"Packed with fascinating anecdotes and exhaustive research this book will be welcomed not only by Stan Kenton devotees but by all aficionados of the big band era."
Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra!by Michael Sparke
Stan Kenton (1911–1979) formed his first full orchestra in 1940 and soon drew record-breaking crowds to hear and dance to his exciting sound. He continued to tour and record unrelentingly for the next four decades. Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! sums up the mesmerizing bandleader at the height of his powers, arms waving energetically, his face/i>
Stan Kenton (1911–1979) formed his first full orchestra in 1940 and soon drew record-breaking crowds to hear and dance to his exciting sound. He continued to tour and record unrelentingly for the next four decades. Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! sums up the mesmerizing bandleader at the height of his powers, arms waving energetically, his face a study of concentration as he cajoled, coaxed, strained, and obtained the last ounce of energy from every musician under his control.
Michael Sparke’s narrative captures that enthusiasm in words: a lucid account of the evolution of the Kenton Sound, and the first book to offer a critical evaluation of the role that Stan played in its creation. Insightful and thought-provoking throughout, and supported by liberal quotes from the musicians who made the magic, even at his most contentious the author’s high regard and admiration for his subject shines through. The most knowledgeable of Stan’s fans will learn new facts from this far-reaching biography of a man and his music. Stan Kenton will be essential reading for every Kenton devotee and jazz historian.
"Packed with fascinating anecdotes and exhaustive research this book will be welcomed not only by Stan Kenton devotees but by all aficionados of the big band era."
"Michael Sparke has written a detailed, fascinating chronicle of the Stan Kenton Orchestra that enjoyed a performing and recording career covering four decades ('40s-70s). . . . Sparke's devotion to his subject is evident in his attention to detail and in presenting Kenton both as a person and as a professional."
“Michael Sparke’s book, the first general history of the Kenton Orchestra, is the best evaluation yet of Kenton’s 40-year musical development.”
“A delightful read, start to finish. The inclusion of so much primary source material makes this the most authoritative account of Kenton’s story to date. He ‘gets’ the man and the music and tells it like it was.”—Terry Vosbein, Washington and Lee University
“I read this book with mounting excitement and finished it confident that it is the best yet written on Kenton’s professional life. It is an irresistible volume that ought to be devoured in one sitting.”—Anthony Agostinelli, Kenton newsletter publisher
“Michael Sparke’s book, the first general history of the Kenton Orchestra, is the best evaluation yet of Kenton’s 40-year musical development.”—The Wall Street Journal
"This detailed and fascinating look at Kenton's long career is the best book on this musician and impresario since Carol Easton's Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton (1973). Recommended for all readers with an interest in Americana, jazz, or music generally."—Library Journal
"Packed with fascinating anecdotes and exhaustive research this book will be welcomed not only by Stan Kenton devotees but by all aficionados of the big band era."—Jazz Journal
"Michael Sparke has written a detailed, fascinating chronicle of the Stan Kenton Orchestra that enjoyed a performing and recording career covering four decades ('40s-70s). . . . Sparke's devotion to his subject is evident in his attention to detail and in presenting Kenton both as a person and as a professional."—All About Jazz-New York
"Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! by Michael Sparke is an exciting addition to jazz literature. . . . This is, I believe, the single best source of information for anyone who wants to get to the crux of Stan Kenton and his music."--Jersey Jazz
Read an Excerpt
This Is an Orchestra!
By Michael Sparke
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2010 Michael Sparke
All rights reserved.
Balboa Bandwagon (1941)
Human nature being the way it is, it's unlikely music was uppermost on the minds of most youngsters crowding the Californian beach-side resort of Balboa, some 30 miles south of Los Angeles. But for many, music came a close second to socializing, and word that summer of 1941 was that the band playing the Rendezvous Ballroom was HOT. It was also completely unknown. Whoever had heard of Stanley Kenton and his Orchestra?
Big names in the nation's dance-halls were the likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. They might play the Rendezvous for the odd one-nighter, but only the swankiest hotels, or the most prestigious theatres, could afford to book these bands on extended engagements. A struggling "territory" band would accept the lowest union scale the management could get away with paying.
