The rock n' roll lifestyle didn't drop from the sky with the appearance of the Rolling Stones, you know. Half a century of jazzmen and blues figures had already set the stage with their endless womanizing and love for needles, pills and bottles.
And Stan Kenton, pianist, bandleader, eccentric genius, was no different. Like any self-disrespecting musician of whatever era, Kenton had a love life that was a messy soap opera, and his six-foot, six-inch frame required a lot of booze to fill it up.
Debauchery is nothing new, but Kenton was the very first figure to assault audiences with a truly shocking volume level. His gargantuan, 40-piece groups pissed off jazz critics and conservative big-band fans to no end in flaunting the rapture of high-decibel heaven in ahead-of-his-time arrangements.
"He would just blow the timbers out," recalls former Kenton trumpeter/composer/arranger Shorty Rogers, now nearly 70 and living in Southern California. "The first note would knock the audience three seats back. It was thrilling, and all the guys in the band had to stay in top shape just to keep up." Rogers is one of the artists performing in the Valley in a unique series of concerts featuring Kenton alumni.
Rogers, 26 at the time he joined Kenton in 1950, speaks of an era when lung power and stamina were needed to accomplish what today is done with a flick of the wrist on an amplifier's volume knob.
But if anyone was louder than Kenton's band, which began rising to fame on the heels of World War II, it was his accountants. In 50 and 51, Kenton lost more than $300,000 hauling the huge ensemble around the country. A more reasonable man would have killed two birds with one stone by halving the band: Profits would have doubled, as would have positive reviews. Nothing doing, said Kenton.
"He couldn't have cared less about the money," laughs Rogers. "He'd make money, put it right back into the band and lose it all over again."
Baritone saxman Jack Nimitz, who joined and left the band twice during its late-'50s heyday, remembers Kenton's propensity for overnight, mood and volume-increasing alterations in the music.
"He would get a different idea in his head and then reform with different instrumentation, changing around the number of alto, tenor and baritone saxes. Maybe the next band he'd throw in French horns."
Whatever the instrumentation, Kenton's band of young players never failed to freak equally young audiences with both high-volume and highly incongruent sets of music.
A cornball pop tune like "All About Ronnie" would lead into the straightahead swing of "A Night at the Gold Nuggett," followed by the heavy Cuban rhythms of "Out of This World," culminating, perhaps, in the brash, avant-garde "City of Glass," which even today sounds much like a Frank Zappa composition.
"People knew what the Kenton band was like, and they more or less expected the changes," says Nimitz of a new audience that had grown dissatisfied with the cutesy fluff of the Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw bands. "We'd still play dances like other big bands, but there was a portion of the concert where it was announced that the following pieces were not for dancing."
Kenton developed an appreciative following.
"Closest to the bandstand was always a crowd of people just listening," adds Rogers. "Behind them there would be the dancers. Dancing to the big bands was lessening and preparing the road for jazz concerts, which for us culminated in very prestigious venues."
As early in Kenton's career as 1947, 300 folding chairs had to be placed onstage at Carnegie Hall to accommodate an overflow of Kenton fans. And band members were no less gaga over Kenton than the endless slew of ticketholders were.
"He was so dynamic. He had that charisma and positive attitude, that air about him," Nimitz says.
"Kenton was tall and physically imposing," offers Rogers. "Looking at him was like looking at John Wayne. Adding to the impression was that he had an incredible memory. Someone would walk up and he'd say, 'Bill Jones, I haven't seen you since 1949 in Dallas, Texas.'"
Combine the impressive man with the expressive music and it's little wonder that Kenton's group became one of the most influential of all the white big bands. But the high-strung, workaholic bandleader was occasionally overwhelmed by the financial responsibilities of shepherding his loud crowd of players. An exasperated Kenton often threatened to quit music and become a psychiatrist.
"He was everybody's father," says Nimitz.
"If anyone had a problem, Stan was there to talk it out. We were young kids," recalls Shorty Rogers, "and the discomfort and exhaustion of always being on the road just kind of bypassed us because, hey, we were with a great bandleader and couldn't wait to get on the bandstand again that night. That attitude really prevailed."
Kenton's own attitude was more self-destructive. Not unlike Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend smashing their beloved guitars, the bandleader systematically disassembled his prize bands, in 1953 insisting that showpiece trumpeter Maynard Ferguson leave the band to pursue what Kenton knew would be a successful solo career. He was right, and no one since has beat Ferguson in perpetuating the appeal of thunderous jazz, and that includes every fusion star to play jazz vamps through rock amps.
Ironically, the fatal blow to the Kenton group and remaining big bands was the permanency rock n' roll gained in the 60s and 70s. Kenton, who had earlier described the Beatles sound as "children's music," recorded "Hey Jude" to keep himself and his entourage in work.
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Still, the embarrassing forays into rock and even country music could not dismay the zillion fans of four decades. When Kenton died in 1979, his recording company, Creative World, had reissued more than 80 of his earlier albums and had accumulated a mailing list of more than 100,000 fans of Kentonian brazenness.
"I know of clubs outside London," says Rogers, "that to this day get together every Sunday and play Stan Kenton records. And when we had a Kenton alumni festival in Newport Beach, California, two years ago, over a hundred [non-U.S.] fans came all the way from England and Scandinavia."
Kenton would have been pleased to know his music had not been forgotten in the age of rock. Not to say that the loud innovator died bitter over having lost out to four-piece rock groups.
"How could he have ever become a pessimist," asks Nimitz, "having had the bands he had?