A winter afternoon in Georgia

I first saw the Stan Kenton band in 1972 in Columbia, South Carolina. One year later my high school band in Georgia hired the Kenton band for an afternoon workshop and evening concert.

It was to be a fund raiser. I do not recall whether we met our financial goals. That was the last thing on my mind.

I was sixteen years old, and my life had already become consumed with All Things Kenton.

And here they were, and I was, along with a lot of other students and parents, their host.

In the afternoon their workshop consisted of a short concert. This was followed with lecture demonstrations, from Kenton, Richard Torres, Willie Maiden, and others.

Then the students broke into sessions with the Kenton sidemen. We bass players felt excited by the prospect of time with the fabulous John Worster. But I feel certain that the drummers felt that way about their session with Peter Erskine, as did the rest of the attendees.

That evening we returned for the formal concert. It was Willie Maiden’s birthday, and they had some fun with that. Listen to that fun here

Here is an audio recording of that afternoon concert. The program is familiar. Girl Talk, Samba Siete, Tonight, Bogota, MacArthur Park, and Malaga.

Soloists include John Park, Richard Torres, Roy Reynolds, Bob Winiker, Harvey Coonin, Ramon Lopez, and others.

Te picture is from the concert itself. Notice the upright piano. Rich’s department store, from whom we had rented a grand piano, was late in their delivery. The piano made it there by the evening show, and we were not charged for the rental.

It was a magical day for me.

I have some other recordings from that day, both from the clinic and the evening concert. Stay tuned for those releases.

Two or five trombones?

There has been a recent discussion online comparing the value of utilizing two trombones versus five in a big band setting.

I have a few observations.

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1) From a musically pragmatic standpoint, a five bone section can do everything a two bone section can do, and a lot more. The reverse is not true. If an arranger wants to hear the sound of two trombones, they merely write rests for the other three. Or take two of the resting bones and create another two bone section to play in counterpoint. A five bone section can have timbres unknown with two bones, such as simultaneously combining three or more different mutes, or playing with the type of power that can only be obtained with numbers. Of course, a five bone section can play up to 5 notes at a time, something a two bone section cannot accomplish. Clearly, the color and harmonic palette available increases exponentially with every trombone added. WIN = 5 Bones

2) A section of two trombones takes up less room, allowing the band to fit on smaller stages. The payroll for two bones is less than half of the larger section, making it much easier to book. The section may potentially be better, as one is theoretically using the best two trombonists, not the best five. WIN = 2 bones

3) Since many jazz musicians are soloists/combo players at heart, the smaller the band, the more combo-like it is, with increased space for soloing. This can increase player interest dramatically. WIN = 2 bones

4) There is a notion that “real jazz” should swing and be buoyant by nature, and that five trombones, by their sheer weight, cannot tread lightly. No WIN; tossed out because it is based on two false assumptions.

5) Creating a harmonic unit with two trombones requires more precise handling and creative problem solving. It is easy to voice a Cmaj9(+11) chord for five instruments. Expressing that same harmony with two is a challenge. This can be very positive; composers like challenges. But, it can also be much simpler to assign notes to fewer instruments; the more instruments involved, the more intimidating it can be to many writers. WIN = 2 bones by a nose

4) The vast majority of available music for big band, both published and “traded,” calls for four bones, occasionally five. But rarely less than four. In a situation in which a band relies on outside music, this is significant. It could also be important to a writer who wants to get into the high school/college jazz band world. WIN = 4 (5) Bones

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5) Fortunately, we can seek opportunities to continually stretch ourselves if we chose. Every composition, every new project, every work of art, is unique. We all have preferences as writers and listeners; there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The only wrong ideas are those that begin with “Jazz must…” or “Jazz must never…” The only jazz musicians that we admire today are the ones who did things differently, the ones who altered the definition of jazz. They created new paths that were frequently not understood until the passing of time. WIN = everyone


My most recent CD utilized a nonet with two bones (La Chanson Française). The two before that featured a twenty-piece band with five bones (Progressive Jazz 2009 and Fleet Street). Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky, wrote for virtually every size instrumentation imaginable in their time, and then some. I think it would be extraordinarily boring to always write for the same group of instruments.

Willis Conover and Stan Kenton Discuss Jazz in 1947

Willis Conover was an important behind the scenes operator in the world of jazz. As a concert producer, he was involved with the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as many other live and recorded concerts. For over four decades his Voice of America broadcasts brought jazz into the households of countries in which jazz was not tolerated.

In early January of 1947 he sat down with Stan Kenton at the studios of WWDC radio in Washington DC. Kenton was just about to complete a week with his band at DC’s Capitol Theatre.

The topics vary, but the one constant is jazz. During the interview, Conover adds a local man to the discussion, Joe Snow, who wrote a scathing letter about Kenton. The two men cordially discuss their different viewpoints,

Kenton names his favorite musicians in the business at the time, and interestingly only chose two from his current band (Safranski and Manne).

Alto: Benny Carter
Tenor: Vido Musso
Trumpet: Conrad Gozzo or Chuck Peterson
Trombone: Bill Harris
Drums: Dave Tough or Shelly Manne
Bass: Eddie Safranski
Singers: Billy Eckstine and Anita O’Day

The audio and pictures are from the Willis Conover Collection, part of the Music Special Collections at the University of North Texas Music Library. This wonderful archive and its preservation has been the work of many people at UNT, most notably, Maristella Feustle, Music Special Collections Librarian.

