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Stan Kenton Centennial - an appreciation from Steven Harris

Stan Kenton, Munich, 1973.
Stan Kenton, Munich, 1973.
Hans Bernhard/Wikipedia

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December 15th marks the centennial of one of the seminal figures of jazz, Stan Kenton, who died in 1979. Kenton, who was born in Wichita and raised in Bell, was a ceaseless innovator who was once acclaimed "Modern America's Man of Music." Jazz historian Steven Harris, who hosted a Kenton tribute show on KPCC in the 1980s and is the author of "The Kenton Kronicles," looks back at this legendary figure whose theme song said it all: “Artistry in Rhythm”

Stan Kenton was a potentate of progressive jazz. Matinee-handsome with matchless charisma, he didn't need a baton. Just his presence ignited brass fanfares not even Toscanini could rival. Kenton was a pianist, composer and arranger, but the orchestra was his true instrument.

Kenton sparked controversy from the start. One of his first experiments in sound was a pre-curser to the jazz-inspired beat movement. Before such crazy-cool literati as Kerouac and Ginsberg were permeating 1950s culture, Kenton offered a surreal poem called "This Is My Theme," set to reeds, bongos, and blaring brass. By the time of its 1948 release, Kenton was hailed as the country's top musical box-office attraction. He packed dance halls, ballrooms, and clubs with fans who wanted to sample his latest menu of symphonic concertizing, whether they could comprehend it or not.

It was hard to be neutral about Stan Kenton. You were either fanatical about his music or detested it. Take his 40-piece Innovations in Modern Music concert crew --- an unheard of traveling cast fusing the mediums of jazz and classical. The critics who got caught up in the dissonance had a field day blasting his bombastic attempts But you just have to listen to his stripped down but amped up version of "Stompin' at the Savoy" to get his swinging side.

The L.A. Music Center was only a month old when Kenton debuted another grandiose venture: a 26-piece orchestra he dubbed the "Neophonic" --- a word that Stan himself coined, meaning "new sound." Then there were the delightful novelties that kept the royalties coming in, like his collaboration with Capitol Records' reigning star, Nat Cole on "Orange Colored Sky."

For 37 years, the Kenton band was a school of talent. Among its hundreds of key players were Art Pepper, Shelly Manne and trumpet titan Maynard Ferguson. There were singers like the ever-hip June Christy, Anita O’Day and the future Mrs. Kenton, Ann Richards. Then came the beautiful brass oddity that Kenton co-designed: It was called the mellophonium --- a haunting cross between a trumpet and trombone that could send thrills and chills through an audience.

Kenton claimed another first with his entry of Afro-Cuban rhythms in orchestrated big band jazz. The climax was the monumental 1956 album "Cuban Fire."

But Stan Kenton’s greatest legacy was music education. In 1959, under Stan's auspices, the first National Stage Band Camp was formed. Kenton set a precedent in providing in-depth instruction to music students. He took it further under his own corporate name by establishing the Kenton Clinics with a faculty of up to 30 instructors, guest clinicians and lecturers. By the time of his death, Kenton had led around a thousand clinics on campuses across the nation and ignited many of the country's 20,000 stage bands into existence.

Stan Kenton made his bandleading debut at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach in 1941. 70 years later, his legacy is still being felt and celebrated. So here's to you, Stanley Newcomb Kenton: Happy 100th and long reign your Artistry in Rhythm.