History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Friday, September 26, 2014

In tribute to the Lhasa Apso breed, and our "Heidi"

Here I am with "Heidi" at Noonan Park.
"Heidi" was the only dog we had whose whole lifespan was within my newspaper career. She helped me try to minimize the stresses. Although I don't have it recorded, I believe her lifespan was from 1980 to 1996. She was a Lhasa Apso. A better dog couldn't be found, unless it was our next dog, "Sandy."
The precise term for dogs and cats today is "companion animals." When I was a kid we just called them "dogs and cats." The rules were more lax. It wasn't essential to clean up after your dog if he was off your property. We didn't hear about "pooper scoopers" until the 1980s, as I recall. We might be mildly annoyed by signs of dog excrement in that bygone time. But there were no hard and fast rules or laws. People might just shrug and clean up this stuff - no big deal, really. Since it's biodegradable, we really just have to wait for rain to do the job.
I remember reading an op-ed once that suggested maybe the old way was better. The writer expressed annoyance at how some people would put dog excrement in a plastic bag, as per the rules, but then just "leave it under a tree" somewhere. It would be preferable to just do nothing and let the stuff degrade naturally.
Of course, we never wanted any of our dogs to do their "business" in a way that would annoy anyone. When Heidi got old, we took her to places to get a change of scenery and get some healthy exercise. We were prepared with the bags which of course we'd dispose of properly. We took her to the park in Starbuck and Noonan Park in Alexandria. Heidi was the reason we installed air conditioning in our home in the early 1990s. We didn't mind the discomfort of heat ourselves, but Heidi needed that tender loving care.
Isn't it amazing, the lengths to which we go for our "companion animals." We pay vet bills that can get pretty substantial. We hope the bills don't reach the point where people would have less desire to keep their pets.
At this point I have to insert a little story from this past summer. We had the quite bittersweet experience of trying to adopt a stray cat. This cat really picked out our house to hang around. He burrowed a little hole under our portico. It was not what you'd call a "feral" cat. It was obvious that this was a typical domestic shorthair. The vet confirmed that. This feline wanderer was estimated to be one and a half years old.
We had many ups and downs trying to live with this cat. It was irresistible to try to offer him some food. I have read that according to the law, an animal is "yours" when you start feeding it. At first I couldn't get ahold of it. Still, he didn't seem totally apprehensive about us, because he would get up on an outside window sill and look in at us. I'd get down on all fours, on the other side of the window, and return the stare, inches from his eyes. But if I went outside he'd run.
I'll never forget the time when, finally, he walked up to me when I extended a bowl with some cat food in it. We took him inside and eventually took him to the vet. I never felt 100 percent comfortable having the cat, but I developed a real affection. Our family had never been "cat people." Dogs were old hat for us - cats were alien. This cat was young, male, strong and hyperactive. But he never resisted me picking him up. He used a litter box from the get-go.
There were some very real positives, but the negatives kept weighing on us. Finally the stresses were wearing me down. I inquired with the so-called Stevens County Humane Society and was turned away - "our kennels are full." Finally I took him to the Lakes Area Humane Society, Alexandria, where I dealt with a very friendly and professional person. I cried, continually, so bad she needed to advise me to drive carefully when I left. I gave them a generous donation. I was so sad but we had to put this experience behind us.
It would be fun to "borrow" this cat for a week each month, but that's just not in the cards. We are fortunate to have such a competent humane society so close to us. What would we do without it? I suspect that back in the 19th Century, a great many unwanted, wild or semi-wild dogs and cats were out and about. People just accepted it. Today you feel nervous if your animal simply goes on someone else's property.
Getting back to the matter of the vet: I'm a little concerned about the cost. People who might want to just "experiment" with taking in a stray animal might be deterred by the vet expense.
It was clear re. our cat, who I named "Toby," that he was going to have to be taken to the vet if he was going to "hang around" for a considerable time. Someone had to do it. This male cat had to be neutered - no doubt about it. We did it and I'm glad. But the cost seems a little steep to me, perhaps from my perspective of being a 59-year-old person (and remembering lower prices for everything). I shudder when I visit the dentist today. I think the government might have to start helping people take care of their teeth.
 
The wonderful Lhasa Apso
I remember that when we first considered buying "Heidi," my mom referred to it as an "Appaloosa," in jest of course. The Appaloosa is a horse. We joked about that for years.
We didn't buy Heidi at a pet store, nor did we get her from a shelter - it was from a family farm close to where we live. Today, pet stores seem rather frowned-upon. Everyone recommends you get your animal from a shelter. I'm sure many fine animals can be gotten from a shelter, but it seems rather restrictive if you're looking for a particular breed or a purebred.
No matter how the system is set up, there will always be more companion animals around, than the people willing to take care of them. It's the way God made our world.
Our Lhasa Apso "Heidi" was the perfect house dog. We learn that the Lhasa has a "keen sense of hearing and a rich, sonorous bark that belies their size." My father said of our Heidi that she had a "cookie bark" when she wanted to "share" some cookies we were snacking on. It was indeed a penetrating but charming bark.
The Lhasa originated in Tibet over 4000 years ago as a small breed of mountain wolf! We were aware of that Tibetan background when we had Heidi. We would tease her about having "come from Tibet." That sounded so exotic, when in fact our dear dog simply came from "the farm down the road." We'd remind her of that.
The Lhasa was domesticated and actively bred perhaps as long ago as 800 B.C. So, it's one of the oldest recognized breeds in the world.
Lhasas in Tibet were never sold - the only way a person could get one was as a gift. Today it's deemed necessary to breed some of the original Tibetan Lhasa Apsos into the Western-bred line, to maintain the Tibetan authenticity of the breed. Our dog Heidi never liked to be out in a strong wind. We joked with her that back in Tibet, the dogs could get on the other side of the mountain, away from the wind!
It's interesting to research the estimated lifespan for various dog breeds. There can be so much variance in these estimates. A lot depends on the particular dog, I guess. Whatever estimate you use, our "Heidi" lived beyond it. She was over age 16 when the very sad day arrived when we had to bring her to the vet for euthanasia. My dad handled that. It was my responsibility when our next dog, our beloved "Sandy," had to be put down. The biggest problem with dogs is that "that day finally comes."
The last year in the life of a very old dog can be very arduous. Heidi and Sandy had their problems. We did everything we could to ease the aging process, like getting air conditioning installed in our house for Heidi.
We could have joked that Heidi was named for a football game. Remember the famous "Heidi game" in football in the late 1960s? When the TV network cut out too early? I have written a blog post about that. Below is the permalink. The network left the football game for an airing of the movie "Heidi."
http://ilovemorris73.blogspot.com/2013/10/tvs-growing-pains-with-heidi-game-1968.html
 
Those walks in Starbuck
The Lhasa is known as an "intelligent and lively" dog. It responds to motivational training. They can develop separation anxiety. They can get "snappish" if surprised or peeved. They really benefit from a nice daily walk, which I did often. Toward the end of her life I took Heidi to the Starbuck park, walked her over behind The Water's Edge and then onto a road that had lake cabins. I got to know a very nice older woman who had a Sheltie (Shetland Sheepdog) that would befriend us.
"Lhasa" is the capital of Tibet. "Apso" is a word in the Tibetan language meaning "bearded." DNA analysis has identified the Lhasa Apso as one of the 14 most ancient dog breeds.
No, our Heidi didn't come from the mountains of Tibet, though we teased her about this, rather she was quite acclimated to our prairie. She is buried on our property.
Today it's not quite as easy for our family to handle a companion animal. My mom is 90 years old. But oh, what memories! I hope there can be a reunion in heaven. If there can't be, then maybe I don't want to go.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, September 19, 2014

