Attention living jazz legends: make friends fast. Or at least treat your relatives respectfully. Because if you don't, your legacy is likely to take a beating. A few weeks ago, David Hajdu, a superb jazz writer at the New Republic, re-evaluated Stan Kenton, and his assessment was fairly blunt: "The bulk of [Kenton's] output was blighted by ostentation, gimmickry, and bloat. Stan Kenton gave pretentiousness a bad name." David went on to "recommend the music highly to any contemporary artist inclined to monstrosity." [Photo at top of Buddy Childers and Stan Kenton c. 1948 by William P. Gottlieb]
David certainly has a point. I have my own Kenton issues. I think the bandleader's rigidity, sappiness and frigid way in which he tried to Wagnerize jazz now seems silly, claustrophobic and contrived. Kenton always seems like a bank president trapped inside an orchestra leader. Even Kenton's own band musicians chafed under his anti-swing vision, and the leader came across as a musical martinet who sought high-culture legitimacy at all costs.
But I'm not sure that writing off Kenton's contribution to jazz based completely on these charges is appropriate. In all fairness, Kenton was no more or less pretentious or classical-obsessed than Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans and many other jazz greats under the sway of modernists. And Kenton's outsized, elitist ego surely didn't exceed Artie Shaw's, Bing Crosby's, Mel Torme's or half a dozen other musical personalities from the period.
So why is Kenton such a plump target for East Coast scribes?
I think Kenton's sound has been somewhat misunderstood. Kenton was from California. And California in the 1940s and '50s was a special place. It was big and growing bigger, fast during this period. California was first to embrace post-war modernity with its highway system, cars and tract housing. It had more of everything and was the cradle of the post-war American Dream.
And thanks to racist real estate covenants and segregationist police departments, Southern California's expansion was largely white. In the post-war years, more white musicians moved to the West Coast to take advantage of the weather, the recording opportunities and the new suburban lifestyle. Of course, there were plenty of black musicians who did well there, too—Nat Cole, Lee Young, Ray Brown, Buddy Collette, Red Callender [pictured] and others. But for the most part, Southern California was a white environment that greatly assisted white jazz—due to no fault of the white jazz musicians who benefited from the system.
Kenton was able to assemble a band of extraordinary players, readers and arrangers. The best bands ever? Hardly. The one band that will remain relevant for years to come? Obviously not. But in its time (from roughly 1945 to 1960) Kenton's bands were repeatedly extraordinary. Solo for Buddy, The Opener, Artistry Jumps, Malibu Moonlight, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Eager Beaver, Intermission Riff—all these and more encapsulate the drama of Southern California's brooding intensity, its coastline, its sunsets, its ambition and its aggression. The music of lotus land in transit.
In fact, I'm not sure how one writes off Kenton's contribution given the strength of Back to Balboa (1958) alone. Just as we size up Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in context with their times and ambitions, Kenton, for better or worse, needs to be valued the same way.
Kenton put the brassy kick in orchestral jazz. His band was made of up power punchers, and all were exceptional players and readers. His personality may not have allowed for the swing of Count Basie, the poetic textures of Duke Ellington or the wooliness of Woody Herman. But a large percentage of Kenton's works remain important.
Kenton was the West. And sometimes the West sounded superficial. Or less original. But California jazz still matters, and Kenton was the gleaming engine behind much of that optimism and dreaming. As for his daughter's charges in her book, shame on Kenton if they're true. As for the music, you really need to hear it while driving along the coast just south of Los Anegles. It all comes into focus.
Barbara Lea (1929-2011), a vocalist with enormous promise in the mid-1950s whose stage fright and slowing work opportunities forced her to give up singing until an acting career restored her confidence nearly 20 years later, died Dec. 26. She was 82.
Lea never seemed to be in the right place at the right time when she launched her professional singing career in 1954. A vocalist with sophistication and plenty of musical taste, Lea sacrificed a significant following when she chose not to tour—essential to an artist's popularity just as it is today. As a result, she was unable to gain traction as opportunities began to shrink rapidly in the pop-rock era.
