by Terry Vosbein
Presented at the IAJE International Conference, New York, January 2006
Stan Kenton utilized dozens of composers and arrangers during the more than three decades that he led a jazz orchestra. Many were giants in their own right who went on to have critically acclaimed careers. But it was always Kenton himself who was the architect of the sounds emanating from his bands.
Prior to being a bandleader he was an Earl Hines influenced pianist playing gigs around southern California. By the late 1930s he grew tired of the musically unsatisfying jobs he was getting. He wanted to explore written jazz more deeply. And so the very first Kenton band was put together in 1940 to play through his somewhat experimental arrangements. “Out of sheer desperation, I finally called a rehearsal band together, kind of an experimental group. The reaction was such that I felt encouraged to start my own band.”
By the following year the band was working and the need for music grew rapidly. Ralph Yaw and Joe Rizzo assisted by contributing arrangements during the first few years. But it was Kenton’s vision that shaped the music from the very beginning. According to Pete Rugolo “Stan had his own style of writing that was different than anyone else’s. Everything he wrote sounded like Stan Kenton.”
Kenton contributed to the band’s library from its inception until 1968. There were spurts of creativity throughout these years, some culminating in specific album projects. And there were periods that for one reason or another he wrote nothing that was recorded.
The Kenton Style
Kenton’s early works demonstrate his familiarity with the music of Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington. Although he denied any direct influence, his early band had similarities to Lunceford’s. The first time Gerald Wilson heard the Kenton band was on the radio during in 1941. He instantly recognized the Lunceford influence, a sound he knew well, as he had been touring with Lunceford for several years at that point. According to Wilson “Lunceford did a lot of reed chorus, and Stan also had nice reed choruses.” Lunceford also used the short, off-the-beat chords that were to become such a feature of Kenton’s early arrangements.
“Benny Carter was my ideal as a writer, and in the beginning I tried to copy Benny.”  Many of Carter’s faster tempo numbers, such as Gloaming (1936), Gin and Jive and I’m In The Mood For Swing (both from 1937), have the same driving beat and punctuated rhythms as early Kenton arrangements. It is easy to hear how he was excited and influenced by this highly energized music.
Bassist Howard Rumsey, a part of the first band, said “…the original Kenton band was built around the saxophones. Stan added a complete rhythm and went from there.” Considering the later Kenton bands, it is interesting that the brass were used merely to enhance the sax section. But in the early days the brass took a back seat to the saxophones.
In virtually every one of his orchestrations Kenton treats the brass and saxophones separately. Though sometimes written in unison or octaves, the brass are generally voiced in four or five part harmony. The trumpets and trombones often play together. But more frequently they are scored separately.
It was very rare for the trumpets and woodwinds to join together as a section. But during the first four or five years Kenton occasionally had a section of clarinets double the trumpets an octave higher. Elegy (1941), Moon Song (1944) and Ooh, What I Dreamed About You (1945) all use this sound that, fortunately, Kenton abandoned after this period. The trombones and saxophones are written together intermittently in the 1940s, usually in a background rhythmic figure.
The brass section provides the fire to the music. Loud clipped off-beat chords punctuate Kenton’s early up-tempo arrangements and add to their excitement. Pieces such as Harlem Folk Dance and La Cumparsita, both from 1941, exhibit this feature extensively. At times Kenton has the trumpets play a unison or harmonized melody and supply rhythmic hits. They growled from time to time in the early days in their best Ellington imitation. And from the first band to the last, climaxes always found the trumpets in the upper register. On early swingers they would scream, with wide shakes and raw energy. In the later ballads they harmonized the melody with tightly voiced chords in the high register.
In addition to supporting the trumpets on these climaxes, the trombone section often supplies tenderness with lush widely-spaced chords. These are most often in second inversion, with the string bass contributing the roots. That said, he virtually always has one of the upper trombones playing the root somewhere in the middle of the chord. Almost all of the later ballads use this trombone chorale sound.