Count Basie gave us that "jumping" big band sound

Bugs Bunny once talked about "The Count of Basie" and "The Satchmo of Armstrong." Being referenced by Bugs Bunny meant of course you were quite in the mainstream of popular culture. And, this was surely no easy feat for the African-American musical icons, emerging in the mid-20th Century when our society was rife with barriers.
When I think of Count Basie, I remember his steady and easy-going temperament. No volatile personality, unlike many music giants. William James "Count" Basie was a king of the big bands. He truly persevered. The apparent end of the big band era caused him to merely adjust. The great pianist tinkled the keys in combos for a time. He triumphantly re-formed the big band in 1952.
The "jukebox era" helped Basie get jump-started. Bebop came along as a wave and he made limited use. He got back into the comfortable pattern of touring and recording.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Basie band in the 1970s. I need to attach one big asterisk here. Basie was not present on the night when I heard the band. He had medical issues. He recovered and lived to age 80, passing away in 1984. I heard the Basie band at St. Cloud State University (MN), at the auditorium which is today named for Kimberly Ritsche.
Basie without Basie? It was very unfortunate we couldn't see and hear this "household name" entertainer. Oh, talented he was, but his own playing was not the kind of attraction as presented by Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich. To be blunt, Basie was in fact replaceable. People were pretty easy-going in accepting Basie's absence, as I recall. Surely a ticket-buyer could squawk some. Maybe some did. But it wasn't what you'd call an "issue." I remember the concert being promoted as "Count Basie swings and Joe Williams sings."
Well, the guy who was "swinging" at the keyboard was Nat Pierce. Musically I think he filled "the Count's" shoes fully adequately. I remember the audience enjoying greatly. 
 
Interviewing keyboardist Pierce
I had a chance to visit with Mr. Pierce, a most agreeable fellow, before the concert. I had "press" status on behalf of the campus newspaper, the "Chronicle." He told me he first filled in for an ill "Count" in 1950. I suppose I should mention he was a white man. Unfortunately I use the past tense: I learn that Mr. Pierce left us for that ballroom in the sky in 1992. He died from an abdominal infection, the same affliction that caused Maynard Ferguson to depart for that grand ballroom.
Basie's band was known for being African-American in composition. Ah, but there was no hard and fast rule about this. Basie's allegiance was to music and not skin color. He came up during a time when there was a much greater sense in society that some divisions had to be acknowledged. Basie and Duke Ellington led bands that were African-American in image.
Nat Pierce was a wonderful musician who did a lot of jazz band arranging. He was closely associated with Woody Herman. He was noted for his ability to play piano in Basie style. "Jumping" is a word that comes to mind in terms of that band's style. Basie loved the blues. The band made its mark with the use of two "split" tenor saxes. Basie liked to emphasize the rhythm section. He brought the "riffing" mode to the big band format, with style and appeal.
Musicians of note refined their abilities with the band, this roster including Lester Young (sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Buck Clayton (trumpet) and Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet). The great Lin Biviano played trumpet with Basie on the night when I heard them at St. Cloud. Biviano would later come to our University of Minnesota-Morris as clinician for the then-young Jazz Festival.
Again I probably shouldn't mention this but Biviano is white. Let's emphasize that Count Basie had quite the open door to all great musicians regardless of such irrelevant considerations. He got started in a time when separation, whether real or "understood," was a reality. His preference I'm sure was to just rub shoulders with outstanding musicians. If only such generosity and open-mindedness had been exhibited by "the other side of the aisle."
I'm 59 years old so I remember when race was still an identifying badge of sorts. This sense hasn't been totally eradicated I'm sure. Today we have a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds amongst us, that ought to make us just shrug about such matters.
Pierce told me in my interview that Basie's piano playing had a "delicate" quality. That's a compliment, but this word would hardly be apropos for Maynard Ferguson or Buddy Rich. Yes, Basie was much more the complementary player.
Pierce told me the band rejected pressure to conform with all the new musical trends. They were quite fine with the standards they set in the '50s and '60s, he said. Let's make it clear: There would be no "disco" coming from this band!
The '70s pulled musicians in directions that never could have been imagined in the '40s. So-called "jazz-rock fusion" came at us. I say "so-called" because it never seemed to be a comfortable or natural hybrid. It seemed a band would go one way or the other. It would have a rock sound but incorporate a few improvised solos. The great Maynard Ferguson certainly embraced the hybrid model. Bill Chase, an alum of the Woody Herman band, took it further, so much so his band really could be described as just rock.
The older bandleaders incorporated the new stuff rather grudgingly, it seemed to me. When they had a choice, these guys went back to their roots. This we saw with the end of the disco era and the onset of the 1980s. Young people became more accommodating with their tastes. They were getting older! The boys who demanded the testosterone-infused "rock" sound with its intensity were mellowing, thank goodness.
Whereas "jazz" may have been considered "square" once, it was no longer so pigeon-holed. Ferguson comfortably went back to his roots, albeit less "famous" then he was for a time in the 1970s. 
 
Making money vs. making art
I asked Mr. Pierce about the conflicting pulls of art vs. commercial appeal. "One hand washes the other," he told me. "If we don't succeed commercially, we don't eat, and if we don't achieve real artistry, we don't get a chance to do anything commercially. A band like this (Basie's) - people come to see this band for our music, not something else. We could go to Nashville and get some wah-wah pedals and do the whole thing up, but then it wouldn't be Count Basie anymore."
I recall five big bands touring in the 1970s and generating real excitement among my generation. Basie was in there. We loved Maynard, Buddy, Woody and Stan Kenton.
We played in high school "stage bands." The education system was a little averse to the term "jazz" then. Perhaps jazz suggested an underworld of sorts, consistent with how mere "blue jeans" - mere trousers, for crying out loud - somehow had a rebellious air that scared the education establishment. What "uptight" times. Come to think of it, blue jeans feel quite tight to wear. There's no connotations from so-called blue jeans anymore. Jeans and denim jackets seem rather yesterday.
Today schools proudly present "jazz bands" and "jazz programs," having tossed aside the "stage band" term. Any musical group plays on a stage.
I asked Pierce if the Basie band felt direct competitive pressure vs. those four other bands of the '70s I cited. "No," he said. "There's no other band of this type, this is it." He described the Basie band as more "mature" than some of the others, with members of longstanding membership - ten or 20 years. He talked about Don Ellis with "those freaky time signatures - 11/4, 13/12." Big band aficionados will smile with the mention of Ellis. He too has left us for that great ballroom in the sky, even though dancers would surely be stymied by his trademark unconventional time signatures.
"Some of it is interesting but no one can really feel that music," Pierce said. 
I asked Pierce if the explosion of rock 'n' roll in the '50s was any sort of plague in his mind. Surely rock 'n' roll pushed aside the 'big band" in our consciousness. Pierce spoke like a true professional. He said that while the likes of Elvis Presley couldn't fit in his musical environment, he would hardly begrudge Elvis' success. "I'm happy for his success," Pierce chirped. 
Professionals know how hard it is to make it by the bottom line. A musician should allow for generous respect for any artist who "makes it." Meanwhile they can all keep "doing their own thing" as Basie surely did.
"My own personal likes and dislikes are mine," Pierce said. "I don't have to go along with the tide." He did say "the tide" was a real temptation for others in his field. He said there was a trend toward mimicry. Surprise! Really, not so much. Success begets mimicry, and Pierce cited the band "Blood, Sweat and Tears" as a template-setter, as they seemed to spawn about five other like groups. 
 