Lea also was at something of a disadvantage, since she had a clean-cut, girl-next-door look in the '50s just when many popular female vocalists appeared sultry and vixen-like on stage and on album covers in an effort to part unsuspecting male music lovers from their LP dollars.
To Lea's credit, though, when she returned to the stage in the '70s, she managed to win the hearts of prominent jazz critics, including The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett. Their support helped revive her music career. But while Lea's choice of American Songbook classics enabled her to resurrect her singing career, she tended to become pegged as a cabaret singer and remained little known to many jazz fans.
Here's Lea singing Where Have You Been, from Barbara Lea, featuring Johnny Windhurst (tp) Dick Cary (p) Al Casamenti (g) Al Hall (b) and Osie Johnson (d)...
Carol Sloane—more about that photo. Last weekend I posted the photo above, courtesy of singer Carol Sloane. It features (from left): Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Rowles, Carol Sloane and Tommy Flanagan. Naturally, I had a bunch of questions—probably the same ones you had. Carol was kind enough to fill me in:
Where was the photo taken? "The apartment belonged to Pat Sheinwold on W. 58th St."
What's the occasion? "This was a party held for pianist Jimmy Rowles on the evening just before he left for England to play behind Ella Fitzgerald. He was to take over for Tommy Flanagan, who's with me at the piano. Jimmy had actually played for Ella a few weeks earlier as her 'new man' on a gig in Atlantic City."
Were you dating Bob Brookmeyer at the time? "No. This party would have been held in 1977 or '78. Bob had returned from Los Angeles in 1976, clean and sober."
What were you singing with Tommy at the piano? "I don't know whether I was singing or talking, but it sure looks like I was singing. I have no idea what the tune might have been."
Who else was at the gathering who isn't pictured? "Pianist Dick Katz and Tommy's wife Diana."
How did Flanagan and Rowles wind up in the same room? "Our hostess wanted it that way. And because they were very close friends. And because Jimmy was taking the piano chair for Ella. The only time I ever talked to Norman Granz was when I volunteered to negotiate the weekly stipend Jimmy would receive."
Whose photo is framed on the piano? "Jascha Heifetz."
What are Rowles and Brookmeyer talking about? "Lord only knows..."
Ray Charles—Hit the Road Jack and more. If you've been following Bret Primack's series of super video docs in support of Ray Charles: Singular Genius, the ABC Singles (Concord), you'll love his new installment...
CD discovery of the week: Mayer Hawthorne is the stage name of Andrew Mayer Cohen, a Los Angeles singer, producer, songwriter, arranger, engineer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist. Mayer is his middle name; Hawthorne is the street he grew up on in Ann Arbor, Mich. How Do You Do (Universal Republic) is Hawthorne's third album and a crafty integration of past soul themes, resulting in a powerful and convincing new white soul sound. On the singing and arranging side, Hawthorne manages to flavor his originals with touches of Blue Magic, the Average White Band and the Doobie Brothers. The beats are all catchy, and the keyboard, guitar, bass and horn hooks are tight and clubby. What's particularly nifty is how Hawthorne writes songs with contemporary themes but frames them with older soul approaches. Each of these themes is vaguely familiar. Notable tracks—Get to Know You, A Long Time and The Walk, which sounds like a funky blending of Tommy James and Lenny Williams. Or You Called Me, with its General Johnson Give Me Just a Little More Time vocal attack. Or You're Not Ready, a neat salute to Barbara Mason's Yes, I'm Ready. Hawthorne has quite a falsetto. Nicely done. You'll find How Do You Do at iTunes and Amazon.
Oddball album cover of the week: Chet Atkins in Hollywood was recorded in October 1958, when Hollywood still meant the opportunity to record pop and movie themes. Pop-rock was a few years off. Given Chet's love for the guitar, my guess is that his amazement and excitement behind the wheel have more to do with the Gibson hanging out on Hollywood and Vine than our gilt gal.