by Terry Vosbein
from the Tantara CD New Horizons, volume 1
By the time Stan Kenton conducted the premiere concert of the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra in January of 1965 he had been leading a band for nearly a quarter of a century. For those twenty-five years he championed contemporary large ensemble jazz, featuring a who’s who of talented instrumentalists along the way. But make no mistake. The Kenton band in all of its incarnations was first and foremost a writer’s band. From the Stravinsky influenced Pete Rugolo to the hard swinging Bill Holman, Kenton encouraged his writers to explore new horizons.
When the Neophonic Orchestra played that first concert Kenton took his support of innovative composition to a new level with the creation of a resident ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary jazz. “This is the second or third generation of jazz musicians, and the music of jazz is constantly evolving and developing,” he told the opening night crowd. “It is now time that we endeavor to establish a resident orchestra dedicated to the performance of this particular type of contemporary music.”
In the middle of the 20th century every major city in the western world, as well as many smaller towns, boasted resident orchestras performing primarily European classical music. But in the first half century of its existence, jazz never had a similar permanent home. The Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra would change this.
During the early 1960s socialite Dorothy Buffum Chandler led a group of citizens in raising twenty million dollars towards the creation of a Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. As the city was eagerly awaiting the opening if its new state of the art facility, Stan Kenton called a press conference at LA’s Ambassador Hotel. He announced the formation of the International Academy of Contemporary Music, a new organization with three purposes. The academy would promote the composition and performance of contemporary music. It would serve as a clearing house for contemporary music and musicians. And it would sponsor the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, while encouraging the formation of other similar orchestras.
The crown jewel of the Music Center was the 3200 seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In December of 1964 the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra performed the opening gala concert conducted by its music director, Zubin Mehta. Less than a month later the Pavilion’s other resident orchestra premiered: the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra conducted by its music director, Stan Kenton. Jazz had a home.
An initial season of four concerts was planned, approximately one each month beginning in January. The second season was similar, while the third and final season, after a year’s hiatus in 1967, contained three concerts. All were planned for Monday nights, a typical dark night for the classical music events that dominated the Pavilion’s schedule.
Although Kenton made it clear that the Neophonic Orchestra was a separate entity from the Kenton Orchestra, there were many familiar faces on the stage that first night at the Music Center. Instrumentalists Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, Al Porcino, Bob Fitzpatrick, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, John Worster, Shelly Manne and Laurindo Almeida were familiar to even the casual Kenton fan. But in spite of this generous helping of talent in the orchestra, the Neophonic belonged to the composers.
Over five dozen composers and arrangers were featured during the three seasons of the Neophonic’s existence. They were given free reign by Kenton, encouraged to write without the limitation of commercial appeal. This fact in particular was attractive to the many composers chosen who had commercial writing gigs. Not coincidently, the composers selected for this first concert include several Kenton regulars.
The brass dominated orchestra chosen for the first season of the Neophonic concerts consisted of five saxophones, five trumpets and five French horns, as well as four trombones and a tuba. To the traditional four piece rhythm section he added vibraphone and tympani. This basic instrumentation remained fairly constant throughout the eleven Neophonic concerts. String sections were incorporated twice. And guest ensembles appeared from time to time, including Don Ellis and the Hindustani Sextet, Shelly Manne and his Men and the North Texas State University One O’Clock Lab Band.
Each concert featured one or more guest artists. Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Buddy DeFranco and Mel Torme all appeared with the Neophonic Orchestra during the first season. Critics have argued the merits of some of these performers as Neophonic artists. But no one could argue with the guest performer on the premiere concert, Viennese composer/pianist Friedrich Gulda.
Gulda and Kenton seemed destined to collaborate. However different their music may be, they shared an appreciation for contemporary music that drew from both jazz and classical. When Gulda appeared on the opening Neophonic concert almost fifteen years had passed since his Carnegie Hall debut as a twenty year old classical pianist. Long before Wynton Marsalis demonstrated that one can perform in both idioms and be successful, Gulda was doing just that. His classical piano recordings were praised, particularly his Bach. In 1956 he cancelled a master class in Salzburg in order to play in New York at Birdland. He was an enigma to both sides of the fence, much like Kenton himself.
Nearly everyone involved with the Neophonic concerts was paid for their services except the composers. And yet dozens of writers jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this piece of history. Interestingly, of the eight composers represented on this concert of America’s music (North America, that is), half were born outside of the United States: Rugolo from Sicily, Richards from Mexico, Lalo Schifrin from Argentina, Gulda from Austria. Of the twelve compositions on the opening concert, six were world premieres.