BS&T had a legacy
Bill Chase certainly developed a style that had similarities to BS&T. It would be unfair to say Chase was engaged in pure mimicry. Chase was a well-schooled and experienced musician having cut his teeth in an environment that Pierce would consider ideal. Perhaps Chase music ended up like BS&T for no other reason than the sound of the male vocalist! Actually it was Kenny Rogers who seemed to create this template for gravelly-voiced, restless-sounding male singers, reflecting the restlessness, I guess, of the 1960s.
Wasn't it Rogers who gave us "Just Stopped in to See What My Condition was in?" Bill Chase had Terry Richards and G.G. Shinn sing. Chase had the big hit "Get It On," remember? With the cascading trumpets?
The group "Chicago" seemed an outgrowth of what BS&T started. Pierce talked about the "bandwagon" effect of a new musical fashion, then said the Basie band didn't need to pay any special attention. In the '70s you occasionally heard the question of whether "the big bands could come back." For the record, Pierce said "no," there would be no true resurrection.
And today, I would assert there's a full musical plate for everyone. You like big bands? There's lots of enriching stuff out there. With the death of the "monoculture," we don't have to be so concerned with who's excelling on those commercial "charts." The charts can be considered a mere curiosity. The digital revolution with all its offshoots has enabled us to consume our own "thing" musically. Maybe we take it for granted.
In the '70s we had to worry about cultural trends burying us, disco being at the top of the list (and, "Smokey and the Bandit" movies high up there too). Ah, the '70s! We loved it and hated it.
The audience loved the Basie band's performance at Kimberly Ritsche Auditorium. Basie without Basie himself! It really didn't matter but it would have been wonderful seeing the iconic leader. He probably would have worn his trademark yachting cap - so in line with his breezy, easy-going nature. He is remembered as being considerate of musicians and their opinions. He was modest, relaxed, fun-loving, dryly witty and so enthusiastic about music. 
 
Ah, the "Blazing Saddles" appearance!
Was there any better scene in the 1974 movie "Blazing Saddles" than where Basie's band appears in the desert? Along comes hero character "Sheriff Bart" (Cleavon Little) on his horse. Cleavon and the Count exchange a high-five. "Blazing Saddles" was the epitome of entertainment appealing to my boomer generation when young. Basie got a terrific career push being in this movie. 
"Blazing Saddles" satirized the racism obscured by the myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American west. The townsfolk demand that the governor appoint a new sheriff. The rest is history. Cleavon Little plays the new African-American sheriff. Remember that guy on the rooftop trying to shout about how the new sheriff was a (insert objectionable racist term)? Remember how a ringing bell obscured that last word? A guy down below misheard and thought the guy said "the sheriff is near." We all have our favorite "Blazing Saddles" scenes. I consider "Blazing Saddles" to be a rather overrated Mel Brooks movie, while "Silent Movie" was underrated.
Way back in 1942, Basie did a spot in the movie "Reveille with Beverly," the patriotic musical film starring Ann Miller. In 1960 we saw Basie appear in the Jerry Lewis film "Cinderfella."
Count Basie had so many endearing qualities. His sheer longevity was impressive. On the piano keyboard he had an understated yet captivating style. He composed the band's signature tune "One O'clock Jump."
It was a radio announcer who, in an impromptu moment, called him "Count," a name that stuck. Honorary but most deserved royalty to be sure, so we can understand ol' Bugs Bunny calling him "The Count of Basie." I haven't been able to learn if there was a particular reason why the radio guy coined the name. Was it that royal angle - an aura of royal class?
 
Addendum: Have you ever felt humbled or powerless when at a bank or in the presence of financial services professionals? Bernie Woods told a story about Count Basie that would appeal to you. This was in his book "When the Music Stopped." Woods was enraptured by the big band era and bemoaned its end. He shared anecdotes about his experiences with many of the big band leaders. He was a music critic for Variety. "The music stopped," in his view, with the downturn for the big bands. Here's his little story about Count Basie:
 
I banked at the Chase Manhattan Radio City branch. On occasion when I went in to put or take I'd see Bill standing near the door. Each time he had a check issued by the Willard Alexander Agency, which handled his bookings. Whether the agency anticipated he would deposit the check elsewhere or had other ways of turning it into cash, I have no idea. Chase officials (squares) didn't know him and would not cash the check. "Base" would just stand near the door and wait for anyone he knew. On a number of occasions I OK'd it and he got his money. I cannot fathom the whole thing to this day. It would have been simple for Alexander to "okay for cash," since the agency must have banked at the same branch. Its offices were across the street.
 
I remember writing a letter in the "old days" (before electronic communications) to the Willard Alexander Agency, thanking them for getting Maynard Ferguson periodically booked in St. Paul. I got a nice little answer, thanking me and saying in effect, "keep the faith." How quaint. A pen-on-paper letter with stamp affixed, going out to a New York City office and prompting a like reply. Today everyone is so snowed under with e-mails, it's nigh impossible to get attention outside your personal circle of friends.
 
A further note re. Bernie Woods: the critic would not be so indifferent about the wave of new popular music of the '50s, not like Nat Pierce who was inclined to simply respect fellow professionals. It's hard work making money in music or with any art form. Woods saw the new stuff as intrusive and rather an abomination, but let me just quote from the final chapter of his book:
 
90 percent of rock music is a crime against the word "music," and 90 percent of the "performers" who feature it commit crimes against the word "talent." Performers and purveyors of this blight on music and song call it entertainment. What sort of entertainment can it be when a member of Blind Melon, a group with a hit record, injects into its performance the "art" of stripping to the skin onstage and urinating, as happened during a recent concert in Vancouver, British Columbia?
And how about that great "performing artist" Madonna?
Or, the world-renowned Michael Jackson, part of whose onstage entertainment is repeatedly stroking his crotch as he works.( His sister, La Toya, does the same thing.)
At this point the modern music world might invent a new word to describe what it puts before the public in the guise of "entertainment." It certainly isn't that. Whatever it is, it is at least partially responsible for the habits and violence of the younger generation.
Author Robert Weaver once wrote that nostalgia isn't when you want to go back. Rather it's when you want to go back and know you can't.
Time, oh time, turn backward in your flight!
 
In the '70s we didn't really have to "go back." We had Count Basie!
Count Basie, RIP. Nat Pierce, RIP. In my dreams I'm a "sideman" with those guys. Buddy Rich is the drummer up there in heaven. Buddy would sometimes say in front of his band "give me an 'A'." And the band was ready with the instant rejoinder "Ayyyye. . ." Jazz band artists have a sense of humor that would be therapeutic for us all.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, September 15, 2014

Time for worm to turn with football's popularity?

