Friday, January 12, 2007

Stan Kenton - A Merry Christmas!

Here's a telling quote from my yuleblog entry two days ago:

"It's hard to find newer obscurer new releases in a town of 225,000 (like Fort Wayne). You don't find many stores stocking their shelves the way they do like in New York, Indianapolis, or Chicago."

Case in point: Billy Idol released a Christmas album last year. On our family trip to Chicago a month ago, I found this title in nearly every store I visited (with the hefty $25 price tag attached).

Every music store in Fort Wayne didn't carry the album. One clerk awoke from his slacker haze long enough to look shocked and state dismissively "Billy Idol didn't record a Christmas album, man!"

For a collector, living in a medium-to-small town can be rough. For a Christmas music collector whose time window is three months out of the year, it's disastrous.

However the Borders store in Fort Wayne really stepped up this year. Their well organized Christmas section was the first good sign on my first visit to their store. Their selection of catalog titles actually improved over years past (another good sign). It was the first time I saw a copies of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "The Best Of Christmas" and Christmas Remixed 2" anywhere in my home town.

Hoping my first visit wasn't a fluke, I returned to the store two weeks before Christmas. The store was bustling with shoppers, several displays of books and CDs were picked over and disheveled. I was fearing the worst when I discovered the Christmas section was still organized well and they actually kept the selection up (call the manager - I want to say thanks!).

I then noticed this album in their feature display racks above the bins with a small printed description. Cue the game show bells and whistles because we HAVE A WINNER!!!

I never knew this existed on CD - it has slipped through the cracks since its release in 2003. Why I never spotted this before on any of my annual Christmas trips to Chicago is beyond me. So to find this in a vastly improved store in my home town are bonuses that make the purchase all the more worth it.

No great segue today: when you think of the great big bands of our time, you immediately think of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller. When you think of jazz artists, you think of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, or the Marsalis brothers (Wynford & Branford).

Stan Kenton is a name that never goes toward the top of those lists - which is a pity because Kenton was a pioneer in the progressive jazz category. His career was marked with controversy because of his refusal to compromise his idea of jazz to please both the critics and the public. His entire career was a series of experiments - some worked, some didn't.

Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas and moved to California in his life. He began studying the piano as a boy and played piano in dance orchestras right out of high school in the 1930s. Kenton credits the famed pianist Earl Hines and bandleader Jimmie Lunceford as early influences during these early years on the road.

In 1941, Kenton decided to form his first orchestra and it was a struggle to find an audience. His sidemen weren't well known or stood out when they played (like a Gene Krupa or Harry James), the band made several recordings for Decca Records that didn't sell well, and for a brief time, Kenton and his orchestra were Bob Hope's backup radio band. It was a lousy fit and both Stan and Bob knew it. Bob permanently chose Les Brown & His Band of Renown as his orchestra and Kenton & Co. were on the street.

Things began to change after World War II ended. The big band era was beginning to fade and many orchestras disbanded. That's when Pete Rugolo came to work for Kenton. Like Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington with arranging and composing, Rugolo was for the same for Stan - both feeded off the other and their music improved vastly.

Kenton's sound at this time was so far removed from anything else on the block. Influenced by Afro-Cuban and Latin rhythms with arrangements by Kenton, Rugolo, and Lennie Niehaus (who has composed many Clint Eastwood film scores) to name a few, the powerful brass sections, the saxophones taking the lead, and a love of experimentation mixed together with jazz led to a sound that at times overwhelmed the dance halls and ballrooms they played.

Some claim "The Wall Of Sound" was first invented here and not by Phil Spector!

Just as people were catching on to what Kenton was attempting to do, Kenton disbanded his orchestra in 1949 and took a year off. When he returned, he formed a 40-piece orchestra that included strings, woodwinds, and two French horns and called it "Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra". The music they played ranged from standards to all out jam sessions. Many leading jazz figures (Maynard Ferguson, Art Pepper, June Christy, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan) took part in this experiment, all contributing new experimental sounds and scores.

The public and the critics didn't know what to make of it. After two costly and unsuccessful tours, Kenton took more time off to rethink his next project. He scaled back to the usual 19-piece orchestra and gathered most of his old band mates from the early days and tried to resurrect the old sound with a beat.

This period in the early 1950s is referred to his "swinging" years - it produced many of his more commercially successful albums like "Kenton In Hi-Fi" and "Cuban Fire!". Although his records were selling, critical acclaim still alluded him.

After a successful 1956 European tour, Kenton returned to the United States and found the Critics Poll in Down Beat reflected victories by African-American musicians in virtually every category. Stan dispatched a telegram which lamented "a new minority, white jazz musicians," and stated Kenton's "complete and total disgust [with the] literary geniuses of jazz."

Bad move, Stan. Many critics pointed to his losses in the Critics Poll - a case of sour grapes. Some cried racism and pointed to the lack of African-Americans he had hired over the years. Some critics virtually dismissed Kenton and his music.

Kenton revamped his orchestra once again for his final big band experiment. In the middle 1950s, the Conn Corporation began to produce their version of the mellophone, a difficult instrument to play and keep in tune. Stan and his mellophonium orchestra found a whole new sound that caught the public's ear in 1960 (and further confusing the critics).

