Movies: Stan Kenton – Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend (2011)

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Stan Kenton would have been 100 this year and, in many ways, he’s as misunderstood now as he was in his own time. A comprehensive new Jazzed Media biopic from filmmaker Graham Carter, though perhaps too lengthy at 117 minutes, goes a long way toward changing that.

Kenton brought to fame a series of jazz music’s most recognizable names, and encouraged an intriguing combination of the genre with modern classical music — not to mention Cuban rhythms — but, ultimately, was never forgiven back then by the public for having abandoned the mid-century swing aesthetic. With that core sound now as dustily anachronistic as spats and top hats, a reevaluation of Kenton’s later efforts is sorely needed. And Carter flings himself into the work, interviewing more than 20 people intimately involved with the band leader, uncovering archival interviews and tunes from the late Kenton, and more than 300 images from his lengthy career.

And, oh, what a sound that band possessed. Brash and ballsy, it’s a determined stride away from dance toward longer, more complex, more rhythmic ideas. At one point, Kenton was moved to introduce an explosive 10-piece bass section. “There is a danger,” Barry Ulanov wrote in Metronome magazine in 1948, “of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon.”

To which I say: Cool.

Arranger Pete Rugolo was one of the most important voices within the group’s history, along with trombonist Kai Winding — whose dissident chords, rare in swing band music, also helped shaped the Kenton sound. Later, as the band became more percussive, drummer Shelly Manne made a name for himself. Maynard Ferguson was a leading voice in the 1950s. Others who moved through the Kenton lineup included Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Bob Cooper, Al Porcino, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims, Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan, to namecheck but a few.

Known as one of the fathers of West Coast jazz, Kenton was actually born in Witchita, Kan., before coming to Los Angeles. He’d become a respected sideman at piano by the late 1930s, notably with Vido Musso, then put together his own band. Even then, Kenton was already experimenting, memorably positioning five saxophonists out front. In the summer of 1941, he began earning regular gigs at local ballrooms, including the Hollywood Palladium. Related radio broadcasts from these dance venues initially earned Kenton to a wider audience.

Already, though, he was breaking out soloists, and working outside of swing conventions,” says Ken Poston, an historian at the LA Jazz Institute. “We take that for granted now, but they were the ones doing it,” he adds. “All the other bands were still playing the ballroom circuit.”

“Eager Beaver,” the first of a series of rhythm-focused big-band numbers, hit in 1943 for Capitol Records. Vocal features with O’Day and then Christy, each later a star in her own right, pushed Kenton into the national consciousness. If anything, that made Kenton more adventurous, as he nudged the band into choppier waters — with important arranging assists from acolyte Pete Rugolo, who became a writing partner and muse similar to the role Billy Strayhorn played with Duke Ellington. But not before Kenton’s group became known for a bashing muscularity.

“We played louder than anybody else,” admits Kenton trumpeter Mike Vax, “but the thing people forget is that we could play softer than anybody else too. The dynamic range of that band was unbelieveable.”

Together, as the 1950s loomed, they infused the group with elements of modern classical music, and then added Latin tinges. Fugues and bongos? That was Kenton over this, his most progressive era.

He took some time away, just as the big band sound waned, going inactive from 1948-50. When Kenton returned, the aim was to work exclusively as a concert band. By the time of 1951’s classically inspired City of Glass, his music couldn’t be confused with jazz at all, despite the instrumentation. As artistically important as some of this work no doubt was, it didn’t swing — and it wasn’t terribly popular. Financial problems, perhaps inevitably, led Kenton back to dance music. Gerry Mulligan, Bill Russo and Bill Holman began to hold greater sway, since they were able to meld the two disparate styles. Contemporary Concepts, from 1955, and the following year’s Cuban Fire, not only reinvigorated Kenton’s sales — it legitimized his lengthy, and sometimes halting, musical experiments.

“He didn’t want to be another Count Basie, didn’t want to be another Ellington,” says another Kenton trumpeter, Steve Huffsteter. “It wasn’t that he was anti-swing. He just wanted to find another way to do it that didn’t sound and feel the same way.”

Nevertheless, the 1960s — despite a successful reimaging of “West Side Story” — saw a dimming of Kenton’s star, like many of his generation and genre. He subsequently launched his own label, and recorded consistently into the 1970s, only to find his life away from music riven by scandal. Still, Kenton toured so regularly in his final days that he didn’t even maintain a permanent residence, simply living in an LA hotel. Eventually, Kenton would suffer a fall and never completely recover, finally passing at age 67 in 1979.

That early demise, and the personal disasters, surely stunted this necessary reevaluation of Kenton’s efforts. As a musician, arranger and band leader, he didn’t live long enough to get his roses. Yet, it’s easy, as Carter’s labor of love on this DVD unfolds, to see Kenton’s fingerprints (or at least his best intentions) on many of the key moments that helped shape jazz in subsequent years — from the desultory, almost heavy-metal aggression of Miles Davis‘ 1960s group to the undulating polyrhythms of ’70s-era fusion to the erect decorum of latter-day Wynton Marsalis.

Whether you liked all of that or not, Kenton was often there first. Artistry in Rhythm is a long overdue reminder.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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