Widely recognized as the premier dance spot of the locality, the Rendezvous had been totally rebuilt after a fire in 1935. Clinton Roemer (Kenton's chief copyist after the war) worked at the Rendezvous, and casts a fascinating insight into the mores of the period: "Of the many ballrooms along the coast, the Rendezvous without a doubt was the most popular as well as the most famous. The management was strict at enforcing the rules. Women could not wear slacks, and men were required to wear long-sleeved sweaters or jackets over their shirts. No shorts, tennis shoes or sandals were permitted. An unwritten 'whites only' policy existed. Although many styles of dancing were seen at the Rendezvous, jitterbug dancing was definitely not allowed, nor were spins where the couples separated."
If the basic architecture was drab, the Rendezvous' position facing the Pacific was romantic, and the interior attractive in red and gray. In 1941, Audree Kenton danced to Stan's music with her future husband Jimmy Lyons, and recalls: "Balboa was noted for being a gathering-place for American youngsters during the summer vacations. It swung, literally, with thousands and thousands of college and high-school students, and the Rendezvous was the center of things. It really wasn't much in the way of a hall, it was a very plain, barn-like building on the ocean-front in Balboa, but the Rendezvous always had a certain glamor to it. There was a great, empty area downstairs with a marvellous inlaid wooden dance floor, an arched wooden ceiling, and a balcony around three sides. The acoustics weren't bad — bands liked to play there."
Stanley Kenton certainly longed to. With just a handful of local one-nighters under his belt, Stan knew that to become established, his band needed the security of a summer residency. As he explained, "I had my eye on the Rendezvous Ballroom, because that was kind of the center of big band jazz in the area, and some other important people had gotten started there, and I felt like that was the place it could happen for us." (Claude Thornhill for one had struggled until "making it" as house-band at Balboa in 1940.)
Strongest competition for the job came from Johnny Richards, but it was Kenton who won out. The announcement was made in Stanley's presence by Glenn Miller during a one-nighter to a packed house on May 29, and Kenton's summer residency began the following Friday night, June 6, 1941. Thereafter, Stan always regarded that date as the start of his professional career as a band- leader, and the Rendezvous as his "home."
Avoiding the popular but repetitive "One O'Clock Jump"/"In the Mood"-type swing riffs, Kenton instead fired the kids' enthusiasm with his punchy, hyped-up arrangements of tunes like "La Cumparsita" and "Arkansas Traveler," played with the relentless, staccato accents that set the band's style during the beginning years. Stan himself described the music as "very dramatic in content; all the introductions sounded like Paramount Pictures fanfares, and the endings like MGM closing the picture. They were full of choppy off-beats and experimental things that were actually very crude, but somehow, crude as everything was, there was enough heart in the band to attract attention."
Stan was also well aware that a touch of humor never went amiss, as Bob Gioga recalled: "'St. James Infirmary' was the first of Stan's rare ventures as a vocalist. Earl Collier, one of the sharpest and most talented musicians in the band, detected a lull, and the dancers now crowded 'round the stand expecting something great, were not rewarded. It was more than Earl could stand, and he started yelling ad libs to Stan. The crowd loved it, and it became the comedy number for the band — always a must on the stage. Later on, everyone started getting in on the act; our drummer Marvin George took a leading role, and unfortunately I did a 'queer' bit near the end. Audiences lapped it up!"
The teenagers of southern California discovered Kenton. They related to his music, and the crowd's enthusiasm was reflected in the band's spirit, and urged the men to greater heights. Stan gave his all, and demanded as much from every member of the band, who responded with the zeal of men working for a cause, rather than a pay-packet. The sincerity was evident and contagious, and the kids loved it, as Audree Kenton recalls: "The band was so entirely different from anything the kids were used to. It was a totally different sound, and very exciting. Stanley was a dynamic, dramatic conductor. When Stan got up there he waved his arms and all but fell off the stage, twice a night. The youngsters responded to this, and what he was giving them was not what they were used to. It was not swing, in the way that Goodman and Shaw were swing; it was something new, and there was a tremendous excitement generated. Part of it was Stanley himself, a lot of it was the music, much of which he had written, and it just knocked the kids out. They had come to dance, but would end up standing in front of the bandstand, hour after hour."
