14 January 1948
(Following as a series of direct questions put by this staff reporter to Stan Kenton, winner of the 1947 DOWN BEAT band poll, with his just as direct and candid replies to each query. This is the first time in many years that a top band leader has as frankly assessed his own position and that of the industry for press publication.)
Q. What does jazz mean to you?
Jazz means my very life. Jazz can be arranged, can be out of tempo, can be written in any time, arranged in any fashion, use any type of solo or coloration. The prime thing is that it must have the communicative feeling of warmth from the individual musicians. People cannot believe that jazz can get away from a steady unchanging beat. Jazz is primarily a sound rather than an essential rhythm. Jazz should move you more quickly than symphonic music; it is of course a less subtle music. Everything in symphonic music is interpretation. The musician plays for the conductor, is indeed his puppet—the reverse is true in jazz. I guide the band—we create music for the musicians directly concerned—we don’t merely score notes. This, to some extent like Ellington, is a strongly personalized conception of music. Don’t misunderstand—the integrated composition is the thing, not the solo forsneics [sic] of men concerned. We picked our men by the type of music that we wanted to create, not merely for their individual ability. Our music is not like, say Hindemith’s, because ours doesn’t have that cold symphonic sound. We have developed in this country’s jazz not only a specialized technique of using instruments with respect to sectional blends, attacks and voicings, but also a completely different attitude toward the employment and sound of solo instruments. There is more freedom in jazz, more regard for individual emotion. Jazz is a new way of expressing emotion. I think the human race today may be going through things it never experienced before, types of nervous frustration and thwarted emotional development which traditional music is entirely incapable of not only satisfying, but representing. That’s why I believe jazz is the new music that came along just in time.
Q. Do you think therefore that jazz as a tradition in this country is slowly merging with what we have always called classical music?
Jazz will dominate and swallow up classical as we know it at present in this country. By that I mean, that there will definitely be a merger of the elements found in our music and that scored by such men as Stravinsky, Milhaud, Prokofieff and Hindemith. Both schools use some of the same sounds and rhythmical devices, but we are the only ones to rely on the emotional projection of the freely individual musician.
Q. Do you have a swing band?
No, because swing is dead. Gone, finished. It was useful as a transitory form, but what we are doing now not only out-dates it, but makes it sound playfully elementary.
Q. Do you think that jazz bands are getting too big?
I disagree with those people who think that only small bands can play jazz. The trouble is that the big bands have had too many cold musicians. The Herman band was the greatest white band ever organized. The band had a constant pulsation. It did however stress too many little phrases, wasn’t elaborate enough harmonically. Ralph Burns is great, but the band played too many head arrangements, and with head arrangements you get enthusiasm but no progress. Our band is the size it is because we need the men for the color effects we want. It couldn’t be done with a smaller unit.
Q. Is your band good for dancing?
Definitely not—only the jitterbugs can dance well to us because they dance to the rhythm of the motion pattern of the instrumental phrase rather than whatever beat is being played in the rhythm. The greatest dance band in the country is Lombardo. He’s studied tempos, knows them cold. I myself can dance like a demon to Lombardo.
Q. Do you think a good jazz band should play dance music?
The business now is headed one way: specialization. It used to be so that Harry James could play Sleepy Lagoon and One O’Clock Jump in the same set. Now he would make an ass out of himself competing with an exciting band. In other words, the business is coming back to pre-1935, with two sets of bands playing two completely different kinds of music. That’s what the promoters mean when they say jazz and swing are through—the music is going away from their medium.
Q. What do you think of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz?
That’s the folk music of jazz, the first grade in the grammar school of jazz.
Q. Do you agree with the people who say that whenever you move away from this, you lose all true jazz feeling?
That’s nonsense. Dixieland will die because there are no young musicians anywhere in this country who are interested in it. The young musicians won’t play it so there won ‘t be any Dixieland; it’s not exciting enough for the young people.
