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Progressive Jazz

by Terry Vosbein
Staunton, Virginia 2017

When Pete Rugolo joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra as staff arranger in late 1945 he brought with him his love of jazz, Stravinsky and Bartók. Given free reign by Kenton, he experimented constantly, creating a sound that was at the same time innovative and popular. Although Kenton himself was already creating somewhat experimental scores prior to Rugolo’s tenure, it was Rugolo who brought to the band the extra-jazz influences and the ultra-experimental approach that were to dominate the band through much of its existence. This music in the mid to late 1940s, first termed Artistry in Rhythm, and later, Progressive Jazz, was dominated by the scores of Rugolo.

Rugolo had the ideal background to transform the Kenton sound. After completing his undergraduate music degree at San Francisco State University, he earned his masters at Mills College in Oakland, studying composition with Darius Milhaud (Dave Brubeck was a fellow student). It was there that his attraction for modern classical music first blossomed. He was exposed to the modern sounds of composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He had a few lessons with Bartók during a summer session at Mills. Amongst the many additional composers influencing him during his student years were Samuel Barber, Edgard Varèse and William Schuman. But it was Stravinsky and Bartók that were his primary interest. He owned the bulk of their scores, studied them profusely and stole from them liberally. At the same time he was learning from the recordings of Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford—and subsequently, Stan Kenton.

“Ever since I heard his [Kenton’s] band the first time and heard his arrangements he became my idol. To me he was so different than Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and people like that. I copied all his stuff. I had an army band then in San Francisco and that became more like a Stan Kenton band. In those days I tried to write that kind of stuff, the off-beat stuff.” (All quotes are from an interview with Pete Rugolo by the author.) He copied the Kenton style, but brought to it his more advanced harmonic and rhythmical concepts, as well as a fondness for varied timbres.


It was inevitable that Rugolo and Kenton would join forces. A disc jockey had told Kenton about the army arranger who had a similar sound. When Kenton first played Rugolo’s arrangements Kenton said, “My God, you do write like me, but way more modern.” As soon as Rugolo was discharged he joined the arranging team, soon dominating it. It was a natural fit.

During his first six months on the staff Rugolo tried to copy Kenton’s sound. But on encouragement from the leader, he explored his own voice. “He let me write anything, the more modern the better.” By incorporating compositional techniques borrowed from the modern classical music he had studied with the dramatic excitement of the Kenton sound, Rugolo helped catapult the Kenton band into one of its most fertile and creative periods. “I thought to myself, there’s no reason why jazz or jazz orchestras can’t play some modern music, instead of just four-part harmony all the time, you know, like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, all the saxes played together. I said there’s no reason they can’t also have a five-four bar, write three-four bars, any kind of thing. And write some dissonance and form and some pieces that are almost like tone poems.”

After a string of mostly arrangements, Rugolo turned out three originals that Kenton featured on the band’s first album in 1946, Artistry in Percussion, Safranski, and Artistry in Bolero. Added to this mix came Machito, Rhythm Incorporated, Monotony, and Interlude in early 1947. These compositions came to define the Artistry in Rhythm band.

It was a powerful band, with outstanding soloists, but with one foot firmly in the tradition. And it was killing Kenton. Dances at the many ballrooms were typically four hours a night. Theatre dates generally involved playing mini concerts between each showing of the movie, sometimes five or six a day, stretching from morning to late night. Most days not on location were spent in busses or cars, racing from town to town. Days off from performing were rare. And for Kenton they just allowed for more record signing, radio station interviews, and pushing the Capitol brand. He was beat. Following an April performance in Tuscaloosa, he broke up the band.

Concerts in Progressive Jazz

After a restful and restless hiatus of five months, Kenton returned with a new goal. Rather than performing at movie theatres and ballrooms, Kenton would present concerts. Concerts in Progressive Jazz. This lofty goal proved only partially obtainable. The band still filled in its schedule by booking dances and movie theatre stints.

