Progressive Jazz

The Kenton era generally referred to as Progressive Jazz ran from September of 1947 until December of 1948. It was Kenton’s most innovative and financially lucrative band to date. His presentation of new concert music was critically acclaimed as the crowds flocked to hear this new take on modern music. Pete Rugolo wrote the bulk of the compositions and arrangements. Featured instrumentalists included Art Pepper, Bob Cooper, Milt Bernhart, Conte Candoli, Eddie Safranski, Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne. And June Christy was there with her charm, swing, and elegance.

Follow the links below for more information about this fascinating 14 months in the Kenton history.

My Image

Pete Rugolo, Stan Kenton and Bob Graettinger fronting the orchestra in rehearsal.


  • What's Wrong With Kenton? by Barry Ulanov [Metronome]

    What's Wrong With Kenton?

    by Barry Ulanov

    Metronome, February 1948

    THIS started out to be a review of that loudest and proudest of bands, Stan Kenton’s. I was informed, however, that Stan Kenton, as I heard him on two different nights at the Commodore Hotel in New York, was not the Stan Kenton who would be available for parties, wedding receptions, funerals and concerts, especially concerts, after January 1948. It appears that Stan is putting all his fortissimos in one basket, and will hereafter blow just as loudly and proudly, perhaps, but not from hotel room bandstands and not too often from theatre stages. The band’s for concerts, and the devil and Sammy Kaye take the hindmost. So this is not a perspiring analysis of team tone and inflection, this lead man and that, the band’s danceability and commercial appeal. My concern is to anatomize, after a dyspeptic fashion, the life and times of Artistry in Rhythm, the origin of a species I do not find to my liking. If what I do not find to my liking concerns you, then read on. If not, turn over the page and look at the pictures.

    Let’s face it—this is the loudest band ever. I’m not sure the massed Goldman, Marine, Army and Navy bands could produce such a flatulent stentor as Stan’s boys do. As a result, what Stan and Pete Rugolo write for the band to blast is sometimes immaterial, always difficult to hear, and only rarely to be judged. Delicacy and sensitivity are not virtues in this band’s books. Conceivably, behind the unrelenting roar there is a theory, a theory that a band screams, screeches, hollers, hoots and generally hells it up it the end. (as we hipsters say), that it thereby gets a tremendous beat. ‘Tain’t so. The Kenton band, unless my foot, my heart and ear grievously betray me, doesn’t get a beat, tremendous or otherwise. There are a few leftovers from the first or anticipation edition of the band which manage something if a one-two syncopation that approximates a beat, as everyone falls all over himself to make the weak beats the most timid ever and the strong ones as virile as Ernest Hemingway crossed with Victor Mature. The rest moves as stiffly as C. Aubrey Smith on a rainy afternoon.

    All right, so the band doesn’t swing, jump or whatever verb satisfies your conception of a jazz beat. What about the rest of its ostensible jazz? Is it jazz? Well, there are a few soloists, notably trumpeter Al Porcino, who has an honorable past with Georgie Auld of which to boast, Art Pepper, who plays something of an imitation of Charlie Parker, and tenorman Bob Cooper, who may find himself an effective original style one of these days. There are some excellent musicians hiding behind the explosions, trumpeters Buddy Childers and Ray Wetzel, trombonists Eddie Bert and Milt Bernhart, bassist Eddie Safranski and drummer Shelly Manne. But they are lost as the bombs fall madly around them. It’s not jazz, because it doesn’t swing and the solos are short and unoriginal and the arrangements are just so many notes. Jazz, to me, must get a good beat and must be improvised. Because there are some ad lib solos and some figures drawn from the traditions of jazz, even a bebop cadence here and there among the rockets, one can say that the band is under the influence. That’s all.

    Well, if it isn’t jazz, what is it? Some of the time it’s pretentious movie music. Let me add quickly here, lest Pete be twice offended, the movie music doesn’t spring bar for bar from anybody’s soundtrack, but those piano-mitt-band effusions come right out of the long, languid line of treacle that began in the nineteenth century with the Brahms, Schumann, Chopin and Tchaikovsky piano concertos, were given unholy impetus by Debussy and Ravel, and made totally obnoxious by movie score after movie score coupled with radio bridge after radio bridge. But these pseudo-arty extravaganzas are not all that’s left after the cadaverous caterwauls which pass for jazz. There’s always Rugolo. And Pete is a talented, well-schooled musician. Well, what does ‘e do? He writes music with moments, moments of atonality, moments of polyrhythms, moments of Latin beats, moments that make you glad and moments that make you sad. If you like a suggestion of Stravinsky (Impressionism) and of Ravel (Artistry in Bolero) and of all the facile facets of modern scoring which Pete includes in his manuscript, you’ll like his concert music. To me, it’s senselessly eclectic and consequently of very little interest.