Adrian Peterson of the Vikings
I'm writing this on Sunday morning, Sept. 14, a day on which we'll continue our habit of watching with rapt attention as big, bruising men wearing helmets crash into each other. Football is our opiate. Sunday is sort of a climax.
Pro football shows us the best players, that is to say gladiators. Saturday shows us the college game. It's interesting how college football is nearly as popular as the pros, whereas in baseball there is no substitute for the pro game.
The U of M Gophers lost badly to the TCU Horned Frogs. Will this strange honeymoon for Jerry Kill now end? Could Tim Brewster possibly have done any worse yesterday? It's bad enough we have to hold our breath to see if Kill will have a seizure that would make many of us think he's dying. He may be handicapped but he could choose a lower-profile job.
Weekends have traditionally been when football rules. Such is the sport's popularity, though, and such is the TV industry's lust for dollars, strings have been pulled to see we get dosages of football well beyond the weekend. Football is truly the golden goose. It's a wonderful position for those who can rake in the dollars.
Football was once a sport that TV came along and televised - today the sport is like an extension of TV itself. Everyone with a vested interest in the ratings and the commercials joins hands to flood the market and make hay. Football massages its rules to make sure there's lots of passing. The germane question right now is: Will this entertainment phenomenon finally run its course?
Consumers of entertainment don't feel any special allegiance - they'll consume it as long as they feel like it, and will "push away from the table" any time they feel like it. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. Pro football is like the 800-pound gorilla. It's thumping its chest atop a mountain of sorts now. We consume this game to an extent where I think a lot of us are becoming conscious of the obsession and starting to ask ourselves "why?" The news of the past week might make us accent those doubts.
What kind of human beings are out there, engaging in this sport which is defined by its violence? Ray Rice punches out his wife. Our Adrian Peterson does something to his kid that I wouldn't wish to describe here. Peterson already had a checkered background. Now, today, we wonder how much enthusiasm we really ought to summon watching this sport.
I began writing skeptically about football a couple years ago. With hand-wringing urgency, I wrote about how boys should think twice before playing youth football. I have implored local leaders to encourage soccer as an alternative to football. Maybe Morris MN has a dubious self-interest in pumping up football to show how wise we were in getting Big Cat Stadium built. A pox on us, if this is true. That hulking thing sits there through all the cold weather months giving us no value whatsoever.
What has football given us here in Morris? It has given us the most notorious news happening in our history: the goalpost incident in 2005 in which a student was killed.
How many of our youth have received injuries the effects of which might linger for years? Coaches implore their young charges to lift weights in the off-season. Why? To get bigger and stronger so they can knock opposing players on their petard next fall? Opposing players who simply are from another town, thus need to be framed in some sort of "enemy" way? Our high school football team obliterated the YME team on Friday at Big Cat. Does that show we're "better?" What does it show? Mainly, it shows we simply have more, bigger, stronger and older players than the opposing community.
Congratulations. I hope no players were dealt injuries with long-term effects.
I am so abundantly thankful I never played football. Yeah, and my detractors would say "you would have been hopeless, you SOB." Yes, I would have been. But at age 59, I don't have to worry about any debilitating effects from such a background. Amen and hallelujah.
What exactly is the point of high school sports rivalries? Is it an extension of our old war culture? The kids on these opposing teams have no reason to summon such terrible resolve to knock opponents on their rear end, to make them writhe in discomfort. I'm sure the kids themselves know better. They do what society expects, gritting their teeth to try to garner victory, to run until exhausted, to savor that triumphant feeling of looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a superior number of points.
In a past time, we were at least able to compartmentalize football better. It was a side distraction. We weren't flooded with this distraction. Many pundits are sounding a clarion call for the sport. Many are warning that the 800-pound gorilla could get knocked off its perch for a variety of reasons. They are wholly correct. But it just isn't happening yet.
One pundit said "TV destroys what it creates." TV latches onto something that is popular and ultimately drains it. It's like the pop songs that climb the charts and then go back down. We get tired of things that are popular. We eventually look for something new. History will record that football grew into this true opiate of the masses. Maybe someday we'll wrinkle our foreheads wondering how it got like that.
Skeptics of the sport like me wonder if the Rice and Peterson cases, among others, could be a tipping point. As I write this, there seems no evidence of that.
I have successfully minimized my watching of the sport. I cannot yet erase it completely. I have decided that anytime I really want to watch football, I'll watch it. I won't go through some artificial commitment to tune out - no one would notice. But increasingly I find I really can put aside football on weekends, and discover other ways to enrich my mind.
All these Vikings seasons are just bleeding into each other. Can any of you tell me any highlights of the Vikings season of, say, five years ago? Why are we so mesmerized when there is no enduring value to these escapades? It's like a sugar high, perhaps just something to break up the monotony of our week. But we can do better. We can find alternatives.
The entertainment industry can craft alternatives. It's overdue in doing this. TV destroys what it creates. We really need that behemoth industry of TV to come through with that now. We have been pulled around by football for too long.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, September 12, 2014

Woody Herman "thundered" through phases of music

Woody Herman was a jewel of a bandleader. He was well-known but probably deserved even more attention and accolades. He was truly like the Energizer Bunny, leading his band until close to the end of his life.
I suspect he would have shown that commitment regardless. Truth be told, his commitment into the 1980s was partly due to financial pressure. He had a commitment to Uncle Sam. He had a burden of paying back taxes. He had been bamboozled by a business manager in the 1960s.
The 1960s were arduous enough for big band artists. This thrilling genre of music had a substantial downturn from its heyday a couple of decades earlier. Small groups with guitars became all the rage. Big bands had to re-define themselves and refocus.
Herman hung in there through various incarnations of his Thundering Herd band. His staying power was really incredible. He may have led his band through necessity toward the end, as he owed the IRS millions, but there was unmistakable inspiration. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In that year he left us for that great ballroom in the sky.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Thundering Herd in the 1970s at the St. Paul Prom Ballroom. This was the band that put out the "Herd at Montreux" album in 1974. The band was riveting with its sound.
We all visualize Woody playing the clarinet, like Benny Goodman. He was just as capable on soprano sax. The soprano sax does not look like the standard saxophone. It looks more like the clarinet and is handled as such. Woody plays only the soprano sax on "Herd at Montreux."
The "old-time" Woody had no problem handling contemporary funk and fusion music. Transitions in popular music can be drastic. Could Glenn Miller have handled it? We can only wonder. Maynard Ferguson was a visionary performer who transitioned all the way into disco. Maynard jolted us with his "Primal Scream" album. That was wholly disco. Us Maynard fans had quite mixed feelings about that. To the extent he got more popular, we were quite fine with that. Maynard got on "the charts" with his "Rocky" theme cover, remember? Disco city!
Disco was a big wave or maybe more like a rip tide, pulling us away from what might have been more palatable. Maynard made two or three more attempts to crash that pop chart, but I could tell instantly each time these efforts were going nowhere. He tried covers of "Battlestar Gallactica" and "Star Wars" that just didn't have the simple up-tempo feel of "Meco's" hits of the same time. With better handling, Maynard could have had those hits. Meco! That's a trivia answer.
I don't recall Woody Herman ever doing disco. Artistically he stayed on the cutting edge. But disco wasn't so much art as a pop craze. This isn't to say the lyrics couldn't be well-crafted.
 