The soloists became local heroes, feted and honored in the manner of today's pop celebrities, though from the start, Kenton's was a writer's band, and the often quite brief solos complemented the orchestrations, rather than the other way round. Like Stan himself, Jack Ordean (alto saxophone) had served his apprenticeship with the bands of Gus Arnheim and Vido Musso, and received a lot of favorable publicity, but Jack never achieved the anticipated national fame. By the time Ordean returned to music after war service, alto styles had moved on, and all eyes were on Bird and his disciples.
Chico Alvarez was a skilled, authoritative trumpet player who never took a poor solo, but rarely outstretched himself either. Apart from three years in the army, Chico stayed with Stan until 1951, yet in all those years never recorded an identifying solo feature. A 1948 chart by Pete Rugolo of "You're Mine You" reveals Alvarez skirting deftly around the melody, and he switched easily from swing to a more modern, bop-oriented style, yet post-Kenton he quit jazz altogether.
In retrospect, the personality who has best stood the test of time, and most often endows the music of 1941 with that extra pizazz, is the Coleman Hawkins-styled tenor of Red Dorris. Milt Bernhart got it right when he called Dorris, "Really the star of the first Kenton band, and a tremendous talent." Red also sang, in the deep Herb Jeffries-Billy Eckstine vocal range that Kenton most admired, and his ballads provided an essential change of pace from the up-tempo flag-wavers, though few songs were from the current hit parade.
Vocalists were very important to a band, and most all dance bands carried at least one girl singer, often picked as much for her looks as her voice. Life on the road was especially hard for a girl, as she was expected to sit on the bandstand, immaculately coiffured and gowned for hour after hour each night looking glamorous and happy, for the odd song in the spotlight. None of Stan's early "canaries" (including Kay Gregory, Terry Harlyn, and Helen Huntley) made a lasting impression, as none got to record with the band. Indeed, as bassist Howard Rumsey remembered it, "Kay Gregory sat on that stand every night, and all she got to sing was 'Hawaiian War Chant.'" Instead it was Dorris who sang on Stan's first Decca date ("This Love of Mine" on September 11, 1941), and Dorris again who recorded "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" on the band's initial Capitol session two years later. Not until May 1944 and the forthright Anita O'Day (who wouldn't take a back seat for anybody), does a girl singer really "arrive" with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."
From the start, Kenton sensed that the key to success lay in individuality, in making his band different from anyone else's: "I wanted every arrangement to be a production in itself. Spirit and enthusiasm had to predominate at all times. I wanted to present swing in as elevated a manner as possible." The jerky, Lunceford-influenced rhythm certainly set the band apart, but it was Stan's early writing for saxophones that would have the greatest long-term significance. (The '41 band carried only five brass — three trumpets and two trombones — whereas the sax section was complete with five men from day one.)
As early as 1940, Stan had written four studies, or etudes, for saxophones which came to form the foundation upon which the whole Kenton Sound was based. "Reed Rapture" remained in the book for years, but the most enduring of all proved to be the perennial "Opus in Pastels." Recognizably different, and almost classical in appeal, Kenton's conception carried his signature and remained his personal property. Many arrangers over the years attempted to copy Stan's saxophone styling; some came close, but none ever quite succeeded. Whatever alchemy Kenton possessed, the secret died with him.
Stan explained: "I'd have to say the conception of the Kenton saxophone section in the beginning days was my own, though I was influenced greatly by Benny Carter, who was one of the giants of jazz. We thought of Bob Gioga's baritone as being the bottom of the section, and we widened and spread the voices so that the sax section would stand by itself, and wouldn't have to be dependent on the rest of the band for any of its character. Jack Ordean, as talented a lead player as he was, didn't have a lot to do with the sound or the character of the section. Ordean naturally colored the section with his tone, but mostly the thing that was unique about the saxes was done through the writing. We wrote as though it was a complete unit on its own, by myself at the start, and then of course Ralph Yaw had a lot to do with it, and Joe Rizzo also had a hand."
As the band's library expanded, Stan could no longer cope with all the writing, and had to bring in others to help. Ralph Yaw, though 13 years older than Kenton, was a musician-friend from Stanley's boyhood, and had previously arranged for Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. Yaw was highly enthused by Stan's new ideas, though the extent of Ralph's creative input into the establishment of the orchestra's style is hard to validate. Yaw himself commented: "The band I am working with is something quite special and different. Stanley Kenton is the leader and I am working with him. We do the arranging, and I think we have cooked up something new in style. A swell new treatment of saxes and a couple of other style tricks do it. The saxes are treated to my mind in the right way for the first time. It really scares me." Ralph often refused compensation because he knew money was tight, and he enjoyed writing for a band with which he felt so much accord. Originals like "Balboa Bash," "Two Moods," and "Take Sixteen" are testimony to his skill.