    The band does manage an appreciable precision of performance. It sounds an impressive A, section for section, as it tunes in military formation. It indicates a potential dynamic range of large size, presently confined to a mezzo-forte and a multiple forte best expressed as ff ff ff ff ff ff ff ff ff. It has a singer, June Christy, who gets a beat, whose intonation is not all it should be, who rarely gets the jazz material she would like to do and undoubtedly does best. It has, in Stan and Pete, two intense, enthusiastic musicians who are firmly convinced they are making for progress in jazz. Unfortunately, I think, Stan and Pete and the men who play their music so well are deeply shrouded under a neurotic conception of jazz if not of all music. Their stuff is not mellow, nut megalomaniacal, constructed mechanically of some of the familiar sounds and effects of modern composers, from Bartok to bongo drums, with little apparent feeling for the jazz medium and none at all for the subtleties of idea and emotion which support every roar ever heard in music.

    Now all of my intense reaction to the music of Stan Kenton can be dismissed, and easily, as the opinion of one ornery man, a critic notorious for his musical indigestion. What worries me far beyond my personal response to Stan’s music, nervous as the music is nervous, objective, at least in part, I’m convinced, is what that music has elicited in the response of kids all around America and now all around the world. Far from any consideration of the fine points of music as an art, these kids have gone haywire, and I do not mean in the head, over the sheer noise of this band and its seeming reckless abandon. There is a danger, one approaching psychopathic proportions, of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon. Maybe it’s just a symptom of the times and should be regarded tolerantly as such. But I have no feeling of tolerance for atom bombs and no more for music of the same order of expression.

    Lurking behind this sad musical tale is a personal one, for me, at least, sadder still. Stan and Pete and June and the band ad its manager Carlos Gastel are among the very nicest people this business has ever seduced. But their collective effort, mighty as it is, is not making it. It couldn’t have not happened to a nicer bunch of people.

  • The Sins of Progressive Jazz, by Barry Ulanov [Metronome]

    The Sins of Progressive Jazz

    by Barry Ulanov

    Metronome, April 1948

    THE PRODIGAL SIN has come home to roost. The prodigal sin—a sin of my own making. And that, dear friends and gentle jazz fans, is what might be called the sin of nomenclature. I’m talking about all my talk about “progressive jazz,” my talk and others’. We made such a fuss about progress in jazz, that lots of readers and musicians began to confuse the music with the name, and reached the point where anything that claimed to be progressive in effect became progressive. And so these unfortunate people became high-ranking members of the dangerous “thinking makes it so” school, in which nothing ever has any precise meaning.

    The sin came violently to roost a couple of months ago upon the publication of my bill of particulars on What’s Wrong With Kenton. The mail this piece of mine elicited fell, roughly, into three categories: plain abuse by intense Kenton fans; support of my stand; epistles of grief which leveled a trembling finger at me and sighed sadly, “Et tu, Barry!” It’s this last group of aggrieved ones I am discussing here, those lamenting readers who felt I was deserting the Army of Progress in finding any fault at all with Stan, who waves the largest, brightest flag in that Army. Stan and his gallery of press agents have proclaimed him prime champion of progressive jazz, and thereby, they think, firmly established him in that hero’s role. To raise any doubts about the quality of the Kenton music is, to the lights of his chief supporters, to resign from progressive jazz ranks and to become suspect, maybe even of that arch-heresy, Moldy Figism.

    Well, I am here this month to say that thinking does not make it so, to tell all and sundry that I don’t give a drummer’s damn whether or not my views are accepted as progressive, and to insist that the music of Stan Kenton or any other so-called progressive jazz must be submitted to much more than verbal analysis before it can be assayed as the real thing. And let us understand, too, that “the real thing” in jazz is not simply that which makes for progress, but also that which satisfies some of the profounder requirements of any valid art form.

    Self-styled progress in itself means nothing. As a matter of fact, at this point, that cry has become suspicious, not gimmick, and nothing more. And that ain’t progress.