Woody's alums come to Morris
Jim Pugh played trombone on Woody's "Herd at Montreux" album. He would come to Morris in the 1980s for our University of Minnesota-Morris Jazz Festival. I attended Jim's clinic presentation even though I'm a trumpet player.
Years later we would get another Woody Herman alum coming to the jazz fest, name of Dave Stahl. He's considered among the elite big band trumpeters. He played at the Prom Ballroom when I took in the Herman band's performance. You could never forget how he slid up to the high note on "Superstar."
Young big band fans went gaga over high-note trumpet players. As I get older I have a hard time understanding why. My mother was once like the boy who said the emperor has no clothes. This was when I had a DVD of the Ferguson band on. Maynard was of course the grand poobah of high-note trumpet players. Mom said "if they want to play such high notes, why don't they play a different instrument?"
Well, whatever the explanation, us band youth of the 1970s worshipped at the shrine of high-note trumpet players.
Stahl's appearance for the UMM Jazz Fest ended up not really happy, the legend goes. Sources told me he tried to get out of that commitment. As they say, "a better opportunity came along." Stahl was refused and he came here in a reportedly sullen frame of mind. Lead trumpet players are an ego-driven lot. They don't handle frustrations well.
Actually, trumpet players as a whole are strangely "chair conscious." There's first chair, second chair and third chair - quite the "tier" or "caste" system. The lower the section (third being lowest), the lower the notes you play. Of course, all the notes are important for packaging the final product. And yet "first chair" or "lead" is privilege-laden. Let's adorn that person with a royal cape just like for the cowardly lion in "The Wizard of Oz." (They improvised with a rug, remember?)
Stahl is the quintessential lead trumpet player. While in the service, he was soloist with the Army Band, lead trumpet in the "Army Blues," and principal trumpet in the White House Herald Trumpets. A friend and I went up on the stage after the St. Paul concert to chat with him. He told us something about proper playing posture.
 
An album that connected
Woody Herman's band recorded "Herd at Monteux" at 3:30 a.m. They followed Sonny Rollins' set. I loved the arrangement of The Temptations' hit "Can't Get Next to You." The band played with a flourish on Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." (None of us can forget PDQ Bach's "Fanfare for the Common Cold.")
Tenor sax players Greg Herbert and Frank Tiberi stand out. Tiberi would later lead the Herman "ghost band" after Woody's death. Andy LaVerne played electric piano, standing out as much with his long fuzzy hair as with his playing. Ferguson had his own "hippie keyboardist" for a time, name of Allan Zavod. These guys look like anything but hippies today, I'm sure. Their old persona came and went like disco. In those old days, you might get teased if you were bald or overweight. Not today. "Plus" sizes have taken over.
Dave Stahl left the service in 1973, whereupon he went to work putting together the finest possible jazz resume, even managing the Buddy Rich band. I give him special kudos for that, given Rich's famous volatile personality.
Stahl was lead trumpet or soloist with an 'A' list of bands including, in addition to Herman and Rich: Count Basie, Larry Elgart and Toshiko Akiyoshi. He has backed up Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme and Jack Jones. He formed his own band in 1977. In '87 he came out with "Anaconda," an album I remember purchasing in that old vinyl format. It was contemporary pop.
 
The great Bill Chase, RIP
Remember the trumpet player Bill Chase? He was closely associated with Woody Herman. Chase formed his own group and gave us the hit "Get It On," remember? He died in a plane crash in southern Minnesota in the mid-1970s. He was barely hanging on (financially) with his own group at the time of his death, reportedly. This was in spite of the fact his music had made a real splash. But remember, fans of such modern "hip" groups of that time were largely kids - not real well financially endowed. Chase could play today as an "oldie" act at casinos.
At the time of his untimely death, rumors were rife that Chase was going back to Woody Herman's band. His "name" presence would have been good for all involved. We never got to see that of course.
Woody Herman occasionally sang with a voice that frankly wasn't any better than mine. His solos really only required a sense of pitch and in some cases not even that, as on his hit "Caldonia." The band made those tunes. The signature part of "Caldonia" was a soaring eight-bar passage by the trumpets near the end. All hail trumpets!
Woody's first hit was "Woodchopper's Ball" in 1939. The song needed time to gain popularity. The Decca company kept re-releasing it. My, 3-4 years passed before it caught on. It sold over five million copies. I played this tune with the "Tempo Kings" orchestra in the 1970s. I remember the late Walt Sarlette doing a little showboating on clarinet, holding his hand behind his head as he elevated his clarinet for the final rousing section. The dancers always reacted with enthusiasm when we announced that tune.
 
Bebop with "Dizzy" comes along
Time passed and "bebop" started infusing the big band world. Bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie wrote three arrangements for Woody in 1942.
I heard Dizzy with a small combo at St. Cloud State's Kimberly Ritsche Auditorium. Dizzy's physical faculties for playing the trumpet were at a bare minimum. Remember, he had that unorthodox style of puffing out his cheeks. It's unnatural.
I got the impression that in Dizzy's "small-time" concerts like at St. Cloud, he didn't expend himself any more than he had to. I don't think anyone would argue with me saying his playing that night was terrible - uncomfortable to watch. He had no range at all. But he was Dizzy Gillespie! He got applause when he said he was of the Bahai faith. He showed humor introducing his ensemble. He went one by one saying they were "natives" of someplace, until he got to the drummer, a quite dark-skinned fellow, who Gillespie said was simply "a native." (Movies set in Africa once gave us the term "native" as synonymous with the black indigenous people.) I suspect Gillespie's humor would be politically incorrect today. The audience did laugh.
I later saw a contemporaneously filmed performance by Dizzy on PBS in which he suddenly found he could play his trumpet with range. I guess he saved such efforts for the "important" commitments. He probably had no choice. His style of trumpet playing was too taxing physically. His cheeks could have become detached from his face.
Woody Herman had a successful recording of "Laura" from the 1944 movie. He recorded "Caldonia" in 1945. "What makes your big head so hard?" I'd need an explanation on those lyrics.
The band broke up in 1946. Several bands disbanded in December of that year, just as America was getting back to normal after the war years. Some say the storied big band era ended in December of 1946. Of course this was just a hiccup for the indefatigable Woody Herman. In 1947 he formed "The Second Herd," a.k.a. "The Four Brothers Band." They recorded "Four Brothers" in 1947.
Woody had another hit in "Early Autumn." The "Third Herd" came along in the 1950s. And then, "The New Thundering Herd" from 1959 to 1987.
By the 1980s, as with Maynard Ferguson, Woody "came home" to straight-ahead jazz, putting aside the rock and fusion. A steady diet of jazz and conventional big band charts became commercially feasible again. Woody kept packing in the crowds, thus helping him pay off the IRS! He was in danger of eviction from his house.
I would firmly state that Woody Herman was underrated. He had no trouble staying hip even though he didn't look the part, certainly not in the '70s when rock groups held sway. He never grew his hair out or fluffed it up. He looked like he could be the skyscraper owner in the movie "the Towering Inferno," you know, a guy on the wrong end of the generation gap. (That was William Holden BTW.)
Don't be fooled by appearances. Woody didn't need to change how he looked to play exciting music, captivating the young crowd.
I remember when us kids raced to get our Prom Ballroom seats right when they opened the doors - standard custom - and we raced right past Woody himself. Woody was out in the commons area with an unassuming presence, playing some warm-up notes on his clarinet with his open case in front of him. Had this been Maynard, we would have swarmed him. We loved Woody's band but Woody himself wasn't really a cult figure. Ah, but we embraced Woody and his sound totally.
Woody Herman, RIP.
 
Addendum: Here's a remembrance nugget that ought to make Maynard fans misty: Remember how the great MF would play warm-up notes in a little room off to the side of the stage, at the Prom Center? There was a little exhibitionist purpose here. MF knew this would be a turn-on. Sure enough, each time he did this pre-concert, waves of cheers would come from the assembling crowd! Pianist Zavod was onstage once getting his stuff ready, and he reacted for humorous effect as if the cheers were for him! Can memories get any better than this?
 
The full lyrics to "Caldonia" strike me as rather bizarre. If I wrote this stuff, people would say I was off my rocker. But it's a classic. Would a previous generation understand it better?
Here are the lyrics:
 
Walkin' with my baby, she's got great big feet,
She long lean and lanky and ain't had nothin' to eat!
But she's my baby and I love her just the same,
Crazy about that woman 'cause Caldonia is her name.
 