Before embarking on the concert tour, Kenton brought the band into the studio to document this new direction. Almost all of the music was penned by Rugolo. Elegy for Alto, Chorale for Brass, Piano and Bongo, Abstraction, Fugue for Rhythm Section, were all recorded before the tour began. After a month of concertizing they recorded Monotony, Lament, and Impressionism. And before the end of the year they recorded This is My Theme and Bongo Riff, not to mention Interlude and Theme to the West, two remnants from the Artistry band. Additionally, they recorded Bob Graettinger’s eerie Thermopolae, Ken Hanna’s Somnambulism, and the ever popular Peanut Vendor.

It is fascinating to imagine that these experimental sounds were a hit with the public. The band broke attendance records all across the country. It is a testimony to Kenton’s public relations acumen that he was able to convince concert goers and record buyers that this was important music.

One of the ways that Kenton lured audiences into his musical web was to temper the seriousness with old favorites and levity. Hits from the past were interspersed with humorous bits, to soften the harsh sounds emanating from the stage. Each concert included a couple of comedy routines. One set involved Ray Wetzel singing and playing his trumpet, both geared towards laughter. Later in the performance Kenton would banter with his sidemen before moving into a rousing vocal version of St. James Infirmary. And in spite of the adventurous and sometimes quasi-atonal backings, vocals by June Christy were always a hit.

As with most artists who are pushing boundaries, his successes did not sit well with everyone. In an essay entitled Economics and Race in Jazz, Leslie B. Rout Jr. wrote that “the real scourge of the 1946-1949 period was the all-white Stan Kenton band. Dubbing his musical repertoire ‘progressive jazz,’ Kenton saw his orchestra become the first in jazz history to reach an annual gross of $1,000,000 in 1948.” He contrasted this with a situation in which critical and public recognition of “Gillespie as the premiere bopper could not be transformed into coin of the realm.”

The Progressive Jazz band was to exist for a mere fourteen months. After rehearsing and recording, they made their debut at the Rendezvous Ballroom in September 1947. In December of the following year, Kenton, exhausted, disbanded in New York and sent everyone home.

In between they criss-crossed the country, appearing in the nation’s top concert venues, including Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, Chicago Civic Opera House, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and the Hollywood Bowl. They had extended stays at New York’s Paramount Theatre and Hotel Commodore, Philadelphia’s Click, Detroit’s Eastwood Gardens, Radio City Theater in Minneapolis, and the Rendezvous Ballroom, a special place in Kenton’s musical life.

An irony of history is that hit record maker Kenton would not make a single recording during 1948, his most musically adventurous and popular period to date. The American Federation of Musicians had instituted an industry wide recording ban at the start of 1948. The ban was lifted a year later, mere days after Kenton broke up his band. This entire twelve month span of music making at the highest level went undocumented in the studio. It is fortunate that Kenton and Capitol foresaw the inevitable dearth of recordings, waxing many of the early mainstays of the Progressive Jazz repertoire during the last few months of 1947.

New Sounds

One thing noticeably different in the Rugolo scores was his affinity for timbral variety. Within the limited palette of nine to ten brass and five saxophones he found unlimited sounds, whether mixing instrument families or combining different brass mutes. Kenton “played everything open in those days, the brass blowing. And I introduced some tone color. I’d put two trumpets in Harmon, one trumpet in another kind of mute and one open.” And his use of the rhythm section is one of color and melody as much as one of time keeping. He also frequently combined instruments from different sections to achieve more timbral diversity.

Rugolo was one of the first to take full advantage of five trumpet players, frequently giving them five different pitches when playing a chord, rather than merely having the fifth player double the lead player an octave below. His sax section also tended to play five different pitches. His voicings contain chords built on thirds and fourths, as well as dissonant clusters. At first he found resistance from the players, unaccustomed to playing dissonant intervals and independent lines. But they quickly grew to appreciate the new sounds Rugolo was bringing to them. What at first seemed quite foreign to the musicians, soon became their basic vocabulary.

Bob Graettinger

Almost every piece played by the Progressive Jazz Orchestra was created by Rugolo. But he was not alone. Another major contributor to the Progressive Jazz sound was Bob Graettinger, clearly the most avant-garde composer on the Stan Kenton composition and arranging staff.