  • He Calls It Progress [Time]

    He Calls It Progress

    Time, 1 March 1948

    Seldom in all its 57 years had Carnegie Hall been so jammed – and never so racked by such raucous music. The 300 fans on stage had the most tranquil spot: they were behind the brass. But out in front, the louder it got, the better they liked it. And no band yet had out blown Stan Kenton’s for sheer din per man.
    It wasn’t swing: toothy Stan Kenton had already pronounced that ‘dead, gone, finished.’ Some doubted that it was even jazz: it had a shifty beat (and sometimes none), little – if any – form, and even less improvisation. Most of it sounded like Duke Ellington with the D.Ts. But when Kenton’s band got to pushing out such huge, screeching blotches of sound as ‘Artistry Jumps’ and ‘Message to Harlem,’ the Fans ripped the place wide open. They listened to his newest and most pretentious masterpiece, ‘Prologue Suite in Four Movements’ in a state of glassy somnambulance. When Kenton capped it all with ‘Concerto to End All Concertos,’ Carnegie hadn’t heard such yelling in years. 
    This week Kenton moved into Chicago’s Civic Opera House for a one-night stand; the 4,200 seats and standing room been sold out for two weeks and 3,000 ticket buyers had been turned away. (It was no trouble at all to get seats in advance for the Metropolitan Opera’s famed Ezio Pinza that afternoon.) 
    Not since the first the first golden days of Glenn Miller and Harry James had a band’s popularity reached the proportions of a craze. What was all the shouting about? 
    Kenton is a 6 ft. 4½ in. Californian who at 36 has the same ambition Paul Whiteman had in the ‘20s: to marry classical music and jazz. In Whiteman’s case, what emerged was pseudo symphonic—a blend of Tin Pan Alley and Tchaikovsky. In Kenton’s, it is a driving, nervous (and technically skillful) wedding of swing and Schoenberg. Kenton started his outfit in 1941, got ahead fast by getting up early to sign autographs, and looking up disc jockeys whenever he hit a new town. For the past two years, his musicians have been voted Band of the Year. Stan Kenton considers his ‘progressive jazz’ just what the psychiatrist ordered. Last month, he sat down with DownBeat reporter (Harvard man Mike Levin), who gave him a 6½-column interview that sounded sometimes like a seminar in psychology, sometimes like a talk with Father Divine. Said Kenton: ‘The human race may be going through nervous frustration and thwarted emotional development which traditional music is entirely incapable of not only satisfying, but representing.’ 
    Last fall, he decided to dispense his music only from concert halls (it is undanceable anyway). Long-haired competition is the least of his worries. Said Kenton: ‘Jazz will dominate and swallow up classical [music] as we know it in this country…Stravinsky, Milhaud, Prokofiev and Hindemith…use some of the same sounds and rhythmical devices, but we still are the only ones to rely on the emotional projection of the freely individual musician.’ 
    But of one notoriously freely individual musician, he says: What’s wrong with Louis [Armstrong] is that he plays without any scientific element…all natural forms of inspiration in music have been exhausted—today we have to create music scientifically and then project with it and into its emotion. 
    That kind of thing was too much even for some of the initiates. Stormed Barry Ulanov, who is an editor of a rival cultist magazine called Metronome: ‘Kids [are going] haywire…over the sheer noise of this band…There is a danger…of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon.’

  • Concertizing Kenton [Newsweek]