Caldonia!
Caldonia!
What makes your big head so hard? Huh!
I love you, love you just the same,
I'll always love you baby 'cause Caldonia is your name.
 
You know,
My momma told me to leave Caldi]onia alone;
That's what she told me, no kiddin'!
That's what she said!
She says,
"Son, keep away from that woman,she ain't no good, don't bother with her!".
But momma didn't know what Caldonia was puttin' down!
So I'm goin' down to Caldonia's house, and ask her just one more time!
 
Caldonia!
Caldonia!
What makes your big head so hard?
Now!
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, September 5, 2014

Blogger to the fore in Jacob Wetterling case

Joy Baker
I remember being at the first-ever Minnesota Timberwolves home opener. The family of Jacob Wetterling came out to the center of the court before the game, for a rousing acclamation. The Wetterling abduction/disappearance case was of course fresh.
You may have forgotten that our Timberwolves played their first season at our beloved old Dome. I attended something like five games and had great fun. Dad (RIP) came with me to one. Bill Musselman was coach, that guy with the maniacal reputation who had soared and then crashed/burned with our U of M Gophers in the '70s.
The Timberwolves charted a course where they would try to maximize winning from the outset, rather than accept the usual lumps of an expansion team. Patrick Reusse would later scold us for enjoying that. Well, I enjoyed it. But, by dropping lower in the draft order than otherwise would have been the case, we may have picked up a "curse" of sorts that has diminished winning opportunities ever since. I have lost interest. Anyone who has seriously followed the T-Wolves over the last 25 years: Shame on you for wasting so much time.
I'm not sure what was accomplished simply having the Wetterling family come forward as if they were being feted in some way. They were simply victims of a horrible tragedy. The pre-game spectacle wasn't going to accomplish anything.
 
Determination by a new media practitioner
It turns out there were lots of wasted efforts over many years trying to unravel the Wetterling mystery. All it took in the end to solve it, was a curious blogger. Her name: Joy Baker. Efforts ought to be made to get Joy some generous compensation. She did what "all the king's horses and all the king's men," i.e. those law enforcement "professionals" with their uniforms, failed to do. It's yet another example of how our new digital, online world is being disruptive. Our old clunky, bureaucratic institutions are revealing all their limitations, while people empowered by the new online world are showing what they can do, unencumbered.
The recent John Walsh TV special on CNN showed the world how a determined Joy Baker simply sought the truth. This pure motivation, minus any bureaucratic or "turf"-centered limitations, penetrated through the apparent thicket of mystery.
Meanwhile this law enforcement guy, this uniformed Sanner fellow, came off looking pathetic. He said something about how bloggers can "speculate" whereas people like him, apparently, cannot? Really? Isn't the whole process of following "leads" based on speculation?
Wasn't it the likes of Sanner who "speculated" in making this Rassier fellow a "person of interest?" Do they realize the damage they are doing to someone's life in applying this "person of interest" tag? I suppose they would deny that such an individual is a "suspect." What, then, is he? Certainly the public would see an individual in this light.
I hope Mr. Rassier, a terrific trumpet player, is suing and I hope he gets a windfall. I played in the St. Cloud State University concert band with Dan for two quarters back in the 1970s. If you're reading this, Dan, "hello." Looks like you're keeping your "chops" in shape. Here's what's disgusting about the situation he ended up in: He's an adult who lives with his parents, so, was this the basis for thinking he might be a little "strange?" There are people all around us who can be considered strange for all sorts of reasons. This lifestyle "norm" that is promoted by our commercial media is a myth - it's a consumerist ideal. In truth, "the majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Mr. Rassier had the great misfortune of living out where the Wetterling tragedy happened. How would you like it if something like that happened where you live? How would you like being viewed with suspicion?
Law enforcement apparently pursued tens of thousands of leads regarding the incident. I'd like to know how far-fetched some of those were. Oh, remember those ridiculous "sketches" of suspects that were pinned up, presumably all over Minnesota? Remember that hyperbolic caption? "We MUST FIND these men." I love the emphasis there. "YOU TOO can prevent forest fires!"
Then there was the line: "So JACOB can be found." Don't we all know guys who would roughly match those drawings? We were informed that one of these guys had a "bold, authoritative manner." Like that's real revelatory. Would anyone in his right mind think that these stupid drawings were going to lead to anything helpful? Did the artist see a matchbook cover ad for drawing school? Let's call all this a charade. It was a charade helping law enforcement people "look good." They went through the motions as per the expectations of their well-funded bureaucracies.
And now a mere humble blogger comes along and shows us all how it's done. What a relief. What a relief to simply know the mystery is over. Who cares who the successful sleuth eventually was? But, something should be done to see she's properly compensated. Quite generously too. I suggest that she write a book and get a good publisher to guide her.
I wonder if all those uniform-wearing professionals are cursing under their breath about this. "Turf protection" is an extremely strong force. Taxi businesses are going wild trying to resist these new Internet-driven transit entities. Up to now the forces unleashed by the Internet have been unstoppable, and "disruption" has been widespread.
 
Yours truly, making waves too
I sensed that local law enforcement was not comfortable with me blogging about the Craig Peterson case. I got an email from the police chief one day. I had prematurely reported that the charges were dropped, based on rumors that were ridiculously pervasive at the time. OK, so I was premature or you might say "wrong." The chief indicated that he expected me to "acknowledge my error." Was that a threat? Well, I made sure I wore my seat belt 100 percent of the time after that.
I have been told that my writing may ultimately have affected the resolution of the case. I was told that my writing had a strong common thread of indicating this was a "he said, she said" case with dubious grounding. I'm not looking for any pats on the back. I'm just an unemployed person with a background in writing.
Anyone non-local reading this, here's a little background: Craig Peterson is the high school principal in Morris who was on paid leave for most of last year due to being charged with first degree criminal sexual conduct.
One reason us new media journalists can be so powerful is that we do what we do for almost no cost. So, we don't need to be blessed by material resources to do what we do, unlike "professional" law enforcement. Maybe if those jerks would spend less time on seat belt citations and minor marijuana offenses, they could actually solve cases like Wetterling.
Anyway, congrats to Joy Baker for her raw energy and concern, simply seeking the truth. It makes too much sense, doesn't it? Our new communications age is like that.
I went to that inaugural Timberwolves game by bus. Our team lost to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan (in his prime). Jordan scored in the mid-40s but it was a "quiet" scoring total, friend Rick Lucken remarked to me. I remember the players shaking hands with owners Wolfenson and Ratner in pre-game. Rick had a chat with Bob Stein. I loved "Crunch" the mascot. Coach Musselman was his usual obsessed self. Basketball was really a blast at the Dome.
 
Addendum: I have communicated with a couple friends/contacts since the Walsh special, and below is an interesting portion of an email I received back:
 
I have a repair tech friend who now lives in the Long Prairie area, who says (and, for some reason, proudly) that he is No. 20 on the FBI's "person of interest list" for the Wetterling case. Seems he lived next door to the Wetterlings in St. Joe back when it happened. He says the FBI sends a couple agents out every two years or so, and they ask him questions again and again - sometimes at his house, and sometimes they "take him downtown." It's mostly just to see if he remembers anything that would be of help.
 