Joe Rizzo had some classical training, and made himself known to Kenton during the Balboa engagement. "Joe was a young fellow who felt the same way musically as I did," Stan recalled. "Some of the things he wrote were even recorded on our first recording contract for the Decca people. Joe arranged 'This Love of Mine' and 'El Choclo,' and there were many things he had written which were a very important part of the beginning library." Rizzo was later drafted into the army, but continued to write for the band while in service until 1944. In later years he settled for security, and became a permanent arranger on Lawrence Welk's TV show.
In the 1940s radio was the equivalent of today's TV, and bands filled a lot of air-time. Every leader's ambition was to have his own radio show, and such was Kenton's impact that when the Mutual Broadcasting System expressed an interest in airing the band nationally, the merchants of Balboa clubbed together to help pay for the installation of a line from the Rendezvous to the MBS radio station at Santa Ana. Starting July 5, 1941, MBS broadcast Kenton coast-to-coast for half an hour every Saturday afternoon. As Stan related: "We had a very important broadcast that was picked up on Swing Show each week, and it was kind of comical; we would let all the people in off the beach, even in their bare feet and bathing suits. They came in for nothing to hear us broadcast, because we wanted an audience there, so that listeners back east could hear us playing our music to a crowd and hear their reaction. And this was the thing that actually started calling attention nationally to what we were doing at the Rendezvous Ballroom." (What "Old Bob," the janitor who lovingly cared for the carefully waxed ballroom floor, thought of the sand deposited all over his creation, is not recorded!)
Two of the best examples of authentic recordings from these Rendezvous broadcasts are included in the iconic Tantara four-CD set called Revelations. Both "Stardust" and "Sophisticated Lady" have a very different aura about them from any of the 1941 studio recordings, partly because of their length (both play for over four minutes), giving arranger Stanley time to stretch out. The band plays with a great deal of warmth, and the gorgeous saxophone section soli prove this innovative styling was already fully developed. "Stardust" has the added advantage of a featured Dorris tenor, one of the finest solos captured on disc by this under-rated sax-man.
As news of the Kenton band spread, musical and show business personalities as well as the youngsters came to hear the band at the Rendezvous, including Jimmie Lunceford (one of Stan's most enthusiastic boosters), Down Beat writer Dave Dexter, song-writer Johnny Mercer, and promoter Carlos Gastel. Among the regular Saturday night visitors was film star Errol Flynn, who used to sail in from San Pedro on his yacht, though Flynn's interest lay as much with the chicks as the music. He was often accompanied by a guy nobody took much notice of, by the name of Howard Hughes, even then a rather mysterious gentleman.
Already evident was a phenomenon that would haunt Stan throughout his career. Those who loved the Kenton music did so with an enthusiasm and intensity that belied their numbers, giving the impression that the band was more popular among the general public than was actually the case. Despite all the success stories, by no means every mid-week night at the Rendezvous was a rave-up. As Charles Emge wrote in Down Beat: "It would be an exaggeration to say the band has been a 'sensation.' It's too good to crash through in that manner." And Stan himself reflected in 1969: "Today we talk about the large crowds that came to Balboa and all the excitement that was created, and honestly, I'm not sure business was all that good that summer. In fact I remember times that I actually worried about whether the owner of the ballroom was going to come out financially or not."
Excerpted from Stan Kenton by Michael Sparke. Copyright © 2010 Michael Sparke. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Sparke was born in Greater London, England, and continues to live there after retiring from teaching. He was first switched on to good music after hearing Woody Herman’s First Herd in 1945, and with Stan Kenton soon afterwards via Capitol shellac 78s from America sent by a pen-pal. Collaboration with the Dutch discographer Pete Venudor resulted in the discographies Kenton on Capitol and The Studio Sessions. Sparke has written liner notes for Kenton CDs on several labels, but this is his first full historical narrative about his favorite subject.
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