The trombones are used as harmonic and rhythmic support at all dynamic levels. They are written in tightly closed harmony as well as spread out over two or more octaves. And they were a powerful force playing unison melodies in pieces such as Balboa Bash (1944), Southern Scandal (1945) and the vocal Special Delivery (1945).
Kenton wrote for saxophones primarily in one of three ways. There are numerous arpeggiated solis, especially in the ballads. They are full of double-time figures and are almost always harmonized utilizing drop-two voicing (Opus In Pastels – 1940). On some ballads the saxophones are written chorale-like, with slow-moving parts spread two to three octaves from top to bottom. The baritone frequently has an independent contrapuntal line (Alone Too Long – 1954). They could also play in unison or octaves, with riff-like melodies in the more up tempo pieces (Easy Go – 1950).
The drop-two voicing [Figure 1], which widens the space between the lowest and highest notes of a chord, gives the sax section more of a spread-out sound than the tightly voiced sections that were more commonplace in the swing era. By lowering the harmony line normally played by the second alto by one octave (hence the name ‘drop-two’), a fatter sound results. It also puts more distance between the lead alto and the other saxophones, making it stand out a little bit. Kenton uses this voicing throughout his entire career, in virtually every sax soli he wrote, from Opus In Pastels (1940) [Figure 2] until When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love (1968) [Figure 3]. “The unique sound of the sax section was realized through the writing, and I’d have to say the conception was my own,” according to Kenton. Arranger Ralph Yaw said “To my mind, the saxes are treated in the right way for the first time.”
The arpeggiated double-time figures that he wrote so often for his band come directly from his piano style. Whether playing slower swing tunes such as Say It Isn’t So (1944), I’ve Got The World On A String (1946) or If I Could Be With You (1947), or the high speed Lover (1946), Kenton frequently played sixteenth-note arpeggios to fill between his own phrases. With his band he wrote out these figures, primarily for the saxophones. He also occasionally wrote these figures for trumpets (Say It Isn’t So, 1961) or even strings (Theme For Sunday, 1950).
One of the first compositions Kenton wrote for his band was Opus In Pastels, for saxophones and rhythm section.Many of his trademarks are already in evidence. There is a soli full of double-time figures written with drop-two voicing. There are sections where there is more than a three octave spread, from the baritone’s lowest notes up to the alto’s upper register. The staccato off-beat rhythms that became a hallmark in his swing arrangements are present in this composition.And the sense of pacing seems perfect.
Many early Kenton arrangements featured “hot” improvised solos, often by trumpeter Chico Alvarez or alto sax man Jack Ordean. The numerous solos, along with frequent swing tempos, make this the most jazz-like period of Kenton’s writing career. In these works there remained a strong link to the big bands of the swing era.
In his original swing compositions Kenton generally utilized the type of chord progressions found in pop music of the 30s and 40s. He also had a penchant for progressions utilizing chord built on the lowered second degree, or “flat two.” He frequently used diminished seventh chords as secondary dominants, especially in arpeggiations.
Kenton had a fondness for whole-tone harmonies. He used them on the bridges of Harlem Folk Dance (1941) and the original 1960s composition titled 109. Fantasy is a 1946 Kenton composition based almost entirely on the whole tone scale. The “flat five,” a relative of the whole tone scale, comes up in a number of compositions as well, such as the bridges of Eager Beaver (1943) and Painted Rhythm (1945) and the introduction and interlude of Sunset Tower (1950).
During the 1940s and 50s he composed a number of original swingers, with riff-based melodies, in 32 bar AABA form and with improvised solos. Examples of this format are Eager Beaver (1943), Painted Rhythm (1945), Southern Scandal (1945), Easy Go (1950), Sunset Tower (1950) and Night Watch (1951). Generally Kenton’s approach is to repeat the melody over and over, building momentum with each iteration, with little melodic or harmonic development. At times he interrupts the repetitions with improvisations or transitions. And in several there are modulations between choruses. On some pieces he literally repeats the melody over and over, adding layers and getting louder, until it explodes in climatic beauty. He used this in Lazy Daisy (1952), as well as Sunny, Girl Talk and Gloomy Sunday, from 1968. And it is the form his theme song took for the last several decades of his life.