Q. What about Louis Armstrong?
The old records were great—but you over-value them by associating them sentimentally with things that went on with you personally at the time the records came out. I’ve been an Armstrong fan ever since I was a kid, and loved him when I heard him this time on the Coast. But when I got away from the club I realized that I too was being sentimental, that actually there wasn’t enough there to be really great and colorful music.
Q. Do you think any musician in your band who has color and harmonic background has the emotional prerequisites of Louis?
Not one guy in the band has what Louis has.
Q. Then why are… [tear in page] Louis?
What’s wrong with Louis is that he plays without any scientific element in his playing. I agree with Schillinger that all natural forms of inspiration in music have been exhausted—today we have to create music scientifically and then project with it and into it emotion. In other words, we must have a synthesis of Armstrong and modern musicological development.
Q. How are you going to do this? It took a New Orleans tradition to create the emotional warmth of an Armstrong. How are you going to surround young kids with technique and expect them to have what Louis has too?
A young musician can learn in just a few short years what other musicians have spent a life-time to get—that’s progress. lf a young musician can perceive and hear the emotions in Armstrong , it will become a part of him.
Q. But how can he perceive it, without the same emotional tradition in back of him?
A young musician will take on very quickly the emotional cloak an Armstrong—musically and harmonically though Armstrong doesn’t satisfy him technically or harmonically.
Q. What do you think of bop?
It’s doing more for music than anything else. It’s educating the people to new intervals and sounds—thus three and four part harmony is out. Bop will make Stravinsky the biggest thing in the country. The trouble with it is that it lacks in emotion, is hampered by too short phrases, because it hasn’t settled down yet. It’s true that the complex technical structure allows no lee-way for emotional projection. Bop will blend with the main body of jazz. It’s not the new jazz, but it is the hot-foot on the way.
Q. Who do you prefer, Gillespie or Parker?
Originally I preferred Dizzy because I felt more emotion in him. However I have heard more Parker lately, not only class him ahead of Dizzy, but as the best improviser in the country today. The man’s taste and ability are simply phenomenal.
Q. What is the biggest hindrance to musical development?
The men who make money from music. The bookers, the promoters, the dance hall owners who try to make everything conform to rule and rote, and try to keep musicians from making jazz progress as an art. If we stayed as stagnant as those people want us to, people would have stopped coming to hear music 20 years ago.
Q. What is more important for a band—booker or personal manager?
Q. Why don’t you believe in air shots for a band?
Because these masterminds that come in to balance the band know nothing about music or the kind of music you want to present, balance you in five minutes, and what goes out over the air sounds like oral omelettes.
Q. Could you personally play with a small band?
Yes—but I prefer a big band because of the need for dissonance which can be more richly done with the massed sections of a big band.
Q. What about fiddles playing jazz?
No definitely—they can’t get the feel.
Q. What about big string sections?
A thrilling sound but not for jazz or jazz bands. Certainly not for ours.
Q. What do you think of Morton Gould and Andre Kostelanetz?
Gould is a vastly overrated musician. I have never heard anything of his except Pavanne which had any true musical value. Kostelanetz has done a great service by accustoming the public to big band sounds as well as ravel and Debussy.
Q. Could you play jazz in a waltz time?
Q. Who do you think does the best recording technically?
The English recording companies.
Q. What is your best record and why?
Artistry in Percussion—of those that have been released. Collaboration is technically the best recording we have made
Q. What is your favorite classical record?
One of them is Song of the Nightingale by Stravinsky.
Q. Why don’t you have a male singer?
A band can do justice to only one singer at a time. This two singer business such as Jimmy Dorsey had is the baloney. What’s a band supposed to be—an accompanying unit?
Q. How is it that on a lot of your piano playing with the band, when you are playing the themes alone, your ideas are built on a series of simple chromatics moving up and down, with a left hand built primarily on arpeggios?