Born in Ontario, California in 1923, he had an unimpressive background until he emerged in 1947 as one of the most futuristic composers in jazz. He was a graduate of Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. He spent his early years on the road and in Hollywood with Benny Carter and other bands, arranging and playing sax.

His father, R. F. “Phat” Graettinger, editor of the Palm Springs Desert Sun, reported in November 1947 that his son was joining the Kenton band and would write exclusively for them. His trip east to join the band at New York’s Hotel Commodore was also Graettinger’s honeymoon.

Within a week of his arrival in New York, Kenton recorded Graettinger’s original composition, Thermopylae. Three weeks later the ban went into effect. Although not nearly as prolific (fast) as Rugolo, Graettinger turned out a dozen or so arrangements and an equal amount of original compositions for the Progressive Jazz band. But only Thermopylae received a studio recording.

Graettinger wrote vocal arrangements for June Christy on Everything Happens to Me, Fine and Dandy, and Lover Man. Instrumentally he contributed charts on April in Paris, Autumn in New York, I Only Have Eyes For You, I’m in the Mood For Love, Too Marvelous For Words, Walkin’ by the River and You Go To My Head. Additionally, there were a number of original compositions, not all of which received titles.

One of those original compositions was a short multi-movement work that he called City of Glass. It was only performed in its original version, in its entirety, twice, at the Civic Opera of Chicago, with the composer at the baton. And nowhere else. When Kenton returned to the musical world in 1950 with his stings laden Innovations Orchestra, Graettinger rescored it, and it was the revised version that was recorded and created so much controversy.

The appearance and acceptance of Graettinger could not have taken place without Rugolo paving the way. The Artistry in Rhythm band had gained the skills and stamina necessary to execute Rugolo’s harsh musical demands. They were ready for Graettinger to take it a step further.

Ken Hanna

Ken Hanna was a veteran of the Kenton organization by 1947, contributing a handful of arrangements each year since 1942, mostly vocals. His association with Kenton would span decades, facilitated by a re-emergence in the 70s as a composer of larger than life Romantic and Latin-tinged original compositions. Additionally, he joined the trumpet section in 1946 and was there when the Progressive Jazz Orchestra began its journey the next year.

Hanna’s 1947 composition, Somnambulism, was recorded just days before the strike took hold, though not released until the following year. In this eerie tone-poem Hanna demonstrates his mastery of the Rugolo Third-Stream sound. Another original composed for the band during the following year was Tiare, more famously recorded in an updated version in 1970 for Kenton’s Live at Redlands album.

The Progressive Jazz band also performed a few of the older, non-progressive items, written by Kenton himself. Eager Beaver, Opus in Pastels, A Message to Harlem, Artistry in Rhythm, and especially Concerto to End All Concertos, were always crowd pleasers.

But these were not the reasons that Kenton embarked on the tour. They were the palate cleaning sorbets served up between courses. The main course was forward thinking music, often brutal, seemingly angst ridden, reflective of the times.

Moving Forward

Kenton recognized that to move forward musically, to make meaningful concert jazz, he would require the compositional skills of other writers. His own Benny Carter derived style and lack of formal study made him unsuited to lead the charge with his pen. It was good fortune that Rugolo sought Kenton out at just the right moment. And equally fortuitous that Kenton saw fit to give Rugolo’s talent free rein, encouraging him to push envelope after envelope, and recording, performing and publicizing these ground-breaking works.

It was a brief period in jazz history, but Kenton’s Progressive Jazz adventure colored much jazz that was to follow. A music that for its entire life was social music, jazz was turning into concert music. A style that had been regimented to matching the moving feet of dancers was transformed into a music for intellectual and emotional contemplation. Strict four-four rhythms were deemed unnecessary. Dense harmonies and colorful orchestral timbers were the norm. Highly individual soloists were showcased in unusual and unconventional settings. Tempos changed like the wind, and dramatic climaxes were guaranteed.

Jazz would never be the same.