Stan Kenton, Band Leader, Dies; Was Center of Jazz Controversies
By JOHN S. WILSON
New York Times
27 August 1979
Stan Kenton, the band leader, died Saturday night in a Hollywood hospital. He was 67 years old.
Mr. Kenton entered Midway Hospital on Aug. 17 after a stroke. His manager, Audrey Coke, said Mr. Kenton had never fully recovered from a skull fracture he suffered in a fall two years ago.
Mr. Kenton was the last major jazzband leader to emerge from the Big Band era of 1935-45, and his was one of only a handful of bands that survived when that era came to an end. It was also the most controversial of all the big jazz bands.
The screaming “walls of brass” that were as characteristic of a Kenton performance as the richly somber trombones and the heavy, staccato saxophones were alternately hailed as “progressive” explorations of an alliance between jazz and classical music and deplored as sheer noise. Arthur Fiedler, the late conductor of the Boston Pops, called Mr. Kenton the most important link between jazz and the classics. But Albert J. McCarthy, an English critic, declared that Mr. Kenton’s music screamed “because it can make its point no other way.”
“Kids are going haywire over the sheer noise of this band,” Barry Ulanov wrote in Metronome magazine in 1948. “There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon.”
Mr. Kenton took it all in stride.
‘In an Ecstasy All Their Own’
“Some of the wise boys who say my music is loud, blatant and that’s all,” he said, “should see the faces of the kids who have driven a hundred miles through the snow to see the band…to stand in front of the bandstand in an ecstasy all their own.”
Mr. Kenton, a pianist who sometimes played solos with his orchestra, was a lanky 6 feet 4 inches, and had a flamboyant manner that did not diminish the musical turmoil he created. He conducted with great arm-waving vigor, ending every selection with upstretched arms and an ecstatic expression. He had an unwavering belief in his own work, and was a tireless salesman for it, giving it such descriptive titles as “artistry in rhythm,” “progressive jazz” and “innovations in modern music.”
“If you ask any 10 people on the street if they have ever heard of Stan Kenton,” he once said, “only a couple of them will say, ‘Yes.’ We have to try to get the other 8. And the only way I can see to do it is to make myself a personality and take my band along.”
Mr. Kenton’s “experimental works,” as he referred to many of the pieces in his repertory, were not written simply to be different, according to Pete Rugolo, who was Mr. Kenton’s chief arranger in the late 40’s and early 50’s.
In the years after World War II, Mr. Kenton’s was one of the first big jazz bands, along with Dizzy Gillespie’s, to use Afro-Cuban rhythmic coloration in their music. One of his compositions then was called “Machito” in honor of the popular Afro-Cuban band leader, while his arrangement of “The Peanut Vendor,” built on Afro-Cuban rhythms, remained a favorite of his followers throughout his career.
Controversy Over Advancement
Yet, some of his attempts to “advance” jazz seemed, to the ears of some listeners, to have actually lost touch with the form. Gunther Schuller, who has one foot on each side of the jazz- classical divide, found in “City of Glass,” a composition by a Kenton protege, Robert Graettinger, “almost no jazz material, certainly not from any conventional point of view, but it came to be confused with jazz by many people simply because it was performed and recorded by Stan Kenton and his orchestra.”
At a time when most jazz musicians became established in their early 20’s, Mr. Kenton was relatively old—almost 30—when he formed his band. Born in Wichita, Kan., on Feb. 19, 1912, he grew up in Los Angeles and was playing with local bands or in speakeasies and saloons as soon as he graduated from high school.
After seven years, during which he played for a while with bands led by Everett Hoagland and Gus Arnheim, he took two years off to study music. This shifted his interest from playing to writing and arranging. He began writing experimental arrangements, based on his studies, using staccato saxophone ensembles and heavy rhythm accents in the Jimmie Lunceford manner. With these arrangements, he formed a band that made its debut on Memorial Day, 1941, at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, Calif.
The band was an instant success on the West Coast, but when it came East in 1942 to make its first New York appearance at the Roseland Ballroom, the dancers complained that the band was too loud and that its tempos were not danceable; the critics were cool.
Late in 1943, starting what proved to be a 25-year association with the newly formed Capitol Records, Mr. Kenton made two records—“Artistry in Rhythm,” his theme, and “Eager Beaver”— that shot the band to the top ranks of wartime popularity.
The following year, Anita O’Day, who had been singing with Gene Krupa, jointed the band and was followed the next year by June Christy, who remained for four years and was replaced by Chris Connor. All three singers helped Mr. Kenton reach a top audience that might have been put off by his undiluted jazz pieces.
Mr. Rugolo became Mr. Kenton’s chief arranger in 1945, taking some of the writing burden off him and contributing arrangements that were so much like Mr. Kenton’s that, as in the case of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, it was often difficult to tell who the composer actually was.
In the late 40’s, Mr. Kenton, suffering from periods of exhaustion, broke up his band several times. Once, after going through analysis and finding it “such a thrilling, rewarding thing,” he decided to go to premed school in preparation for becoming a psychiatrist. He registered at a school, changed his mind, and reorganized his band. On another occasion, he announced his retirement from music because, “I thought I’d seen everything and said everything I’d planned to say in music.”
“That lasted about three months,” he said, “and I almost went nuts.”
From 1950 on, Mr. Kenton formed a band each year, toured most of the year and then disbanded, only to form another band within a few months for the next annual tour. From the mid-50’s on, his penchant for experimental works diminished, although he continued to get fresh and often provocative material from such arrangers as Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Bill Russo and Hank Levy.
In 1959, his attention turned to music education. He formed the Stan Kenton Clinic, summer courses offered under the auspices of the National Stage Band Camps.
In 1965, he was involved in an attempt to organize a resident jazz orchestra in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, which began to build a repertory in his symphonic-jazz style Mr. Kenton conducted during its first season, but when he was not personally involved, the interest began to wane and the project was abandoned after the 1968 season.
Mr. Kenton established his own record company, Creative World Records, in 1970, when he became unhappy about the distribution his disks had received from Capitol Records. He was particularly disturbed that Capitol had allowed his recordings to go out of print when fans continued to flock to his appearances throughout the country and began reissuing them on his Creative World label, selling them by mail along with records by a few other groups in which he became interested.
In recent years, Mr. Kenton was on the road with his band so steadily, playing one-night stands for the most part, that he did not maintain a home. When there was a pause in his journeying, and he went “home” to Los Angeles, he checked into a hotel.
His son, Lance Kenton, 21 years old, was accused last year of helping to put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of Paul Morantz, a lawyer who had handled a successful civil suit against Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation organization. Mr. Morantz recovered from the reptile’s bite.
Lance Kenton, Charles Dederich, the head of the group, and another member were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Preliminary hearings in the case have been under way in Los Angeles for two weeks. The younger Kenton, who is free on bond, was a member of the Imperial Marines, Synanon’s internal security force.
Stan Kenton had three marriages, including to Ann Richards, who sang with his band. All ended in divorces. He had three children—Leslie, a daughter, from his first marriage; and Dana, a daughter, and Lance from his second—and three grandchildren.
A spokesman for the family said the funeral would be private and the body would be cremated.