Right—I did go through an era of chromatic thematics, it just hit me as sounding well. But like the minor seventh that Dave Rose relied on so heavily, it sounds cheap and banal now. As for the left hand arpeggios, that’s just my piano style, the way I like things to sound.
Q. Don’t you think that you have over-used the echo chamber, that it often makes the brass sound thin and hard?
Yes—agreed—but as long as recording technique and equipment remains as is, we’ll have to use it.
Q. Who else is playing jazz?
Ellington. I haven’t heard Woody’s new band. The McKinley band does some good things, but it doesn’t completely feel arranger Eddie Sauter’s music. Ray is from another school of music which makes for conflict. He shouldn’t forget that the Sauter scores built the band, not Red Silk Stockings. I haven’t heard Thornhill too much lately, but what I heard some time ago, the band was not playing any jazz. As for Raeburn, a band that makes it a business of playing jazz should never play anything that the Boston Symphony can cut them doing. This holds true for Woody Herman’s Ebony Concerto too. Boyd used symphonic reeds—there is no jazz pulsation you can get from these instruments.
Q. What do you think of arranger and songsmith Alec Wilder?
Also is a fine musician but not a jazz musician, never got a jazz feeling from woodwinds.
Q. What’s with Ellington’s rhythm section?
Duke’s rhythm is based strongly on string bass—Sonny Greer might as well stay home all the time. Part of its greatness is that the band moves without the rhythm section. His guitar player is absolutely of no use. Earl Hines was the only piano player who could swing the whole band—the drummer would just tag along. We have a chance of cutting Duke from every standpoint some day if we play together long enough. The band has a natural feel it never had before, and it will improve if we hang together long enough.
Q. What about Benny Goodman?
Benny is definitely finished. He refuses to progress, evidently barely even listens to music anymore. He had a chance to be king all over again with Benny Rides Again and Superman in 1941 when Eddie Sauter was arranging for him. But he didn’t have guts enough to stop playing Roll ‘Em and King Porter Stomp. Maybe it’s because he didn’t understand Sauter. His personal playing… [tear in page] the young musicians harmonically today.
Q. How about Glenn Miller and Tex Beneke?
I was never a Miller fan. I understand a lot of things tha Glenn did, he certainly was the cleverest leader the business ever had. I used to actually pray that Glenn would come back because of the antics some of the other leaders were pulling: getting in late, walking off the stand, fluffing off fans and all the rest. Glenn was level-headed and a good businessman. He was a credit to the music business. He died on top while he was loved, but I disagree that he would have remained king. Miller’s band was not a jazz band ever and that string section he had during the wat was used very, very badly. Beneke is the same thing without Miller’s ability.
Q. Does Cugat play good Latin American music?
He is the Sammy Kaye of Cuban bands.
Q. Do your musicians play exactly as you want them to?
Not in the sense that we never make them play anything that’s uncomfortable. It used to be that the band reflected the leader—like Benny—now bands, to play well, must reflect all the musicians, not just the leader.
Q. Do you think your rhythm section swings as such—like Basie?
Our section plays with a slower, heavier beat. The only man who plays four is Safranski on bass. The drum foot pedal is used only for accents. A bass drum binds up a band—therefore this makes for freer rhythm.
Q. Why then did you add a guitar man to play four four?
Four to the bar is still basic—the guitar merely adds a harmonic polish. I want to add a maracas player to do what the guitars are supposed to do: fill in the section’s sound and tie it together.
Q. How do you classify you own piano playing?
A piano has no place in a rhythm section. It slows it up, makes it logy. I very rarely play straight rhythm myself, only accents. I myself am no great piano player, but play exactly as I like to hear it played in a band; color sounds and embellishments. Thornhill is the direct antithesis—I have the drive, and the rhythmic feel, demand more excitement from the band, while Thornhill relies on prettiness and soft emotion. He is too peaceful, rarely speaks out. I respect Claude very much—it’s a shame someone can’t roll the two of us together—it would make a good piano player.
