—you noticed with the big band he had finally—was like a small group. Although it was a big band, it had small group feeling. That was his idea. Since that time, Gerry and I—I guess both of us have grown up a lot—we're quite friendly, and we have a great deal of respect for each other. In fact, we get together once in a while, start talking. about those periods, and get big laughs out of it.
Bill Holman has written again for the band recently, hasn't he?
Well, so far only this one thing that we play so much, "Malaguena". The background of that is: he was commissioned originally by Roger Schuller, who has a jazz ensemble at Millican State University in Dequatre, Illinois. He wanted something written for his band; so Holman wrote "Malaguena". And I felt this was such a notable piece of music that we should try to call attention to it, too; we started playing it, and we recorded it. But Bill hasn't really written anything else for us lately, although he's written for a lot of the other bands. It'd be nice to get some new things from Bill; maybe we'll do it. He's a very important composer.
And I suppose you'd say he's had to compromise his writing talents to some degree in the popular field, to earn a living.
Yes. Creativity is linked very closely with the cash register. Nevertheless, Bill still keeps sight of his goal.
How about Hank Levy, who has contributed impressive scores such as "Ambivalence" that you play?
Oh, he's very important, too. He's from the East Coast. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches at a small college called Towsan College. And his college band is something quite unbelievable—the ability, the way he's trained that band. It's possibly the most exciting thing I've heard in music—and these are college kids. He also teaches at a university in Washington, D.C.; they're only about forty miles apart. Also, he was probably the greatest influence on Don Ellis, with the unusual timesignature charts and all that sort of thing.' So I just felt that he must be heard. Two or three years ago, I told him: "You've got to get us some music, and help us call attention to you and your ability." That's the reason we have Hank Levy music in the book. I'd known him for quite a long time, because he used to play on the band years ago; he was a baritone saxophone player. I'd say he's written twelve or fifteen things for us, of which we play maybe four or five.
Does your own teaching usually involve the band, or do you go alone?
Nowadays, we take the whole band to schools, and we conduct our clinics. Sometimes we'll be at a school for a week, and let teachers and students from the whole area come in. For a while, during the period when I was not as active on the road, I'd go by myself. Individually, you can do a certain amount of good; you can help them with a little direction and maybe inspire them a little bit. But nothing inspires them like taking the whole band right into the school; because I think the greatest way young people learn is by seeing the example before them.
It's just like: when Maynard Ferguson came along, it's true there were other trumpet players that played high before him, but he was a young guy, and when the young trumpet men saw him play that way, then they knew it was possible. And once they know that a thing is possible, they get that psychological impulse: they must do it. Then they accomplish it much quicker. So the living example is what makes musicians grow. Young students today no longer want teachers; they don't want somebody up in front of them saying: "Look, if you do this, you'll be able to do that." They want you to do it first. It's demonstrators they need, more than teachers.
I'd say the difference between your band and Maynard's, as regards your method of getting across to young people, is that, with a lot of his charts, Maynard tends to translate his ideas into rock-flavoured terms, whereas you stay pure, really, to your own music.
Well, Maynard has done some very good things. But I really think my job is to hold ground, and try to create exciting music—not to join them. If I started playing down, in order to appeal to the kids, I would be lost. I feel that certain bigger bands have to be examples of what you can do. I don't want to play their music. We play "MacArthur Park" and even "Hey Jude", back in the States, but they're done our way.
You don't reject pop music out of hand totally, though?
No—some of it is very good. But it's just. . . I don't know when the situation is going to change in the States—this commerciality of the thing, of trying to appeal to most of the people most of the time. Radio is sick; television is sicker. They try to programme things to reach that lowest common denominator. That's why Country and Western music is so popular in the States. People say it's a big fad. It isn't a fad; if they'd played that twenty years ago as much as they do today, it would have been popular then, too. Because it appeals to the undeveloped mind.
But the fact of some good musicians playing in the popular field, and bringing their ideas to bear on it, and being accepted—this shows that it is possible to raise the level.
Sure it is. Certainly it's possible. And I'm sure it's quite possible to have a big band comeback, on a fully valid basis. It's happening—slowly. I've been I saying it's happening for five years, but I really feel we're getting closer to it all the time. Even if all the young musicians in the States don't become active professionally, at least you have fans—because they've played the music and they understand it.
One thing I'm very glad to have heard is that you're planning to bring the band over here every year in future.
We must, because we've got to heal the situation here—this lack of records, and the lack of exposure of the recordings. Recordings are the lifeblood of all of us, and it's the same situation in Europe. I don't know whether I'd say I'm bitter, but I do feel that EMI has failed terribly, now Capitol Records has fallen apart. It's okay to build something cheap in the way of a product, but you have to have something along with it that has some kind of valid value. I think every manufacturer of any kind of a product might have what they call their "economy line". But when people disregard everything, the way Capitol threw out its catalogue completely, that's all wrong.
So far, your "Creative World" label material here been available on order direct from you, or from a couple of limited sources. Are you going to be able to improve on this?
Most of the activity has come out of Nottingham, I think. We haven't finalised things yet, but they have to be pressed and distributed here.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved