Weekend Wax Bits - JazzWax

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December 31, 2011


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Chris Darkheart

I always saw Kenton's act as descending directly from Paul Whiteman, as was Spike Jones and Lawrence Welk.... maybe a feature on any of these three would be a good idea :P

Chris Galuman

I played two years with Stan in the early 70's. It was exciting every night from inside the band, and most of the time, the audience seemed to agree.

Nick Rossi

Nicely done as usual Marc. Kenton in context is a very interesting proposition indeed. One quick correction on your oddball feature. That's a Gretsch guitar not a Gibson. Atkins endorsed (and played) Gretsch guitars at the time of recording this LP, although the model featured is not one of the models he favored and almost certainly not his.

Doug Zielke

"...Kenton always seems like a bank president trapped inside an orchestra leader..."

Priceless Marc!
Have a great New Year and thank you for my daily fix of 'Wax.


Well, Stan Kenton, whose centennial was on December 15, he possessed a complex, multilayered personality.

He always wanted it big, but not too jazzy. He was definitely not a very easy going, or charming person. As I wrote in my blog (feel free to click on my name) my favorite Kenton era is his 1944/45 to 1954 period with June Christy, all those great players like Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Sal Salvador, Conte Candoli, Laurindo Almeida, or Stan Levey, and arrangers Pete Rugolo, Bill Holman, Bill Russo, and the one who wrote and rewrote for Kenton's book probably more than any other, Gene Roland.

From 1955 on, only the Johnny Richards albums are really of interest for me. -- "Cuban Fire", "West Side Story", "Adventures In Time", and last but not least the wonderful album with Stan Kenton's last regular vocalist Jean Turner stand out here as jazz orchestral milestones.

Those mighty mellophoniums are sounding like ancient Roman cornua (that's at least how I would imagine their sound).

Robert Graettinger's works for Kenton, "City of Glass" & "This Modern World", should be treated extra, as new music rather, than as jazz.

I simply love this album:



Roger Schore

Regarding today's blog, I'm in agreement with your defense of Kenton.
I find a good deal of his music colorful and exciting. But I do have a
bone to pick with you when you label Kenton's "outsized, elitist ego"
and link it with Bing Crosby. I don't understand what an "elitist ego"
is? Was Crosby an elitist? I'm sure that he had a very healthy ego
as all driven performers must have, but I've never come across a
statement ascribed to Crosby, either publicly or privately, in which he
put himself above others. All his well quoted public remarks regarding
his vocal abilities and rivals, most notably Sinatra, were self-deprecating
and modest. As for the public's perception of Crosby, I think his image,
at least in the 1940's, was that of being an Everyman, rather than being
part of an elite.

Bill Kirchner

Why Kenton continues to be a lightning rod after all these years is beyond me. Like most other jazz musicians with a huge discography, his music varied in quality. But even for listeners who have no use for his music in general, there are Kenton albums that are indispensable in the history of big-band jazz, including the 1955 CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS pictured above. Anyone who can't "hear" that album (propelled by Al Porcino and Mel Lewis, and with superb arrangements by Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan and equally superb solos by Charlie Mariano, Lennie Niehaus, Bill Perkins, and Carl Fontana) has perfect ears: no holes.

Most of the musicians who worked for Kenton have said that he always treated them with respect. It's rare to find a former sideman who put him down.

He gave composer-arrangers like Pete Rugolo, Bob Graettinger, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Bill Russo, and Lennie Niehaus major career opportunities. He put his money where his mouth was. Also, he was one of the foremost exponents of jazz education, doing the summer clinic circuit and jazz-orchestra-in-residence long before those things were commonplace.

It's time that Kenton received balanced evaluations and not the ad hominem kind better suited to 1940s fan magazines. Marc's piece is a step in the right direction, as was Ted Gioia's in his book WEST COAST JAZZ twenty years ago.

Rick M

Marc; your even handed treatment of David Hadjus’ hit piece on the legacy of Stan Kenton is appreciated.