Q. Do you think June Christy sings out of tune?
Yes—occasionally—but she’s much better. Wait until her record of Lonely Woman gets out—it is indicative of what she can do. June doesn’t have a great voice, but she has the potential of being a great singer. She has to get away from Tampico and the rest of that junk.
Q. What do you think of Lennie Tristano?
He’s a good musician, but very cold and utterly lacking in emotional communication.
Q. Critics have said that Safranski plays metronomically and that Shelly Manne works for himself, not the band.
Untrue in both cases. Safranski certainly swings, while Shelly, the greatest living drummer, plays for the band. Rich and Krupa are dead and gone—it’s mechanical hammering, whereas Shelly is fertile and loose. Dave Tough is certainly the greatest over-all figure in the field. Any man who can teach the Wettings. Then the Krupas and then the Mannes is some musician.
Q. This reporter has repeatedly criticized the Kenton band for the following defects: The band plays too loudly. Sections are too constantly used en masse instead of sharp—particularly the trumpets. the band doesn’t shade; it either plays softly or terribly loud, with no graduations in between. The trumpets are too often used high register. The band operates too much at one emotional level. There are too many endings which are nothing but dissonant screams to no particular purpose. There has not been enough attention to contrapuntal writing. In other words, what is good in Kenton has too often been buried in cheap trickery and blatant appeals by means of strident screaming,
Unfortunately you are right on almost every count. When the band was originally organized, we used off-beat quarters in the reeds which the Beat strongly criticized then. We made rhythm sections out of every section of the band. It was an idea, but not too be over-used the way we did. As for the screaming, the loudness, the lack of blend, this is simply due to the fact that we had only six records a year, were desperately fighting to be successful, and felt that every record had to top every other one commercially—so we poured it on. We did write too much for sections, didn’t use enough single moving lines, and certainly didn’t shade enough. All of these things you will find remedied on the new records not out yet and in the way the band is sounding every day in person. We are reasonably well established now—we can devote our attention to all of these things. It’s true that the brass does play out of tune now and then—this is enhanced by the echo chamber recording we use. As the writing changes and the section settles down, that will disappear too. Don’t forget our book is not only difficult, but no other trumpet section has ever played such close intervals in such high registers before. It will get better as time goes on.
Q. Do you agree that one of the most important thongs that ever happened to the band was when Vido Musso was replaced by tenor man Bob Cooper and George Wielder came in to lead the reeds?
Definitely. Vido blew for himself, not the band, never blended, thought it was wonderful when people would tell him they could hear him over the whole section. Now we have a section that phrases together and a tremendous soloist in Cooper as well as alto man Art Pepper.
Q. How do you feel about your highly controversial new record of Theme To The West?
It’s not jazz—it actually should have been a big string job a la Hollywood. I thought we shouldn’t release it because it wasn’t jazz. It certainly has caused controversy though.
Kenton: If the band’s dynamics up until now over a whole evening have been monotonous, blame it on me. The band reflects me as well as my musicians, and I have within me a tremendous aggression and drive which have to be expressed in my music. Criticisms that have been made are often justified—but I can move to correct them only so fast as I completely realize them myself and can find the solution. We have added Latin-American influences in the band because we weren’t satisfied with the limitations of the ordinary four-four rhythm section. From now on as much as possible, we are through with dances, will play only concerts. The music must broaden, in color, dynamics, harmonics and emotion. The extent in which we are successful will determine our future. Our jazz is dissonant and often strident. So is the age in which we live, and the people to whom we play. Neurotic? Yes— aren’t most of us today to one extent or another? I’m satisfied with all the musicians I have now as the band now is. As it changes, perhaps we will have to make personnel changes if the men aren’t flexible enough to go along with us. If I had it to do all over again, I know one thing for sure: I would play the music I wanted and believed in from the start, instead of listening to the wheel-chair brigade and all its bad advice.