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).

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

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