His earlier works tend to have far more segues and transitions than the arrangements written after the mid-1950s. In pieces such as Stardust (1940), Elegy (1941) and Harlem Folk Dance (1941), Kenton adds an eight bar transition immediately after the first chorus. Many other pieces have transitions of varying lengths between choruses. In the later arrangements he rarely adds any bars to the form that are not in the original melody.
Kenton’s forays into more experimental and extended works were only minimally successful. He contributed three titles to the 1950 Innovations Orchestra. Two of the pieces, Shelly Manne and June Christy, written to feature their namesakes, seem contrived and haphazardly put together. This is especially evident when compared to the Rugolo and Graettinger pieces from that era. It is also true of Opus For Timpani (1965), his one contribution to the Neophonic Orchestra. Though it is a better percussion showcase than Shelly Manne, it fails to hold up next the many other fine compositions that this orchestra performed during its brief existence. It does, however, contain the one instance in a Kenton score in which a trumpet and a saxophone play a melody in unison. After the cadenza that begins the second movement an alto sax and a trumpet in Harmon mute play the dirge-like melody together.
His third contribution to the Innovations Orchestra in 1950, Theme For Sunday, is more successful. It is the first Kenton ballad arrangement to reach this level of emotional display. The composition contains interesting textures and a hauntingly romantic melody. Climaxes are of a new variety, more restrained than the frenetic ones of the past, yet they create an even stronger dramatic impact. This is Kenton’s mature ballad writing and it is the basis for virtually all of his ballads to come.
The two most productive periods of Kenton’s writing are the very early years and around 1961. He wrote over sixty documented arrangements, and probably as many undocumented, between 1940 and 1945. With Pete Rugolo’s arrival as chief arranger in 1945 Kenton’s contributions to the library became far fewer. Between 1946 and 1956 Kenton averaged less than four new scores a year. In 1957 he began writing more and in 1961 he arranged over two dozen titles, including the extended works for the unissued ballad album. After 1968 he wrote nothing new for the band.
With the exception of a few early scores that were written on manuscript part paper, Kenton always worked on a full score, in pencil. The score paper was often emblazoned “STAN KENTON ORCHESTRA” on the bottom and pre-printed with the names of the instruments down the left side. The paper could grow to quite large proportions relative the size of the ensemble. Each score page for Shelly Manne is almost four square feet with thirty-five staves. Kenton wrote non-transposed scores. To minimize ledger lines he wrote the alto and tenor saxophones one octave higher than pitch and the baritone sax two octaves higher. And he always wrote the melody along with the chords in his scores and parts for instrumental improvised solos.
In 1958 Kenton recorded ”The Ballad Style of Stan Kenton,” a baker’s dozen of standard arrangements. It is an enjoyable, if formulaic, album. Eleven of the titles feature a climax of high trumpets harmonizing the melody, trombones in widely-spread long-note chords and saxophones playing double-time drop-two fills. All but one use the double-time drop-two saxophones in other places of the arrangements as well. Most have the piano playing the melody in the middle register over soft trombone chords. Kenton calls for the first trombone to play these melodies in his score. But apparently none of the trombone players present could successfully record these parts, so Kenton played single-note melodies on the piano. Some of the trombone solos were assigned to a Harmon muted trumpet. In spite of the many orchestrational devices repeated from track to track, Kenton creates fresh excitement in each one as he goes from the softest of sounds to the loudest and back again.
