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
In a further conversation with Les Tomkins in 1973, Stan Kenton talks about the state of jazz, and about his plans to extend audiences for his music, playing for students and getting exposure for jazz in the mass media.
You can read the original article in Crescendo, March 1973, pp24, 26.
|Interview date||1st January 1973|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
Welcome back, Stan.
What's been happening since you were here a year ago? Well, we've been travelling a lot. I was away from the band for four months during an illness; I've been back to work since, New Year's Eve now. A lot of good things have happened. The Creative World is growing, and I'm very happy with it.
And the band managed to keep going this time again?
Yes, they did. They were wonderful. They not only kept going, but they didn't lose any money; which is very important. The last time I was ill, two years ago, there was quite a lot of money dropped, because of breaches of contract and so forth; but this time they were very good.
You have a few different men, don't you?
Yes, six or seven new fellows, and I believe in almost every case it's better than it was before-you'll have to judge for yourself. We have a new alto player, a fellow by the name of John Park; a very important new drummer is with us-Peter Erskine; also two new trombone players, Lloyd Spoon and Harvey Coonin, and a couple of new trumpet players. Most of 'em come from the colleges, I'd say.
Do you have a definite outlet for the Creative World over here now?
Well, the European headquarters opened in Amsterdam several months ago. The original home, of course, is in Los Angeles. It's growing very well.
How do you feel about the recording you made here last time?
I think that Decca did us a great deal of good by distributing the record throughout places in the world where the Creative World is not known; that was what the general objective was. For the most part I think the recording was good. The hall at Croydon is awfully live; it's very hard to control the sound there. There was some swimming of sound and so forth, which some people approve of and some people don't. No, we're not going to record here' this time. We have sixteen days, doing two concerts a day; so there won't be any chance to record, really.
But you're definitely going to be coming here regularly now, are you?
We must, because Great Britain is very important to us-and we were away too long.
Would you say you're able to exist in a better climate now than previously?
Oh yes, I think we all admit that in jazz. Especially in the States; it's very much better off now than it was a few years ago. And it's developing, because of the interest from young people. The calibre of young musicians coming up, and the fact that there are more of them all the time-that's, a good enough sign. The future looks very healthy.
People remark on your evidently unabated enthusiasm for your music.
That's right. I'm still quite emotionally involved with it.
Do you feel that the music the band plays is attempting to go as far out now as earlier on?
Well, I don't know-that's something for people like you to say. We've never tried to calculate or contrive music. The band plays what I think it should be playing. Some people think it's further out some think it's not so far out, but that's not the important think. It's whether I feel the music is valid or not.
Presumably, you continue to add to the library.
We have quite a lot of new stuff since you heard the band last year. It's pretty much the same group of writers-Willie Maiden, Hank Levy, Ken Hanna, Bill Holman.
Does Hank Levy write principally for you?
He writes for Don Ellis too, and for his own bands. He's mainly a teacher, at two colleges in the States. He's head of jazz studies.
How much of a challenge has it been for you to play before so many students?
To play for the students in high schools and universities is quite a privilege, because the music is not heard on the radio or on television. So when we present it to them in person, a lot of times they haven't been exposed to it. In most cases, because their parents liked it, they think big band jazz is old fashioned, but when they hear it live, they realise this is not so. That's why it's exciting.
Do you have trouble getting television exposure for the band?
We don't have any. No, we're not on television at all-no jazz attraction is. Television in the States is the most commercial thing there is, because they're dealing with trying to create something that'll entertain most of the people most of the time.
To appeal to mass tastes, they have to water down to the lowest common denominator. And jazz, of course, is not for the masses ,in the first place. I know it's possible to have jazz on television here-but not in the States. We've ruled it out completely.
Your recent albums seem to have all been made on concerts. Do you prefer recording live nowadays to studio dates?
Not necessarily-it's just coincidental, really. The last one, the "National Anthems" album, it wasn't live; it was done in the studio. There's room for both, I, think-formal studio recordings and live ones. Having done three or four of them, we should probably stay away from live recordings for a while. Having done three or four of them, we should probably stay away from live recordings for a while.
Has the band found Ronnie Scott's a good working environment?
They like to play where they can play jazz the way they want to play, whether it's in a club, a concert or whatever. Ronnie Scott's is one of the most famous clubs in the world; so they like playing there.
There must be certain nights when the band gets off the ground more than others.
Oh, it's pretty consistent. Of course, so many things affect the band. The acoustics in a place, the stage surroundings, the audience-everything affects the performance of any group. So if it's a good night, all these things contribute to it. If the acoustics are bad, it's not good for a musician's ego, because the sound comes right out of the end of his horn and drops on the floor; there are no overtones and nothing's flattering about it. Naturally, that would affect him psychologically.
Do you often encounter bad acoustics in the States?
Oh, not too much. The horror of our existence, I think, is to play in a club where it's too dead, where the sounds are just not flattering at all, and it sounds like the tearing of a wet rag. We try to avoid anything like that, but it does happen once in a while.
Any problems with pianos?
Generally, the pianos are much better than they used to be. Throughout Europe, the pianos are always very good; they're improving in the States, too. It used to be sometimes that a piano would be so bad, you couldn't even use it.
You still play quite a bit with the band as a pianist, as well as standing out front. I presume you like to keep that side of your abilities going.
I want to play, certainly. I was a piano player first, after all.
Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved