Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Music
by John A. Tynan
Down Beat. 14 January 1965
BILL RUSSO, for five years an arranger and sometime trombonist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and to-day a serious composer, was quoted in a recent interview as follows:
“I must say that I think Kenton’s mistakes were better than a lot of other people’s successes.” As an afterthought he added, “I think it’s very sad that his music has gone in and out of fashion so quickly.”
To which Kenton, white-haired, dynamic, a bundle of nervous energy at 52, today might well retort, “Thanks for the compliment, but sing no sad songs for me.”
The imagination boggles at the very notion of any sad songs ever being sung for Stanley Newcomb Kenton. Mad songs, bad songs, glad songs, but never the dolorous variety. He has been pilloried by jazz critics—and praised by them too. He has, time and again, rallied a fan following of almost frightening dedication. He has even bad a shrine of sorts established in his honor; true, it is but a saloon near San Francisco, but a shrine nonetheless and a mecca to any Kenton fan who chances by.
But Stan Kenton has never taken time even to consider listening to a sad song keened for him or his music. He’s always been too busy with that music or with any of the variety of orchestras he has led since 1941. Although 1949 became virtually a year of retirement for him, the extent to which he “retired” from music or musical thinking was dramatically debunked in January of the following year when he returned leading the most ambitious—and controversial—musical undertaking of his career, a 40-piece orchestra with full string section marching under the banner Innovations in Modem Music. As to his music going “in and out of fashion so quickly,” one is tempted to inquire, which music? There has been a variety of it.
Kenton’s career has been and is, in fact, many careers (not counting his intensive study of psychiatry and psychoanalysis during that year of “retirement”). Depending on one’s point of view, a new career has just begun for Kenton or a new phase of the same old career has opened up.
THE NEWS broke in late November, a bit prematurely, to be sure, but inevitably intriguing, as are all phases of Kentonia. A press conference was called at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel to announce the organization of “the first permanently established orchestra in the world devoted to contemporary music” and the International Academy of Contemporary Music. The announcement was a mite premature because the new orchestra was not scheduled to perform in public until Jan. 4, had not even been called to rehearsal yet, and had not even a complete personnel.
Still, nobody minded much because the whole undertaking, especially the name bestowed on the new orchestra, held a sort of magic, even cabalistic spirit: The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. The music it would perform would be “neophonic.” It would give four concerts, it was announced: Jan. 4, Feb. 1, March 1 and 29, with Kenton conducting. The orchestra would be resident at the gleaming, multi-pillared, expansive new Music Center for the Performing Arts located in the heart of Los Angeles’ exploding Civic Center.
While the Neophonic Orchestra would lack strings—the first season, anyway—there is no lack of old Kenton hands in the personnel for the opening concert: the reeds include Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Jack Nimitz, and Chuck Gentry; the trumpet section has Conte and Pete Candoli, as well as Ray Triscari and Dalton Smith; the trombones reunited veterans Milt Bernhardt and Bob Fitzpatrick and also include Tommy Shepard and Jim Amlotte (who also shoulders the task of orchestra manager); Vince DeRosa leads a section of four French horns; Red Callender is the tubaist; Laurindo Almeida, featured 15 years earlier with the Innovations orchestra, is on guitar; John Worster is the bassist; mallet-man and all-around percussionist is Frank Carlson; and Shelly Manne is behind the standard drum outfit which should set many an old Kenton listener to reminiscing.
Flown from Vienna for the opening concert will be pianist Friedrich Guida, who will be the featured soloist in a performance of his Concerto for Piano and Jazz Orchestra. Also on the program are “neophonic” compositions by Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Johnny Richards, Pete Rugolo, Lalo Schifrin, Hugo Montenegro, and Kenton himself.
“Behind the orchestra,” wrote Kenton in a brochure issued in advance of the first concert, “is a body—the International Academy of Contemporary Music,” with himself as president, George Greif as vice president, and Sid Garris as secretary-treasurer. (Greif and Garris are Kenton’s business managers.) The academy had been established, he wrote, “1. To encourage the composition and performance of contemporary music, and to help develop musicians capable of playing it. 2. To serve as a clearing house for contemporary music, contemporary musicians, information concerning contemporary music, and to serve in the dissemination of such music to universities. other cities and countries, etc. 3. To sponsor and present the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, to extend its influence and performance, and to encourage the establishment of similar neophonic orchestras.”
In an interview, Kenton was asked how he came upon the word “neophonic.”
“We felt,” he answered, “that the orchestra should have some kind of identifying name just as the [Los Angeles] Philharmonic does. We investigated. And we found out that the word “philharmonic” was a coined word too. So, in searching for a name for the neophonic orchestra, we came across the word “neo” and, of course, “phonic,” which explains the thing best of all.”
Then he added, “I’d like to see all of modern music, contemporary music, known as as kind of neophonic music. You already have symphonic music. They are certainly two different fields of expression.”
While a chord by any other name might sound as sweet (or sour, as the case may be), it is evident from the coined word, neophonic, and the exotic overtone within it, that it makes for a most practical device to help put across Kenton’s stated musical aim in tried and true show-business fashion. In an era when many assert that too much color has faded from the music-business canvas, neophonicism is rather reassuring.
Kenton was most eager that the true nature of the orchestra and its function be made clear. Those composers who contribute works or from whom works are commissioned, he said, must be “dedicated in the direction that we are, musically speaking.” But, he added. “that doesn’t mean there cannot be differences of opinion. [Then] there are men who are writing modern classical music too, but I don’t think we would be their outlet because they had possibly best stay with their symphonic orchestras.”
What of Third Stream and the ‘“new thing”? So far as the latter is concerned, Kenton affirmed it has a definite place under the neophonic sun. Also, to be specific, will experimenters Don Ellis and Ornette Coleman, he said.
“We are trying,” Kenton stressed, “to limit the music to new music, and most all new music is experimental until it is proven.”
Thus, in this one, giant leap, Stan Kenton has aimed at and landed squarely in the main stream of jazz’ avant garde, extending a helping hand to all who hopefully will not bite it and providing a prestigious platform far indeed from dank cellar and draughty loft for the farthest-out expressionist.
So far as Third Stream music is concerned, Kenton conceded there “could be a connection” between the Neophonic Orchestra’s program and the compositional approaches of Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, et a!.
“Possibly some of the music we play,” he ventured, “would be termed Third Stream.” Then he quickly added, “But I like to think that our music is not Third Stream music, that it has nothing to do with the classical world of music. 1his is entirely something based on the jazz tradition.”
“My personal opinion,” he declared of attempts to fuse jazz and classical techniques, “is that I don’t think that you could ever blend the two. It’s true that in the creation of music the same theory in the writing, the conceiving, applies to both schools of music. But then they become separated. I’ve never really believed too much in trying to create a Third Stream music. I think that you either have to take one stand or another stand.”
(One might wonder what Kenton had in mind 14 and 15 years ago when his Innovations orchestra performed concert works such as City of Glass by the late composer Bob Graettinger.)
Kenton went on to speak of Schuller, Lewis, and others involved in Third Stream composition and to say he had a feeling that they were “a little inhibited.” This was because they were still relying and leaning too much upon the classical approach to music, he explained.
“After all,” he said, “it is a very difficult thing to merchandise anything new in music, and I think the Third Stream movement has done a great deal toward new, fresh music. I think the guys in New York should be complimented on their efforts because, goodness knows, it’s so difficult to get people interested in new things…I think they’ve done a magnificent job, but I do think they lean too much toward the modern contemporary-classical approach. I think I would be happier to see them pull away completely and get into our own idiom of music—music in the American tradition. They are still using a lot of the European techniques and the European approach which, of course, is the classical school.
“At the clinics, when we were working with young musicians, we were trying to describe what is the American approach to music. Finally I conceived the idea of explaining it in terms of that show Don Ameche has on television where he tours around various sections of Europe presenting circuses and different extravaganzas. I’d say, ‘Do you hear the music being played in the background?’ In an American circus the music sounds entirely different; so I’d say, ‘That is the American approach to music.’
“You turn on your TV set and you listen to any big television orchestra or any big theater orchestra, and you can hear the American approach to music. They are two entirely different things. And I’d look at the faces of these young musicians and somehow they’d seem to be a little more enlightened. They’d say, ‘Yes, I see what you mean.’
“There is an American way of playing music. There’s no doubt about it. You can tell. And now all over the world. Other people have picked up the American approach to music. As to trying to clear up this confusion as to what is the new music, I sometimes feel that you almost have to hear the difference in the performance. It’s a way of performing music. 1 here’s a whole different dimension to American music than there is to European music.”
A LITTLE MORE THAN 20 years ago it was Eager Beaver, Artistry in Rhythm, and a startlingly new approach to swing-dance music; 15 years ago it was Innovations and a radically different frame for jazz in concert; today it is neophonic, and the accent is still on the new and the experimental. How does Kenton feel today about his place in American serious music—does he think he would ever be in a position to communicate directly to the mass market? He replied firmly in the negative and, it seemed, with inner regret.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “Any form of art has never been mass-accepted; it’s always been supported by a minority group of people, created by a minority…The masses are one thing and, of course, a minority is another thing. No, I don’t think anybody in jazz music will ever get mass-acceptance.’’
Conversely, he conceded that some of his popular-oriented recordings had “pretty good” appeal to a broader market although, he noted, to this day he has never had a million-seller. But even in recording more popular-oriented material there was always the eye cocked to the music’s serious implications.
“Oftentimes,” Kenton recalled, “in taking a piece of music and directing it toward popular approval we have managed to dip into the masses for more fans and maybe attract attention to some of the other things we were doing in a more serious way.”
“I think it’s very necessary,’’ he emphasized, “that you communicate with the public because you can have the greatest music in the world, but if there’s no one sitting out there to listen to it, you’re lost.”
Comparison between the Kenton Innovations period and the current neophonic era is, perhaps, inevitable. Kenton conceded as much.
“During the Innovations period there was a certain thing that I was trying to build, to gain acceptance of. Some of the music was excellent, some of it wasn’t of such a high caliber, but we were very sincere about what we were trying to do. I think the time is better now for something of that nature than it was at that time.’’
He might have added that certainly the economic circumstances of the Neophonic Orchestra are vastly more favorable than they were for the Innovations behemoth. The of transporting such a large complement from city to city today, not to mention meeting the payroll every week, was prodigious even then; to attempt it today would be madness.
Kenton conceded that he also is faced with the problem of explaining to people what neophonic music actually is and described his attempts to do so as sometimes “strange.’’
“People have so many fixed impressions in their minds,” he said with a shrug. “You find a lot of people who ask, ‘Do you think the bands are ever going to come back?’ and ‘Will the big bands return?’ What they’re actually thinking about is the music they heard during the ‘40s and the early part of the ‘50s, and if they will be hearing that music again. I don’t think that’s possible because I think that the music has developed, and now all of the things that have evolved out of the name-band era in the field of jazz are going to be put together into this neophonic orchestra.”
A basic reason for Kenton’s conviction that “the time is better now,” he said, is that in the last four or five years he has taken new stock of the taste of the American people.
“There was a period,” he confessed, “when I felt so disgusted with all of us in America because I thought we were all dead at the switch. It was impossible to communicate with anybody.
“But with us Americans…so much happens here in this country…there are so many different things going on…Music is such a free thing here that if something is great, it will attract attention and gain acceptance.
“You’ve got to remember, though, that the American car is just beaten to death with all kinds of things all the time. It isn’t that the American isn’t any less conscious of artistic things or culture, because he certainly is. It’s just that a thing has to be something really worthwhile before it’s going to gain acceptance.”
KENTON SAID HE WANTED to clear up something not directly related to the Neophonic Orchestra. “Some months back,” he began, “I was quoted [DB, April 23, 1964, and other media] as saying that jazz is finished. It made quite a lot of noise. It was another thing that was not completely explained. I think this: jazz as we knew it up until this time has had its say. I think that what we are taking from the jazz world now and presenting in orchestras like the Neophonic Orchestra—and we hope there are others like it around the world—is what we have learned from the field of jazz. That is the foundation for this music. And there’s no way around it. It is not the classical approach to music. It is the jazz approach to music. But again it’s so hard for people to understand. They think that jazz is a static thing. Jazz has been in a state of growth and change, but there are certain baste elements of the music that have been maintained all along.”
He paused before taking up point No. 2:
“I also said that I think that some of the avant garde in jazz today have had such a struggle trying to find identity that they’ve almost gone off the deep end trying to create things that will give them identity. It’s like some of the far-out classical composers. They are doing some of the most ridiculous things just because they are calling attention to themselves. But if you maintain certain basic elements of jazz—which is the way the music is played—there’s no reason now why it’s not time now to take these things that came from the field of jazz and put them into order and let them be the foundation for the new music which is the serious music of America.”
Kenton was then asked how he would comment on the “swing” concept, i.e., basically a 4/4, steady, unvarying beat with the indefinable element inherent that has come to be termed “swing” and has come to be associated inextricably with what is described as jazz. The bandleader was asked how in his view this “swing” concept related—if at all to neophonic music.
“I think it relates very well,” he answered. “As a matter of fact, I have been saying for the last couple of years that in talking to some of the composers recently I feel that they, too, have the same hunger to get away from, not to say the ‘swinging thing,’ but to get away from the use of the rhythm section as we’ve been using it all along. I think it’s a terribly hackneyed sound to hear four guys in a rhythm section clang-de-clang, going on and on and on.
“l like to think that the rhythm section in the Neophonic Orchestra will function a great deal differently than rhythm sections have thus far. Musicians play well today; they don’t have to use the rhythm section as a policing measure anymore. They know what they’re doing. They’re able to keep time by themselves. And they’re able to swing without this forced feeling of time. I think if a rhythm section is used much more sparingly, it will be much more of a thrill to listen to; it will spark a band much more.
“It’s time that we get away from even that hackneyed part of the field of jazz music. I have always maintained that a thing doesn’t necessarily have to swing all the time to be jazz, because there’s a certain way of playing music that came from the jazz conception that can be applied to rubato movement in music or any sort of time, any conception of time. It doesn’t have to be always a swing thing.”
Swinging, then, is not, in his book, a basic, necessary-at-all-times ingredient in jazz?
“No,” he replied, “it never has been.”
STAN KENTON is now at last out of the traveling, one-nighter, big-band world in which he grew up since joining the Everett Hoagland Band in 1934. He said that his basic decision to forsake that life and that aspect of his career was prompted by “personal obligations” to remain in the Los Angeles area. (He lives with his two children in Beverly Hills.) Kenton said that as a result of his experience on the road in recent years he did not see much of a market for dance music anywhere.
“I think the people are more interested in concerts and music for listening than they are for dancing,” he said. “And of course young people have their own music for dancing. I wouldn’t want to risk going out on the road today with what might be called Stan Kenton and a dance band and hope I’d make a success of it, because I don’t think that people are that much interested in dance music anymore.”
It will probably be some time, Kenton said, before the Neophonic Orchestra makes recordings for commercial release; nor did he know, he said, for what company it would eventually record.
“I’ll continue to record under my own name for Capitol,” he emphasized, “because I feel it’s important I maintain my own identity and not become completely submerged in the Neophonic Orchestra.” Stan being Kenton, one understood that.
Tynan, John A. “Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Music.” Down Beat. 14 January 1965: 12-5.