The 1961 album “The Romantic Approach” contains twelve choice standards bathed in the Kenton sound. The band during this period was augmented by four mellophoniums. Downbeat gave this album “five stars for the imaginative writing” yet goes on to say “this is hardly an album for hipsters, [though] there is much in the music that stands on merits apart from jazz.” Although each is a mini-masterpiece in its own right, as a whole the album is repetitive. Every arrangement is one chorus long. Every piece utilizes double-time sax figures in drop-two voicing. Nine of the twelve have sax solis voiced this way. Eleven of them utilize the identical climax formula from “The Ballad Style” with the mellophoniums added, playing an often too-high unison counter line.
One of the first recording sessions with the mellophonium band resulted in a now infamous ballad album in 1961. The album was never released, as it apparently had substandard performances. It features more complex arrangements than found on “The Romantic Approach,” which was recorded just one month later. The average length of each arrangement is five minutes. Street Of Dreams lasts almost seven and a half minutes. (Kenton recycles the first chorus of his 1951 arrangement to begin this version.) Most include two complete choruses. With more space to work with there is slightly less of a formulaic approach, although most have two full climaxes of the same variety as found on “The Romantic Approach.”
There are no improvised solos on these three albums of standards. By comparison, in 1961 the band recorded twenty-four Lennie Niehaus dance arrangements for the albums “Adventures in Standards” and “The Sophisticated Approach.” Only four of those titles do not include improvisation.
“Artistry in Bossa Nova” was recorded by the mellophonium band in 1963 and is significant because, in addition to several re-arranged Kenton hits, it presents the first original Kenton compositions to be released in several years (Kentonova, Loco-Nova and Brasilla). Each has its charm. They are all of the “keep repeating the melody” variety. Kentonova is a light bossa nova in an AABA form that shifts back and forth from F minor to F major in each of the “A” sections. Loco-Nova is a blues set in faster Latin tempo and contains a rare instance of an improvised solo in a later Kenton score. Brasilla is repetitive and not as strong as the other two originals.
On “The World We Know” from 1967 there are three Kenton originals, the last new ones that he would record. Interchange and Changing Times are both interesting compositions and worthy of belonging to his final opus. These two pieces explore the mixing of time signatures in rhythmically interesting ways. Theme for Jo, composed for his third wife, is a beautifully effective ballad, though full of Kenton’s stock devices. Perhaps the most exciting and well written arrangement on this album is Gloomy Sunday, which has several tempo changes, instrumental solos, a ghostly beginning and a driving climax.
Other albums that Kenton arranged include “Kenton With Voices” (1957), “Stan Kenton/Tex Ritter” (1962), “Kenton Plays Wagner” (1964), “Kenton Plays For Today” (1966) and “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968).
Street of Dreams
Composed by Victor Young and Sam Lewis
Arranged by Stan Kenton
Recorded 20 September 1951
The 1951 arrangement of Street of Dreams has all the hallmarks of a great Kenton ballad: lush trombones, a “notey” saxophone soli, and the inevitable bombastic full band climax. It is masterpiece of drama, created around the beautiful melody of Victor Young.
The score begins with a two measure introduction. The piano plays chords and the bass plays sixteenth-note scales reminiscent of the interplay Kenton had with Eddie Safranski in the previous decade. This introduction was eliminated in live performances and by the 70s was replaced by an a capella piano chorus.
The melody is first presented harmonized in lush chords by the trombones [Figure 4]. The chords are primarily voiced in second inversion with an octave and a half spread from lowest to highest notes. The trombones are interrupted by the piano and bass at the bridge. The sixteenth-note bass line here, like the introduction, is fully notated on the score. The same lush trombone sound that began the tune returns to complete the sixteen measure chorus.
The arrangement modulates down a major third at the start of the new chorus and an improvised alto sax solo begins. It was around this time that improvised solos started to become rare in Kenton scores. From this recording in 1951 until Kenton’s final recorded arrangement in 1968, there are only around 15 improvised solos out of over 175 of his arrangements. On the score and original recording this solo lasts a mere eight measures, or half of a sixteen-bar chorus, before the arrangement reaches its climax. In performance the solo was generally extended by a full chorus. Not only does this allow for more development, but it balances the form by moving the climax from exactly half-way through the arrangement to a more satisfying two-thirds.