You can listen to this historic interview and read the transcript here.


Festival of Modern American Jazz

Kenton fan Mike Hodges just made me aware of Sam Noto’s website, along with a great page there on the famous 1954 Stan Kenton Festival of Modern American Jazz tour.

Sam Noto, of course, was lead trumpet for the Kenton band in the mid 1950s, not to mention stints with Count Basie, Louis Bellson, and Rob McConnell.

This fantastic tour package included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Errol Garner Trio, Lee Konitz, June Christy, and Candido, along with, of course, the Stan Kenton Orchestra. The entourage performed 24 concerts in 33 days, starting in Texas and ending up in Los Angeles, with stops in Atlanta, Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, Toronto and Seattle in between.

There were several versions of the Festival of Modern American Jazz. Other tours featured Art Tatum, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Smith, Stan Getz, Slim Gaillard, and always the Kenton crew.

Check out Sam’s page and read about this historic tour, including a YouTube link to a recoding from that tour. And if you find yourself in the Toronto or Buffalo areaa, go hear him play.



Remembering the past

During the summer of 1974, just a few months after my high school graduation, I once again attended the Stan Kenton Clinic held at Towson State College, Maryland, for a week of dreams coming true.

I lived for these summer adventures, a week in a college dorm surrounded by musicians who loved this music as much as I did. And a Kenton concert every night.

I took arranging lessons from Willie Maiden, Hank Levy, Ken Hanna, and Kenton himself. There were bass lessons, and long dialogue-filled strolls, with John Worster.

But the highlight was when I walked in front of the Kenton band and passed out my latest composition for them to play. The sheer force of the brass and saxes, supported by thunderous cymbals, was like a drug, leaving me feeling intoxicated afterwards.

The Baltimore Sun had a reporter checking out the music-making, and apparently he took notice of me. Many years later I discovered this article. I’ll never forget those intense and rewarding summers at Towson State, and the many musicians that I encountered there who changed and shaped my life.

Bob Curnow and Stan Kenton look on. Bassist Mike Ross can also be seen as I hear my latest composition.

Baltimore Sun
26 July 1974

Kenton says big band thrives
By James D. Dilts

Periodically, some enterprising reporter discovers that the big bands are back.

Really they have never been away, although they do hibernate occasionally and they suffered a major eclipse in the 1960’s from the rock groups.

But the established ones have managed to survive and sometimes they turn up in surprising new forms.

“People always get bent out of shape when you start talking about bands,” Stan Kenton said yesterday. “We’ve never done better.”

The Kenton band today is completing a week-long “clinic” at Towson State where 207 high school and college students and 24 teachers have been taking a concentrated course in music-making.

Mr. Kenton was one of the first leaders to become involved in band clinics and in recent years has been able to keep his 19-piece orchestra on the road 50 weeks a year. In fact, the band is still playing one-nighters but the stops, aboard a bus called “Nowhere” now are at schools rather than night clubs.

A concert is usually involved, for which the band gets from $2,500 to $3,000. The remainder of the pay for the musicians and arrangers comes from the students clinics tuition: $122.50 for the students at Towson and $92.50 for teachers.

Eric L. Henry, 20, a Carlisle (Pa.) college student and music major, thought it was worth every penny. “I have a hard time putting it into words,” he said yesterday. “It’s just been a tremendous experience.”

Mr. Henry has been attending classes in music theory, playing in a rehearsal band, getting an hour of improvisation practice and then playing in a techniques band every afternoon. “Then I go back to the room and pass out,” he said.

I was a little uncertain about music until I came here,” said David J. Holmes, 19, a bass player who was an accounting major at the University of Scranton. He is transferring to Towson State in the fall, he said, to take up music.

Established arranger

The students at the Towson clinic this year come from as far west as Montana and as far south as Florida. The clinic arrangers divide them into bands according to talent, said Ken Hanna, a Baltimorean who has been arranging for Kenton for the past 30 years. (Lou Marini, an ex-arranger and saxophonist for Blood, Sweat and Tears is also participating.)

“I’m lucky to have a lot of Levy’s kids,” Mr. Hanna said. “They’re playing fools.”

Hank Levy is the leader of the Towson State Jazz Ensemble, and an established big band arranger. Several of the scores his band performed at the opening concert Saturday night at Towson State went promptly into the Kenton book.

“They said 4,000 to 6,000 people attended the concert,” Mr. Levy said. “It was beautiful—just like the old days.”

At Towson’s new Fine Arts Building yesterday, the Kenton band, whose youthful members are indistinguishable from their charges, were playing the scores that the students had written.

“Stan tells them to play it just like they wrote it,” explained Mr. Levy. “Mistakes and all.”

The scores ranged from bouncy 1930’s swing-style arrangements submitted by some of the older teachers to the modern and more difficult charts prepared by the young students.

The format was serious but relaxed. Only once was Mr. Kenton, a large man with an angular face and a stentorian voice, required to keep order. “Hey,” he shouted at some malingering bandsmen, who quickly snapped to.

One of the students who conducted the Kenton band’s playing of his composition was Terry Vosbein, a 17-year-old high school student from Atlanta, who was wearing a T-shirt carrying the message “Hell, yea,” on the back.

On the top of his music case was a poster announcing that “Big Bands Are Back.”

“It gives you a feeling of power,” said the Vosbein youth when he climbed down off the stage. “You wave your arm and they play.”

Did he really believe the big bands were back?

“Hell, yea,” he said.