Catching up with Stan Kenton

If you’re like most of the people I’ve met in the jazz world, you’ve probably got mixed feelings about Stan Kenton.  There are exceptions, of course.  Kenton has his fans, the most ardent of whom come off as cultish.  And he’s got a few unequivocal detractors too, for instance David Hajdu, who walloped Kenton last week on his New Republic blog.

Kenton is an easy target for those who hear bombast and pretention in his music.   The pianist’s claim to fostering “progressive jazz” in the 1940’s, his early 50’s Innovations Orchestra,  his mid-60’s take on Wagner, and his grand pronouncements about the importance of his music laid him open to derisive comments and wisecracks.  Upon hearing the Innovations band, which numbered 39 members, Eddie Condon reputedly said, “Sounds like Stan called up every musician he knew, and they all showed up!”   

The first time I heard Kenton, the odds were stacked against him.  I was a young jazz enthusiast, and a Worcester-area man had taken a friend of mine and me under his wing and begun turning us on to his favorites.  On the night he first dropped the tone arm on Kenton, and on Kenton trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, he’d already given us our first taste of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and it was no contest.  The warmth of Brownie’s trumpet sound and his lyrical command, even at fierce tempos, made him an immediate hit, and the overall sound of the Brown-Roach Quintet became a model for the kind of relaxed inner dynamics that I learned to listen for in bands of every shape and style.  By comparison, Kenton sounded bloated and overbearing, and the band just didn’t swing in the supple manner I’d grown accustomed to in the work of Basie and Ellington and Miles.   I should add that for this young, self-styled civil rights crusader, all-white bands were of little appeal regardless of their musical content.

But every now and then I’d give Kenton another try, and I’ve gradually come to appreciate selected areas of his work.  Of great assistance in this search has been the collection that Mosaic boxed-up several years ago of the Bill Russo and Bill Holman charts that Kenton recorded in the ‘50’s and early ‘60s.  Here I discovered a trove of hard-swinging, jazz-rich material, original works as well as jazz and popular standards that showcased the great soloists on these bands.  Among the established and emerging players were alto players Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Lennie Niehaus, and Charlie Mariano; Zoot Sims on tenor; Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli, and Jack Sheldon on trumpets;  Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana on trombones, and drummers Shelly Manne and Worcester-ite Frank Capp.  Chris Connor, who succeeded Anita O’Day and June Christy. was the voice of the band.

Russo and Holman gave them plenty to work with as you’ll hear in tonight’s Jazz à la Mode when we honor the Stan Kenton Centennial. 

Here’s a clip of June Christy and Kenton in 1945 playing "Fine Fine Deal," a blues that’s refreshingly free of progressive overtones.


  1. Anonymous says

    Can't claim I'm going to run out and give Kenton a spin as a result of your reevaluation–too much else to listen to– but, this is a good lesson in having big ears,  fighting against type, and rejecting received wisdom. Thanks, Tom.

  2. Anonymous says

    I thoroughly enjoyed your Kenton centennial retrospective. You provided a broad and balanced sampling of his oeuvre through mid-60s, with knowledgeable comments.  That Innovations material seldom makes it on the air.
    The fact that so few jazz programmers nationwide  (and as far as I can tell, NPR news and feature programming such as Fresh Air, Bob Edwards, acknowledged Kenton's centennial is as disappointing as it is mind-boggling. Thanks for being an exception, and providing another exceptional show.

    David Hajdu's unbalanced attack aside, I think many Kentonians will admit to cultism, rather like Dead-heads for the Gratefuls, or Parrot Heads for Jimmy Buffet. You obviously put a lot of work into this evening's installment (as I'm sure you do with all your shows), and it showed.   

  3. Anonymous says

    Hi Tom,

    While I regrettably didn’t have a chance to hear your Stan Kenton 100th birthday anniversary program last evening, I very much enjoyed your blog about him. It reminded me of my teenage experience of seeing him and his band (along with many other top big bands of the era) at the cavernous old State Theatre in Hartford. (Only once were my friend and I rejected for being under-age. Ended up going to an Eastern League ball game!) June Christy was both glamorous and effervescent! Pretty good Saturday matinee performance including a B movie (between sets) for 45 cents!


  4. Anonymous says

    Thanks for the superb blog on Stan Kenton. It’s temperate, well reasoned, authoritative and persuasive. I admire the piece, while standing by my little trifle on the subject of Kenton. It’s beautiful to see such responsible and penetrating analysis pyblished on any subject today. Best, David Hajdu

    , And affecting

  5. Anonymous says

    Hello Tom:

    As one who has been a "Kenton Fanatic" since he was 13 years old, I am also glad that you were able to put this essay out on Stan's 100th birthday and do a radio show about him.  I didn't get to hear it, as I was performing in a very special centennial concert in his honor at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.   Of course I am just a little more than "a fan" of his music, having played on his band, been his road manager and now being leader of the Stan Kenton Alumni Band.  One of the most important things that many people forget is that besides being a musical innovator, Stan was really the father of jazz education.   He was the first big name band leader to really understand that getting to the young people – right in their own schools – was (and is) the best way to keep big band music alive.  He also started the whole idea of summer jazz camps.

    Mike Vax

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