Addendum #2: Scott Thoma, former Willmar newspaper scribe, indicated his next book would be about the Wetterling case. He appeared at our Morris Public Library to present his book about the Tracy MN tornado. He mentioned the Wetterling book project in an informal conversation afterward. I wonder how far along he is with it. The recent revelations would either scrub the book or cause him to approach it anew. He could make Joy Baker the centerpiece.
I ran the Rassier name by him. This was before the recent revelations. "They (the authorities) think he did it," Scott said.
See? That's how the "person of interest" tag gets interpreted. Thoma left the West Central Tribune under circumstances that seem similar to how I left the Morris paper. Both papers are owned by Forum Communications of Fargo ND. It's a Machiavellian company. If they wanted Thoma gone, I'm sure they made it happen. Oh, I'm sure he's a very hard-working and competent person. He was sports editor. Community papers make such a fuss over sports, so far beyond the real level of interest. They make "heroes" out of sports stars which I feel isn't real healthy for the overall school community. A sociologist could do a study.
 
Addendum #3: This morning (Friday, Sept. 5) I heard back from an old friend of mine, a Morris native who today lives in Cold Spring. He has familiarity with Mr. Rassier and has always been skeptical of any suspicion directed his way. Obviously my friend is happy now. Here is what he communicated:
 
It's funny you should mention the John Walsh special on CNN.  We gave up TV about six years ago, but we were in Las Vegas over the weekend and we had just gotten back to our room when (my wife) turned on the TV. The TV station that was on was CNN and they ran a short promo on what was coming up next and it was the Wetterling case. I said to (my wife): I wonder if they will include that blogger's update, and they did! Timing is everything. I thought they did an excellent job on it. They didn't name the guy they suspected for legal reasons (I assume) but it did take the heat off of Dan Rassier. I never see the guy (these days) but I'm sure he is feeling better.
In the end I think the sheriff bungled the case. He said something that implied bloggers could get certain info they could not. What a bunch of B.S.! I'm voting for the other guy in November.

 
Just consider: A kid disappears and then almost anyone, it seems, can be a person of interest. In the meantime that sub-human scum of a perpetrator leaves a trail that affects the lives of more than just the victim/family. Rassier has picked up a stigma that he will work to shake, I'm sure. He has been an adjunct type of teacher in music, I have read. He is a distance running enthusiast. He looks trim and healthy in a photo I found online. He may have lost weight because of the stress.
It's a relief we no longer have to have a trace of suspicion about Mr. Rassier. But think about the impact on his life. Joy Baker comes along like an angel for him (and others I'm sure).
A scary afterthought: If I had blogged extensively about the Wetterling case several years ago, would I be contacted by authorities?
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stan Kenton big band gave us that "wall of sound"

I wish I could have heard the Stan Kenton band when it was in its early prime. Kenton became a big name because he must have wowed many. He surely "stuck it out" long after the term "big band" took on a past-tense context. "Remember the big bands?"
Electronic amplification meant you didn't need a stage-full of musicians to produce a big sound anymore. Producing a big sound with just a handful of musicians would seem to give musicians economic leverage too: fewer guys to pay!
As with all trends, certain people can be counted on to go against the grain. Kenton was the trooper with his stage full of musicians that he managed up through the 1970s. He died at the end of that decade.
Stan sprang into prominence during the WWII years. I don't know if he had "flat feet" or something, but he apparently had no connection with our military effort. Nothing like Glenn Miller, who led his band in uniform.
Stan was a man of the piano keyboard. I'll never forget his piano introduction to the tune "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" He did a little cat-and-mouse with the bass player. The bass came in midway through the intro. The bass guy had to anticipate where Stan was going. And of course the pianist had that trademark shining smile, like the cat that ate the canary. Stan always smiled like he knew more about music than anyone. He was hardly reserved in how he spoke about his own, and his band's, musical prowess which was surely awesome, surely by the standards of popular music.
Big bands in the '40s were in the mainstream of popular music. Glenn Miller's band churned out hits in its heyday, leading the way. The big band went to the wings of pop music in the 1950s. Some toured on the strength of their past fame. Then came the '60s which everyone agrees was a death zone for the "big band." Maynard Ferguson ended up retreating to Great Britain.
The '40s didn't seem that remote in time. But "big bands" in the eyes of the nation's youth became equated with a quite distant past. Kids pooh-poohed the likes of Lawrence Welk who held a substantial audience among the nation's older folk. We see the nursing home residents in "Mars Attacks!" tune in to the Lawrence Welk show on TV. Some of that was stereotype of course. The Beatles came along and caused a sea change in tastes. Many of the kids would be thrilled hearing a really good "big band." But they got mesmerized by rock.
 
Stan Kenton, getting going in '41
The great Stan Kenton formed his own band in June of 1941. He got well established on the west coast. His piano playing was influenced by Earl Hines. The sound of the band was influenced by Jimmie Lunceford. Stan liked high-note trumpet players. So guess what? Maynard Ferguson made his first big splash with - guess who? - Mr. Kenton.
Kenton in the 1970s was coasting. I'm sure that many of his concert goers were drawn by having heard Maynard's band. Any cursory study of Maynard's career would have prominent mention of Kenton.
I heard the Kenton band in St. Cloud and Willmar MN. The audiences were like a mirror reflection of those hyper assemblages that Maynard drew for his concerts. Ditto Buddy Rich the drummer and bandleader.
There was a small group of big bands that toured and generated considerable excitement among young people in the 1970s. I hate to sound a dismal chord but the Kenton concerts were largely disappointing. There were bright spots as when the trumpets would do a passage with piercing intensity. I remember after one such passage at St. Cloud, an audience member shouted "animals!"
Kenton didn't seem quite to know what these new young audiences wanted. His concerts got stretched out with segments that seemed boring and repetitive, as with those "ride" solos that went on ad nauseum. I remember a trumpet player coming forward to play several of these at the Willmar concert, and a friend of mine suggesting "this guy must be Stan Kenton's nephew." In other words, his talent didn't warrant so much exposure.
I remember two or three area high school bands playing before the curtain opened for Stan at Willmar. I think it was the Litchfield band who a friend would say was "better than the Kenton band." I'm sure that wasn't literally true. I think the problem was that the Kenton band was too restrained and ponderous too much of the time. I think we sensed the musicians onstage were capable of offering us so much more. It seemed ol' Stan just wasn't "hip" and didn't know how to package his music for us.
It seemed the band would have been just as good with fewer members. It seemed strange that Stan would want to drag such a large ensemble everywhere he went, totally contradicting the trends of the times. Maybe ol' Stan, a genius no doubt, just wanted to be a contrarian.
By the end of the St. Cloud concert, the people seemed tired of hearing such a large group. They were clearly excited by the drummer. Stan had latched onto a young guy who was clearly destined for great things on the drums. An audience member, likely weary of the non-descript stuff, shouted "let Pete do it!" The reference was to the prodigy drummer, name of Peter Erskine. Erskine would soon move on to the much more "with it" band of Maynard Ferguson.
So, Kenton's band could be like a stepping stone for the likes of Erskine. It's too bad the Kenton band couldn't be more of a destination, an end in itself, rather than a fossil-like curiosity, only with a background that exuded greatness. There's no reason that band couldn't still exude that riveting feel. The band teased us with occasional exciting moments and awesome talent. Trombonist Dick Shearer was interesting as that rare specimen of a 'bone stylist.
The saxophonists? All those big band sax players sounded alike to me, sorry. The audiences at Ferguson concerts went wild over a bari saxophone player named Bruce Johnstone. They reacted with almost orgasmic acclamation. Truth be told, they were all there to hear Maynard. I'd argue they wouldn't have spent a dime to hear Johnstone. It's just that they were in a certain mood to consume this type of music. So, let's go crazy as Bruce plays the intro passage to "Stay Loose with Bruce." (That was a re-titled tune, having originally been presented as "Morgan's Organ" featuring Lanny Morgan.)
 