While granting readers that the Kenton style and certain discographical items are controversial, I think Hadjus’ condemnation of Kenton’s status in jazz music is over the top and driven by more than serious music criticism, as evidenced by inclusion of the incest allegations. I’ll kindly call it snobbery.

I admit that I was surprised when I heard that Kenton’s centennial was being recognized by those NYC-based institutions. Because, in addition to your listing of great ‘hires’, Kenton is celebrated for a musical legacy unique from most other jazz artists. Stan Kenton’s dedication to music education and his transcendent musical influence is often overlooked by east coast critics. His nationwide school music clinics and camps were attended by many of today’s top session players. Musicians who played in his band or were influenced by his sound were integral practitioners of the West Coast jazz sound. Read Bob Gioias’ West Coast Jazz for supporting documentation. Kenton’s brassy style also manifested itself in countless film and television soundtracks.

Someday a scholarly work will be written on what factors constitute racial, geographic and gender-specific musical tastes. As a long-time fan and consumer of big band jazz it is obvious to me that this music has fan demographics distinct from other types of jazz. More specifically I’ve observed at hundreds of concerts that the fan base of Kenton, Rich, Herman, Ferguson, Don Ellis and their musical descendants is predominantly young, white and male. This music is mostly loud, aggressive and generally upbeat. I’ll leave the underlying connection to others. But conversely, jazz music that is dark, moody, obtuse, or reflects the grittier side of life seems to have a better chance of being considered serious by many critics. Only swing and ballads can bridge the gap.
Improvisation-based music takes many forms and moods. I’m tired of Tragically Hip writers like David Hadju (a Patti Smith fan) playing the arbiter of what is significant in jazz.

Rick M

Correction: TED Gioias book West Coast Jazz.
Sorry, Ted.


A large part of the credit for the quality of those two Barbara Lea albums should go to arranger and musical director Dick Cary (who also plays piano and alto horn on the sessions.) Barbara herself says in the liner notes for "Lea in Love" that "anything good that happens on this record is mostly Dick's doing."

keith hedger

I'm also both mystified and tired of the Kenton bashing that seems to go on and on. Kenton was one of the last of the big band leaders. I saw him many times when I was in high school in the mid 70's and he always had a great band. I read all of the criticisms of his band and for me, each one is highlight -- just like Duke and Count and Woody and Buddy, his band had its own characteristic sound and approach with great arrangements and players. I've never read an interview with a sideman, or talked to a sideman that had anything really negative to say about Kenton (yeah all of these guys were colorful, but I mean REALLY bad to say about the way they ran their band or treated their colleagues). And don't even get me started on his contribution to music education!
Nobody knows whether his daughter's allegations are true....since he's dead, we'll never really know. Like a lot of other famous jazz musicians Kenton was human, and may not have been such a nice human being away from the bandstand.....as I've heard stated about some other famous jazz musicians, this has nothing to do with his music.

Jery Rowan

For all you would-be Kenton bashers who disparage the man’s ability to swing, romp, attack and communicate, it’s time to take out and dust off his 1952 recording of what is now referred to as his “Young Blood” band.

Play a few tracks ... and then be ashamed of yourselves!

"Critics are those who can’t."

Greg Lee

Thanks for that defense of Kenton’s music, qualified or no. Every artist’s oeuvre has gaps or lapses in taste or ennui or what have you, but Kenton’s work in the period you discuss is way relevant to jazz history and I find highly enjoyable/listenable. My dad worked at Capitol during that period and he was a huge Kenton fan so perhaps I’m generationally prejudiced, but my old man was a big proponent of swing (being a drummer himself) and for him Kenton was not excluded from that category.
Your piece immediately reminded me of something I read way long ago -- I know if I fish out my dusty copy of JAZZ (the companion book to Ken Burns’ series), there are two “essays” printed in there that contain similar rubbish appraisals of – and I find this telling – Kenton and Keith Jarrett. It’s as if Marsalis and Crouch slapped huge red “no” labels on those two for Burns and told him they weren’t jazz. {wretch] The editor just could have said, “If you can’t say anything nice….”

But I digress….thanks for being such a great proponent of the West Coast sound, my home sound.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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