Around this time, Capitol Records asked Kenton to try his hand at a Christmas album. Stan was heavily involved in the making of his "Romantic Approach" album at the time and gave Capitol the proviso that it wouldn't be a frivolous effort; only serious Christmas material would be considered and no contemporary songs with red nosed reindeers or snowman need apply.

Capitol agreed and suggested Kenton use Ralph Carmichael to begin arranging the album. Carmichael was one of the great Capitol arrangers in their heyday and had arranged for Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, and even Stan Freberg! Carmichael's first project at Capitol many years before was Nat King Cole's very first Christmas album so Kenton knew he had the right man.

Their work together produced a memorable Christmas album that hasn't lost one ounce of its vitality and freshness 46 years after the fact. If you like brass and snappy arrangements, look no further than this album. The instrumental versions of standard Christmas carols just leap off the speakers, grab you by the collar, and takes you on a wild ride!

"Once In Royal David's City" is a perfect example. This usually dull Christmas carol just explodes with sound, vibrancy, and swing - Kenton's orchestra sounds fan-damn-tastic on this track and all the rest. After hearing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" on this album, you'll never want to hear another version. "O Holy Night" clocks in just over 2 minutes but never loses any of its impact or resonance. It's great, great stuff!

How do you top all of this off? How about two bonus tracks that add the cherry atop the sundae.

The first is "What Is A Santa Claus?" - a single issued in 1963 that features a wonderful arrangement by Carmichael and a wonderful narration by Kenton explaining the wonders of St. Nick. I tried to find the lyrics to this gem online but came up empty... so:

The other bonus track comes from a Kenton alumnus - Maynard Ferguson. After Stan disbanded the "Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra", Ferguson left for Hollywood where he was a studio musician for Paramount Pictures. He began his recording career with his "Dream Band" and played a chart called "Christmas For Moderns" for many years but never recorded it.

Finally in 1960, Ferguson went to Roulette Records and recorded it in October, 1960 just in time for Christmas. The only problem was Roulette didn't cut the hole on the 45 large enough. Radio stations who tried to make it fit on their turntables wound up with broken records coast to coast. It's presented here - all 7:07 of pure Christmas magic.

Kenton began to cutback on his orchestra around 1963. He brought in younger soloists coming up through the ranks instead of established players and the sound wasn't the same. However, Kenton had found his calling. Stan began holding clinics on jazz education, offering his charts to colleges and high-school bands. He continued to perform with his orchestra with the younger, up and coming artists, furthering their education in music.

Along the way, Stan continued to experiment with his sound and style. In the late 1960s, Kenton attempted a big band version of the Broadway smash "Hair" that was widely panned by the public and critics. Anyone out there have a copy?

By the time the world had caught up to Kenton and realized his genius, he was felled by a stroke and died on August 25, 1979.

Mark this one down on your list if you don't have it... and I hope you have a better time finding it than I did!

UP NEXT: It's about to git funky up in da yuleblog!



stubbysfears said...

I was turned on to Stan by Charlie Warwick, the keyboard player for Sonny Kenn & The Wild Ideas.

Sonny Kenn, for the many who don't know, was the guy Bruce Springsteen used to wait in line to see. I won't say Sonny invented the Asbury Park sound but...well, alright, I WILL say it.

To my knowledge, Sonny's still jamming on the Jersey Shore.

Charlie said he'd love to create Raspberries type pop music played in a Stan Kenton style, but he didn't figure anyone would get it.

CaptainOT said...

Stubby - Now I have to search for Sonny Kenn stuff! Thanks for the additional info!


Ernie said...

Years ago, I listened to this music on vinyl, and didn't find anything interesting. Maybe I should revisit it...

tonymadejczyk said... it okay if I just click over to Amazon instead of driving all over town? 8-)

BTW, 2 reviewers said the sound quality was sub-par. How did the fidelity sound to you, Cap'n?

FYI: 2006 was the first year I used iTunes to search for Christmas music. I found some stuff I'll probably use next year. Like Ringo Starr.

CaptainOT said...

Tony - I've never been a technical guy... I wouldn't know good fidelity from bad to be honest.
Were their glitches in the noise reduction? Was it unbalanced in this or that? I don't know...

From what I heard from the Kenton CD was nothing but good sound.

This should put me in good stead in a few days when I review the controversial remastered version of "A Charlie Brown Christmas"!


poppajoe said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and saw the request for a copy of "Hair" by Stan Kenton. I have an LP, (slightly warped)that I bought in the 60's, along with "A Merry Christmas" and a few more.

"Hair" is on Capital Records ST305.

I hope this isn't old news

CaptainOT said...

Poppajoe - Thanks for the info on the notorious "Hair" album...

I really didn't want a copy per se - I was merely jesting about it.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!


Jeff said...

Hello, this album is classic.

My Father was a jazz man all of life.

Kenton Merry Christmas was on radio one night. He went and bought two albums on way home. Gave one to neighbour same Christmas.

The album was worn out years later and he always regretted not buying more.

His story is ... Kenton band was just off long tour and tired. The cut was not up to Kenton standard. They pulled the album in the end with limited distribution. Now, with internet of course, you can get anywhere.

I believe this to be true. You can hear spots where they are clearly out of tune.

Nonetheless, best big band Christmas album ever produced.