The springboard, on west coast
In the mid-1940s, Kenton's band and style inspired the description "wall of sound." Many bands of that era became known for one particular ballroom that became their springboard. In Stan's case this was the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach CA. He whiffed on a major opportunity: for a time he backed up Bob Hope on radio, but the chemistry just wasn't there and along came "Les Brown and his Band of Renown" to complement the comedian.
Stan's band issued a popular record in 1943: "Eager Beaver." June Christy signed on as singer and produced the hit "Tampico." Kenton's band became described as "progressive jazz." Stan himself was very proud of that reputation, often speaking almost defensively about the esoteric musical standards he subscribed to. It seemed he was almost aspiring to a "concert orchestra" rather than big band, ironic at a time when everyone was talking about the demise of large groups.
Ah, Stan the contrarian. He liked the Latin rhythm. "The Peanut Vendor" became a signature tune for the band. In 1949 he took the year off. In 1950 he put together an outrageous ensemble - 39 pieces! - and accentuated that "progressive" reputation in a pretentious way that was his tendency. (I don't hold it against him.)
He called the group "Innovations in Modern Music." My God, there were 16 strings, woodwinds and - brace yourself - two French horns. The group played dense modern classical charts. Everyone could see there was little commercial potential. Stan was following that different drummer. He experimented. But eventually he went back to the still-large 19-piece group. He made an unexpected excursion into swing.
Kenton had an innate quality of giving us unexpected things. Always, his music could be bombastic. His last big foray into the unexpected was his "mellophonium" chapter. This was in the early '60s.
"Kenton Plays Wagner" came out in 1964. His last Top 40 release was the unusual "Mama Sang a Song," written by Bill Anderson from a field of music seemingly 180 degrees from what Stan stood for. The "Mama" song was re-released in the '70s on Kenton's own Creative World label. I remember those 8-track tapes with the yellow and black colors, giving us the Kenton sound. Doug Garberick of Morris loved playing those in his car. He'd occasionally look back at us kids to gauge our reaction. We worried a little about him driving safely.
 
Those anticlimactic '70s
The '70s seemed a sad time for the Kenton sound as he couldn't quite deliver what the young people wanted. It was sad because he came close at times. The seeds were there. The corduroy-wearing adolescent male high school trumpet players wanted music that was really testosterone-fueled. The Maynard Ferguson band definitely gave us that.
Maynard had no trouble "connecting" through his career. Buddy Rich the drummer was good at that too. Oh, and let's not forget Woody Herman and his "Thundering Herd" - quite capable of being "hip." We ate up the music of the veteran pianist Count Basie and his orchestra. Now I've cited the whole circle of touring big bands that supplied pleasure to us boomer-age musicians: Maynard, Buddy, Stan, Woody and "the Count."
The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra flirted with being in that circle. I heard Thad and Mel at the St. Paul Prom ballroom. I'd rank their sound above Stan's. Maybe Stan wasn't all that interested in thrilling us through that time (i.e. that "disco" time). He had done plenty of that earlier in his career. In the '70s, he wanted to affirm his stamp on sophisticated music, that "progressive" sound, even though the youth would have preferred a little "regression." Give us loud and intense charts please.
Stan really rode the coattails of his old protege Maynard Ferguson. Kids who were fascinated with Maynard eagerly bought tickets to Kenton concerts. The Kenton concerts merely reminded us of how exciting a contemporary big band could be. It whetted our appetite for more. Kenton needed to condense both his band and its library, had he really been after commercial success in the 1970s. I guess he wasn't. His health failed at decade's end.
David Brinkley of NBC News did a little piece suggesting that Kenton's death was imminent. It was like a short eulogy, leaving no doubt that ol' David was a fan. But Kenton miraculously recovered for a time. Finally he left us for that Balboa Ballroom in the sky.
 
Exemplary approach to life, art
I had nothing but respect for the venerated keyboardist who was always eager to seek something new and innovative. There is much to say for that approach to life and to art. I'll never forget those glistening teeth as he smiled from his piano bench. It was the kind of smile that made you think he was in possession of great insights.
I embrace the memory of how Stan opened that favorite song of mine, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" Remember? "North and south and east and west of your life." I'd love to be able to write a song like that. I'm sure it wasn't his nephew out there playing trumpet. But Stan certainly opened the door for many young musicians eager to put something impressive on their resume.
"Stan Kenton" was quite the genius. He stuck with his refinement even when he might have garnered greater commercial success. He was "in the arena." His was a remarkably full life.
"The band knocked me out," Bernie Woods wrote of the Kenton band's east coast debut. Woods continued:
 
Stan was an intense young leader who knew what he wanted. He had formed an organization that was decidedly different from any then in existence. It was wildly exciting and eventually very successful, even though after a full evening of listening, one felt as though he'd taken a physical pounding. The word to describe some of its arrangements: ponderous.
One of the Broadway wags in Lindy's described the band as sounding like "a plane crash at LaGuardia Field." Another cracked: "You don't kick that band off - you count it down."
I liked Stan immediately. He seemed shy, yet was implacable about what he was trying to accomplish. I got a great kick out of talking with him and did so at every opportunity. He seemed to feel the same way. He seemed always to be searching for criticisms or comments about his band and what he was trying to do with it, which he then culled and turned to whatever advantage possible.
 
Here's another passage from Woods' book, "When the Music Stopped":
 
One point that highlights the difference between Variety and the so-called "jazz" sheets then in existence, is contained in a comment made by George Simon of Metronome at almost the same time I made a note relative to Stan's style of conducting.
Kenton's orchestra played a concert at Carnegie Hall, an event of which Stan was immensely proud, rightly so. Simon took Stan over the coals for his "bombastic" conducting style. A tall man, Stan liked to flap his arms, wave only his hands at arms' length, and go into other gyrations when conducting. Simon didn't think much of what was normal for Stan. In an almost coincident issue of Variety I commented that "Kenton's arm-flapping style of conducting is in itself a form of showmanship."
Simon was looking at Stan's methods from a strictly musical viewpoint and felt, apparently, that his gyrations reduced the great musical impact of the band. I took the "commercial" viewpoint, feeling that the style of conducting added interest to the overall impact of the band. Later, when Kenton's orchestra was the basis of a weekly TV broadcast, the director often focused his cameras on Stan's arm-waving.
Performers have looked for a "hook" from time immemorial. Kenton's "hook" was his conducting, although it was minor and he did not intend it as such.
 
Addendum: I remember being moved seeing Willie Maiden in Kenton's band at the Willmar MN concert. This is a name that Maynard Ferguson fans will associate with Maynard's "pre-famous" period, when MF was doing refined jazz in the 1960s. Sophisticated yes - revenue-producing, not so much. Maynard had a reliable stable of musicians through much of the '60s, a group also including Mike Abene, Tony Inzalaco and that Lanny Morgan (of "Morgan's Organ"). Maiden seemed so slightly built. He had probably always been that way, but in the '70s with Kenton he almost looked a bit sickly, and my fellow concert-goer Doug Garberick expressed concern about Willie's ability to handle his instrument. Willie seemed to do fine, and it was interesting to see this familiar name from the past, in the flesh, still plying his jazz "chops."
Jazz is a universal language, eh?
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com