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.