For years, if you wanted a documentary on Stan Kenton, you were pretty much out of luck. You either had to find DVDs that included clips of the band over the years or you scrounged around YouTube hoping someone put up something fresh. Now Graham Carter at Jazzed Media has produced and directed Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend. The new DVD offers a biographical look at the bandleader and his many orchestras through narration, musician interviews and rare footage, photos and promotional materials.
Though the DVD is a tad long (its running time is close to two hours) and the narration hits flat spots at times (even main talking head Ken Poston of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute appears to run out of gas after a while), the result remains a fabulous document that will more than satisfy hardcore Kentonians and offer the curious a strong sense of what made the bandleader special.
After opening on a Kenton concert from the 1970s, the documentary goes back in time to the beginning, when Kenton was just getting started in California. The DVD is divided neatly by Kenton's different bands: the Early Years (1937-43), Artistry in Rhythm (1943-47), Progressive Jazz (1947-48), Innovations in Modern Music (1950-51), Contemporary Concepts (1955-59) and so on.
What you learn along the way is that Kenton was disliked by critics early on (Leonard Feather referred to him as "Can't Stand Him"); radio played a big role in the band's emergence in 1941; Capitol's early signing with the musicians' union in 1943 during the recording ban gave Kenton an advantage; Kai Winding transformed the trombone section with elongated notes; commercial hits like Tampico allowed Pete Rugolo to arrange the more modern instrumentals; Kenton went broke funding his 43-musician Innovations orchestra, and Al Porcino and Mel Lewis were instrumental in convincing Kenton to scrap the stuffy Euro-jazz efforts in '50 and '51, and swing again. And this takes you just halfway through the documentary. [Photo of Kai Winding by William P. Gotlieb/Library of Congress]
The DVD is loaded with interviews, including on-screen appearances by Howard Rumsey, Bill Holman [pictured] and Eddie Bert as well as lesser-known Kenton alums. Tremendous film and photo research went into this DVD. Your screen is almost constantly occupied by little known clips and images of the bands. There's even a bio clip of Kenton standing on the empty lot where the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif., used to stand.
Graham Carter is to be commended for a tireless effort to interview top surviving Kenton talent and providing fans with a documentary worthy of the bandleader. This is an orchestra!
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Stan Kenton, Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend (Jazzed Media) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Stan Kenton and his orchestra with Eddie Safranski on bass in 1946 performing Southern Scandal...