A Kenton Celebration

by Terry Vosbein

from the Tantara CD
A Kenton Celebration

By the mid 1940s, with the war moving towards a conclusion, Stan Kenton was on the verge of becoming “Modern America’s Man of Music,” a bigger than life moniker that he would use for the next decade. This was a transitional period for the sound of the band. The short off-beat accented figures that Kenton had picked up from Benny Carter’s writing were disappearing, as composer/arranger Pete Rugolo took over the reins of shaping the band’s sound. Progressive Jazz had appeared.

When Rugolo arrived in late 1945, Kenton had just abandoned the syrupy clarinets and was on his way to being the most innovative big band the world had seen. The long famous story of how Rugolo was “discovered” by Kenton set the transformation in motion. Rugolo began by trying to duplicate Kenton’s sound, but was soon encouraged by the leader to explore his own path.

This recording documents that change. Several of the titles found here are early versions of items that Kenton would later re-shape and add to his library. Some were also arranged by later writers, such as Bill Russo, Johnny Richards, Lennie Niehaus and Kenton himself. And a few are one-of-a kind gems.

You Go to My Head emerged as a jazz classic in the late 30s, probably due to its unusual harmonic progression. Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday had hits on it and it was featured in several 1940s films. In addition to this version, Kenton also recorded arrangements by Russo and Graettinger.

This 1945 Rugolo arrangement was written prior to his Kenton years, and includes the clarinets that were forbidden by the time he joined the staff. Set in a medium tempo swing, the melody is presented, followed by piano interlude. A short sax solo leads to a double time romp on the melody with brass punctuations. Although one can hear incipient elements of the Rugolo style, it remains mainstream, in the older Kenton tradition.

Opus a la Kenton is based on Rugolo’s composition Opus A Dollar Three Eighty (or was it the reverse?). Rugolo composed it while still in the Army, emulating the Kenton sound that he so loved. A Dollar Three Eighty was his audition piece for Kenton, who later recorded it for Capitol and for MacGregor Transcriptions. It also appears on several broadcasts from this time. Typical Rugolo features of this period include whole-tones scales and descending half-step harmonic progressions, and they are both found here.

Pepper Pot was a feature for altoist Art Pepper, probably composed in the late 1940s; it shows up frequently on concert programs from 1948. Pepper first joined the Kenton band at the tender age of 17. “He was a strong father-figure for me,” said Pepper. “I owe him my name, and I loved him very much.”

Kenton knew what he had with Pepper and found many ways to feature his expressive soloing. This Rugolo original features descending harmonies and hot blowing throughout, in a boppish style that may have contributed to Kenton not recording it. Pepper was to later record a combo arrangement of this composition in 1956 under his own name.

Like Gene Roland, Joe Coccia contributed arrangements and compositions to Kenton from the early forties until the early seventies, although Kenton recorded and performed only a very small percentage. His most notable role was as arranger for the 1957 dance album, Rendezvous With Kenton.

You Brought a New Kind of Love offers a rare treat to hear one of the earlier titles arranged by Coccia for Kenton. It is a tasty dance chart that presents a straight-ahead swing take on an old favorite. One time through the melody is followed up by improvisations by tenor and trumpet. The trumpets take over and the the chart gently romps to the ending.

Unlike Kenton, Rugolo and many of the young soloists on the band were adherents of the new bop styles coming out of the mid and late forties. When discussing Dizzy Gillespie with Willis Conover in 1947 Kenton admitted that he was “not a fan of that particular vein of music.” Rugolo composed several bop pieces for the band, but they played very few and recorded even fewer. Occasionally on late sets, when Kenton was away from the bandstand, Rugolo would take over the piano chair and call his bop arrangements, much to the delight of the sidemen.

June’s Bop was a minor key feature for vocalist June Christy written in 1948. Though seemingly improvised, the melody throughout is notated. The original music even included penciled-in syllables for Christy to sing. It entered the library shortly before Kenton broke up the band in late 1948, so it is doubtful that it received many performances.

Although never recorded by Kenton, Rugolo’s original, Hollywood Turmoil appeared as Turmoil on Eddie Safranski’s second album from 1947 featuring a combo of Kentonites. Once again, the descending half-step harmonies are present.

According to Rugolo, when he joined the Kenton staff in late 1945, he was composing and arranging in a style he associated with Kenton himself. Song for Trombone, written to feature Ray Klein, was the first original composition that Rugolo contributed to the band as staff arranger. One can assume this composition is an example of his emulating Kenton. Originally scored utilizing the clarinets, as heard here, he quickly re-wrote it for the standard band in early 1946.

Riffin’ Around is a happy melody, more representative of swing riff-tunes than with Rugolo’s more advanced works. It is more than likely a composition from his pre-Kenton days. Also written for the clarinet band, the Shearing-like melody is catchy and tuneful. Solos by sax and trumpet add to the jazz feel. The bridge contains another example of the descending half-step harmonies that he favored in his earlier years. And an In the Mood set of modulations during the final build-up brings it to a solid big band climactic ending.

Opus 69 is a historic discovery of a number that was later to become a staple in the Kenton Progressive Jazz band. Shortly after it was composed someone (Kenton?) got the idea to change the swing groove into an Afro-Cuban feel. It was renamed Cubana. Pencil edits in the original parts document the transformation. By the time it made it to the recording studio the title was again changed, to Cuban Carnival. With the exception of the swing feel, this is quite similar to the version recorded in late 1947 and released on the Progressive Jazz album, with co-compositional credit then given to Kenton and Rugolo.