    Concertizing Kenton

    Newsweek, 1 March 1948

    Music’s problem child was on the loose again. It could be said that Stan Kenton at 36 was old enough to know better—to know better than to gamble his career on concertizing. ‘To present the finest music we know how to create,’ Kenton announced on February 2, ‘we have to do it without being hampered by people who come to dance, eat popcorn, make a contact of some sort, or maybe just come in to get warm.’ Hence the bandleader said, no more one-nighters and as few theater and hotel dates as possible. 
    Those who think Kenton is music’s answer to the terrifying implications of the atomic age (and they are many) laughed happily and said that Stan would now get his. Those who think that Kenton is heaven’s solution as to how to get jazz out of New Orleans (and they appear to be as numerous) said a little prayer and wondered how concert productions of little-known numbers would sell enough Capitol records to buy pappy his quota of shoes. 
    ‘The Kenton band has everything,’ wrote George Frazier in Down Beat as far back as 1942. ‘But I don’t like it . . . to me, it’s terrific in a revolting way. It’s the poor man’s Whiteman.’  
    ‘Let’s face it,’ said Barry Ulanov in the February issue of Metronome, ‘this is the loudest band ever . . . a neurotic conception of jazz, if not of all of music.’ 
    But to Robert Goffin, the Belgian jazz expert, Kenton was ‘completely revolutionary . . . to music what Dali is to art.’ And to Rudi Blesh, who reviewed his February 14 Carnegie Hall concert for the New York Herald Tribune, the Kenton band emerged ‘as the sort of tonal instrument of which Berlioz, Mussorgsky, and even Satie must have dreamed.’ But, conditioned Blesh, ‘none of the original pieces of Kenton and his top arrangers is to be taken seriously as serious music.’ 
    Despite—and with some help from—sentiments like these, Kenton went ahead with his plans. A concert last November 11 at the Chicago Civic Opera House grossed $10,000. Then on February 13 in Philadelphia at the staid Academy of Music, he went into high gear. With himself and his band all decked out in Ascot ties as befitted such activity, he took in $7,600. Carnegie Hall in New York grossed a record of $8,700—with a high $4.80 top and sold out well in advance. Symphony Hall in Boston on February 15 brought in $8,000. Pittsburgh, at the Syria Mosque last week, saw $9,600 roll in, and Chicago, revisited on Sunday, February 22, to the tune of a rescaled $4.80 at the Civic Opera House, donated an estimated $11,000. 
    Sages in the business, like Billboard, pointed out that the concert circuit could only supply 60 working days, and what would he do when that ran out? The trade magazine had to admit, though, if he sold out such an itinerary he might be able to gross $250,000. Whatever the outcome, Kenton always had ready a philosophy stemming from 1941, when he first started his band. ‘I’ve played solo piano for drunks in saloons before and I can do it again.’

  • Kenton Chances Blasting A Path To Prostration [Down Beat editorial]

    Kenton Chances Blasting A Path To Prostration

    Down Beat, 2 June 1948

    Ordinarily it is not “Down Beat’s” custom to concern itself with the individual or collective state of musicians’ health, possibly for fear of being tabbed “prying eye,” most often because its none of our business. 

    We deviate from that rule in the case of Stan Kenton. Though neither M.D.’s nor foreboders of evil, we believe a prescription and a warning to be perfectly in order. 

    Stan Kenton and his men are killing themselves. Rumor (the “grapevine” if you will) has it that a few within Stan’s band are cognizant of that fact. Never before, in the history of popular music have so few men worked so terribly hard, physically, to out-blow precedent and herald modernism. It is said that Milt Bernhart is contemplating the establishment of a small business in Chicago; that Bart Varsalona is wondering about joining Earle Spencer; that trumpeters Buddy Childers and Ray Wetzel are wearing abdominal belts, not because of flabbiness (in Childers’ case at least), but “to hold their insides together when they blow.” It is known that Shelly Manne quit Kenton because playing with the band was “like chopping wood.” 

    All this has nothing to do with Kenton the personality or the leader. “He’s great to work for,” his men say. So echo those who have left his fold, the music editor of the East Brain Herald, and the editors of “Down Beat.” 

    It is because Kenton is probably the best liked leader in the business that we are concerned. His last breakdown (April, 1947) was preceded by a series of one-nighters which were child’s play compared to his current schedule of concerts. When playing for a ballroom crowd it’s usually four tunes to a set, a break, an intermission every half hour, etc. Yet simple as it sounds, precisely that nightly routine resulted in Kenton’s previous forced retirement. 

    A concert requires at least one hour and a half of steady playing, a 15-minute intermission, and another stint equally as long as the first, possibly longer if encores are generous. How long can Kenton stand it? What is he trying to prove by chancing prostration...that progressives, aside from being musical scientists, are physical Spartans? 

    What relevance does our admonition have to music in general? Just this: if Kenton establishes a pattern which requires Superman antics of bands to follow, if he does succeed in selling double forte as a standard commodity (and with it, a plethora of red-faced brass men), then he not only has nurtured the country’s neuroses, but has set a pace that will eventually kill his men, other sidemen, box office, the business and will shatter the mass’ eustachian tubes. 

    Kenton should remember we nor the people (yet!) will judge his efforts on the basis of how close his trumpet men can approach a 15,000 cycle tone; nor will we wait anxiously, a la watching the trapeze act (let’s face it), for Buddy Childers to drop dead at E-Flat above C above high C beyond F. 

    Take it easy Stan, we’ve liked having you around. We don’t like five column headlines about who you’ll wire this time about “not being able to go on any longer.” If you think we’re not convinced you’re a pioneer, we’ll say it: Stan Kenton as contributed immeasurably to the progress and history of American music. 

    It’s just that we’d like to hear more from a musically well-mannered band, not from a well-mannered Kenton physician.