The ensemble enters suddenly on the bridge for a fortissimo climax, the only preparation being the set-up by the drummer. The brass harmonize the melody with fat ninth chords in second inversion while the saxophones play sixteenth note arpeggios [Figure 5]. The trumpets are voiced tightly, with less than an octave between the first and fifth parts. The trombones are also voiced tightly, though the bottom trombone is sometimes spaced apart from the upper four. There is a wonderful moment in the second measure of this section with four-note clusters in both the trumpets and trombones spaced an octave apart.
The saxophones play the first figure of this tutti climax in a drop-two, drop-four arrangement. This spreads the saxophones even more than drop-two, making an 11th or 12th from low note to high note, rather than a 9th or 10th. Although other Kenton writers would use this voicing, he rarely returned to it. On the second sax section figure he returns to drop-two voicing, only breaking it at the cadence. The alto sax resumes the improvisation for the remaining four bars of the chorus.
Another sudden modulation takes place, moving from A-flat major to E-flat. The alto is joined by the other four saxophones for a drop-two soli of highly arpeggiated melodies. The soli lasts a full chorus and includes numerous double-time figures. The sax line references the melody, but in a highly ornamental manner. This is precisely the sound on which he based his first band a decade prior to writing this arrangement. It ends as it began, with the bass running sixteenth notes against the piano chords.
Street of Dreams is successful because it contains the best of Kenton’s tried and true devices, yet deviates from this formula in several creative ways. The trumpets play only four measures in this arrangement, yet the measures they play are a focal point of the piece. And Kenton’s harmonies on this piece are a little denser. Many of his voicings have strong dissonant intervals and he uses five and six note chords. The alto sax improvisation that flows seamlessly into the sax soli is simple yet brilliant writing. And the pacing, especially with the extended sax solo, is a masterpiece of dramatic timing. This arrangement was a mainstay in the band’s performances until the very end.
With his reliance on tried and true musical devices, just what is it that makes Kenton’s music stand out? The answer to that question is the thing that all Kenton bands through the years share. It is what Kenton brought not only to his own arrangements, but to everything the band played: an impeccable sense of timing and drama. “The band was originally designed, through both orchestration and presentation, to thrill as much as possible. I strove for flash and wanted every arrangement, whether slow or fast tempo, to be a production.” Even his most commercial vocal pieces are infused with this dramatic fervor. His arrangements are like mini Wagner operas. They contain that same emotional impact, with perfectly balanced tensions and releases, extremely wide dynamic variations and an expanded orchestral range. It is no wonder that in the 1960s Kenton orchestrated an album’s worth of Wagner for his band. The two have much in common in the ways they broke from tradition.
Although Kenton’s writing leaned heavily toward formulas at times, he set the tone for all other “Kenton” arrangers. When he was at his best, his formulas worked magic. And he could successfully break away from the formula as he did on the “World We Know,” the final album to feature new compositions by Kenton.
In his exciting youthful arrangements, as well as his mature ballads, Kenton crafted miniature theatrical works. He condensed the essential elements from Romantic opera and symphonic tradition into a three or four minute dramatic creation. From highly emotional stirrings to carefully sculpted climaxes, Kenton’s writing moves the listener much like the music of Mahler, Strauss and, of course, Wagner. And this same feeling permeated virtually all of the music the Kenton band played. In a Downbeat review of a 1961 Kenton concert Barbara Gardner wrote “Kenton is still a master of the dramatic impact.” He was in 1940. He was in 1961. And he was until his last performance.
 Harris, 5.
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 Harris, 8.
 Downbeat, 28 September, 33.
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 Downbeat, 19 January, 24.