The composition seems to be one long crescendo. Descending half-step harmonies form the basis of the entire work. The melody is passed around from piano to solo trombone to the trumpet section, before an improvised sax solo has a say in the matter. A screaming full band concludes the show with a truncated version of the melody.

When the band was hired to play dinner sets at a hotel in New York City in early 1947, the typical arrangement tended to blow the food right off the plates. Kenton instructed Rugolo to write some softer pieces, utilizing piano solos and muted brass. Perhaps the most famous of this batch was Interlude. But many arrangements of standards came from this time.

Rugolo said that he wrote “a lot of commercial soft things” to fulfill this need. “It was just for the purpose of playing the hotel or dancing. Real simple arrangements.” Blue Moon was one of the results of this assignment. It contains none of the avant-garde devices that Rugolo was known for, and offers a swinging, riff-based mood, without the screaming brass that presented such a danger to dinner patrons.

September Song was recorded several times by Kenton, most notably Kenton’s own arrangement that featured a band vocal in 1951. Jay Johnson and Tex Ritter also had vocal versions that were performed with the band, but this is his only instrumental rendition.

After a mood-setting introduction, a fairly straight presentation of the tune ensues. The trombones are the predominant melody presenters here. A couple of modulations add some interest, including a surprise shift of key just before the chart ends.

Laura is another song that was recorded several times by the band. Kenton, Rugolo, Niehaus and Richards all contributed their versions of the popular movie song. But none pushed the envelope of tonality and coherence as much as Bob Graettinger did in 1948.

When arranging standards, Graettinger was never content to state the melody in any sort of traditional manner, blurring the boundaries between his arranging techniques and those strictly compositional devices. Just as hints of normalcy appear to the listener, a familiar melody emerging, he takes off in a new direction.

Graettinger scored his 1948 arrangement pf April in Paris in the same manner as his original compositions. He creates a sound world of wailing saxes and fluttering muted trumpets. The melody creeps in and out with the harmonies rarely supporting it in any traditional manner. There are no solos and the rhythm section never falls into any sort of jazz groove. Like Laura, it is another pop standard that was arranged by several of the Kenton staff over the years, most notably the stellar arrangement by Bill Russo on Portraits on Standards.

Molshoaro is an original swinger by Graettinger. The version heard here is an early version of the score, which was re-written and appeared in the Kenton book in early 1948 as a feature for trombonist Eddie Bert. The solo trombone plays almost continuously, bouncing between the angular melody and improvised lines. There is very little full ensemble, as they are relegated to adding punctuations and color.

Weird Dreams is perhaps the most successful use of clarinets in the Kenton library. It makes one wonder what sort of sounds Rugolo could have created had Kenton not eliminated the licorice sticks from his band. (When this author asked Kenton about his most significant contributions to big band jazz he replied that he got rid of cup mutes and clarinets).

Rather than utilizing the high sweet sound found in Gene Howard’s scores, Rugolo evokes an eerie world of drug induced dreams in this slow blues-like original. A very Dukish feeling to the voicings, one can almost see the images reflected in its original title, Weed Dreams.

If I Had You started its life in the late 1920s. Presented here, it is a straight-ahead dance chart. The melody is first stated by the solo piano, with a solo trombone taking over for the bridge. The saxes offer their ornamented version of the melody, followed by sax and trumpet solos on the tune. A full ensemble blasts the last eight measures before coming to an abrupt ending.

Rugolo loved modern classical music. He owned the complete scores and recordings of many modern classical composers, including Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók and others. “That was my music. I love modern music.”

The Firebird Jumps, written in 1945 just before joining the Kenton band’s arranging staff, is Rugolo’s take on the 1910 ballet by Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s use of short repeated motives is served perfectly by Rugolo’s reimagining to a swing beat. As in his arrangement of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun from the following year, Rugolo shows an in-depth knowledge of, and respect for, the original. One wonders if Stravinsky had any inkling of this.

I’ll Never Be the Same became a certified hit for both Mildred Bailey and Guy Lombardo in 1932 and was quickly on its way to becoming a jazz standard. A decade and a half later Rugolo had his say, setting it at a loping swing pace, and giving melodic duties to the alto sax. The second chorus moves the song more deeply into the jazz world with an improvised trumpet solo. Exuberant interjections of double-time brass figures are found throughout the chart. A brief full ensemble picks up the heat before the alto takes over to bring it back home.

The prolific composer/arranger Neil Hefti contributed very little to the Kenton library. Only two titles were recorded by the band, a June Christy vocal on How High the Moon and In Veradero for the Innovations Orchestra. Sahara entered the Kenton book alongside In Veradero, in early 1950, but doesn’t seem to have been performed often, if at all. A soft Latin groove played by percussion and piano opens the chart before a languid mellow trumpet takes over as the feeling relaxes.

Temptation was introduced to the world by Bing Crosby in 1933 and has since become a staple of the literature. Unlike several of the arrangements of standards sound on this disc, this Rugolo version is clearly a show piece, not meant for dancing. from the very first sound, a brash dissonant trumpet chord, Rugolo announces the mood. A fanfare introduction gives way to the tune. The first time through the melody relies heavily on the trombones. The band kicks into double-time swing for a tenor solo before returning the listener to the fanfare cacophony of the start. The sliding bones at the end remind one of the concluding section of Rugolo’s Artistry in Bolero.

At the end of 1948, exhausted and frustrated with the music business, Kenton disbanded and the Progressive Jazz Era was over. The band had became a top box office draw during those years of experimental music, proving to the headstrong leader that his vision of pushing musical boundaries was viable. When he returned to performing in 1950, his big band was replaced by a forty-piece orchestra playing Innovations in Modern Music. And the story went on.

— Terry Vosbein
Staunton, Virginia