956 European Tour

All Things Kenton Blog

1956 European Tour

The 1956 European tour was a huge success, if not quite the Triumph of the earlier trip. In 1953 Stan had brought with him an undoubtedly A-star cast—Konitz, Sims, Candoli, Rosolino were men on the cutting edge of modern jazz, and June Christy a star in her own right. The ‘56 personnel was major league—Niehaus, Perkins, Noto, Fontana - but perhaps not all of quite the same stature, and of course, Christy was missing altogether. Ann Richards had traveled to Europe with her husband, but in a non-performing capacity.

This band also carried only four trombones and four saxes, but an additional tuba and two French horns, which many thought under-used or hard to hear, and would have preferred the conventional five-man sectional set-up.

A major difference was that this time the band was allowed to play in the UK, where Kenton was a major attraction. Everywhere he played, Stan was welcomed with warmth and affection, and big crowds gathered whenever he appeared in public. The atmosphere was certainly electric at the premiere concert in London’s circular Royal Albert Hall, on the afternoon of Sunday, March 11, 1956. The venue suffered from notoriously bad acoustics, but was doubtless chosen for its seating capacity of over 5,000, and despite cynics gloating about a few empty seats, the place was packed with expectant fans who greeted their hero with undisguised enthusiasm. The tour had started on a high note, but problems would soon develop that must have caused Kenton sleepless nights.

The English jazz establishment was almost uniformly opposed to all that Stan stood for, and no Kenton music escaped their scathing reviews. (An exception was the more open-minded Steve Race, writing in the weekly Melody Maker.) More importantly, English Decca had released Stan’s records generously, but by 1956 EMI owned Capitol. Their approach was much more parsimonious, and publicity for their major recording star could have been much more generous.

But it was personnel problems that caused the most upsets. No band could lose half its saxophone section overnight and emerge unscathed. In hindsight, Kenton should have sacked only known addict Spencer Sinatra, and retained Jack Nimitz, guilty only by association because the pair roomed together. But over-anxious to avoid the bad publicity of a drugs scandal at all costs, Stan ordered the double departure, leaving a gaping hole in a band that was already brass-heavy to begin with. A foreign tour with mostly two concerts nightly, was no place to break-in two untried English replacements. Audiences arrived expecting to hear an all-American orchestra, and sitting in the front row were two faces already familiar to many fans. 

Then, on the eve of the band’s departure to mainland Europe, lead trumpet player Ed Leddy fell ill with pneumonia, doubtless caused by the tiring schedule and the cold, wet British weather. Kenton decided against a replacement, leaving only a 4-man section, but instead of appointing a new lead, Stan stood back while Sam Noto and Vinnie Tanno fought among themselves for supremacy. Noto emerged the victor, leaving Tanno resentful, and according to Phil Gilbert, the whole band suffered low morale as a result.

It must be said, none of this debacle is evident on the many recordings that have surfaced. In England the still-stuffy BBC declined to broadcast the band at all, and to my knowledge not a single UK concert was recorded. European radio networks were far more broad-minded, and many recorded complete concerts for future broadcasting, with subsequent (bootleg) releases on both LP and CD.

The repertoire contained some old chestnuts (Peanut Vendor, Love for Sale, Intermission Riff), more recent hits (Stompin’ at the Savoy, 23 Deg. N - 82 Deg. W, Swing House), as well as feature spots for the principal soloists - Yesterdays (Perkins), Stella by Starlight (Niehaus), Polka Dots and Moonbeams (Fontana), and one or two new pieces - mainly Holman’s Royal Blue. El Congo Valiente had stopped the shows at the first concerts, but had to be dropped because it was too hard for the new recruits to cope with.

Things looked up on April 28 when Leddy was able to resume his position, though between April 28-30 the band had only three saxes (no baritone!), until the major artist Lucky Thompson was able to join in Paris on May 1. Lucky by name and nature, Thompson remained for the rest of the tour, and received free passage back to the States with the rest of the band as his reward. Despite the persistent personnel changes that must have given Kenton headaches, the tour had been a success on every level, as confirmed by drummer Mel Lewis: “The 1956 European tour was a huge success. We were exhausted by the end—in England alone we played around 60 concerts in 33 days, and I have never signed so many autographs in my life. But it was a fantastic experience—never before or since in my life have I seen so many people turn out to see a band play.”
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