Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 20, 2001


Years before progressive rock was the trend, Stan Kenton
spoke of his music as "progressive jazz" and was one of
the first to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythms into his
big-band jazz compositions.

Festival pays
tribute to Kenton

He remains one of the most
controversial figures in jazz


This weekend's tribute concerts to Stan Kenton, as part of the jazz festival, will honor one of the most controversial figures in jazz history and the first major jazz figure from the West Coast.

Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1911, the composer/arranger/pianist cut a striking figure: a rail-thin, 6-foot-6 man who conducted his orchestra with wild gestures.

He began his band in 1941, debuting in Balboa Beach, Calif., where he first garnered fame.

In postwar years, his music gained notoriety in bigger cities like Chicago and New York. He recorded for the Capitol label from 1943 to 1968. Among his early hits were "Artistry in Rhythm," "Eager Beaver" and "Tampico."

From the beginning, jazz fans were polarized by Kenton's style, either loving or hating it. The music was often loud, ostentatious, pompous and ponderous.

On the other hand, Kenton's music was also daring, exciting, inventive, virtuosic, sophisticated and unique. The players that went through his orchestra over the years loved him for his energy, enthusiasm, idealism, generosity and tenaciousness.

Years before progressive rock was the trend, Kenton spoke of his music as "progressive jazz." He was one of the first to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythms into his big-band compositions.

As the '50s began, his 39-piece "Innovations in Modern Music" orchestra used large string and wind sections. After this, he led what is widely regarded as his most swinging band.

In the early '60s, he featured an instrument of his own invention. The mellophonium was a brass instrument with a French horn tone with more projection and facility, used for ensemble work.

More than anyone, Kenton brought jazz education to schools nationwide by performing, giving clinics and making arrangements, or jazz orchestrations, available to high school and college bands.

Even though he used younger, mostly less accomplished - and less expensive - personnel from the mid-'60s on, veteran musicians associated with Kenton over the years were the cream of the West Coast crop. They included arrangers Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards, and vocalists Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor.

On the instrumental side, in addition to the artists appearing this weekend, there were trumpeters Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers and Conte Candoli; saxophonists Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Charlie Mariano and, for brief stints, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims; trombonists Kai Winding, Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana; and drummers Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis and Peter Erskine.

Besides Erskine and trumpeter Tim Hagans, Hawaii's Gabe Baltazar was the band's last major figure and great soloist. Kenton established his own Creative World label in 1970, well before artist-run independents were the norm.

A selected discography includes the 4-CD "Retrospective," the early '50s release "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm," "City of Glass/This Modern World" (adventurous big-band concert music and a particular favorite of Congressman Neil Abercrombie), "Cuban Fire," "Kenton/Wagner" (one monumental ego paying tribute to another, with excellent results) and two albums that feature Baltazar in particular, "West Side Story" (a modern jazz adaptation that composer Leonard Bernstein reportedly loved) and "Adventures in Jazz," which includes a classic feature for Baltazar, "Stairway to the Stars."

Kenton died in 1979.

Gary C.W. Chun and Seth Markow
contributed to this report.

8th Annual Hawaii
International Jazz Festival

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall and McKinley High Auditorium
When: 7 p.m. today through Saturday at the Blaisdell and 4 p.m. Sunday at McKinley
Tickets: $20, $35 and $40 per night (a multiple-day pass is available as well as special senior and military discounts, and student tickets are $5, with proof of ID required). Available at the Blaisdell Box Office and Ticket Plus outlets or charge by phone at 526-4400.

Today and tomorrow

Tribute to Stan Kenton: With Carmen Bradford and the USC Big Band and Nestor Torres (Friday) and The Four Freshmen, Bud Shank, the Marvin Stamm Duo and the San Diego State Big Band (Saturday). Other Kenton alumni on both nights include Gabe Baltazar, Bill Mays, Buddy Childers, Eddie Bert and Dick "Slyde" Hyde.


Parade of Big Bands: Featuring the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Gabe Baltazar and student scholarship winners, as well as the big bands from UH, USC and San Diego State, and the Oahu Junior Jazz Ensemble.

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