Arts: Stan Kenton: the shock of the new

He died 20 years ago today, but jazz needs his pioneering spirit more than ever.
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The Independent Culture
Twenty years ago today Stan Kenton died. Where there was once the multi-decibel roar of his orchestra, the screech of dissonance and the clamour of controversy, suddenly there was silence. And it has remained that way ever since. Somehow Kenton has pulled off an unusual feat. Unlike the artist who labours in obscurity during his or her lifetime, only to become recognised after death, Kenton has reversed the process. Today, it's almost as if he was never here.

Yet for three decades Kenton was a ubiquitous figure on the jazz landscape, a larger than life personality - he was 6ft 8in tall - who seemed to impose himself on jazz by the sheer magnitude of his ideas. Everything about him, including his music, was Brobdingnagian. Not for sensitive souls, a performance by his orchestra could be a cathartic experience. "He had us blowing so loud we couldn't believe it," his drummer John Van Ohlen once said, "There were times when I felt that the world was coming to an end!"

Continually pursuing the elusive goal of modernism, Kenton largely handed the destiny of his orchestra to a series of composers and arrangers, so at times large swathes of his repertoire showed little or no unity; indeed, there were occasions when some ideas and ideals were not only wildly different but also incompatible. Yet despite this apparent lack of focus, Kenton's faith in old-fashioned futurism produced some music that was excellent, even importantly original.

If the new and different were Kenton's guiding lights, then no piece of music exemplified this more than City of Glass, a four-part work composed and arranged by the delphic Robert Graettinger. To say that the piece was ahead of its time is an understatement. At its debut at the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1948, a capacity audience greeted the piece in stunned silence until Kenton, displaying a remarkable presence of mind, leapt in front of his band and with a dramatic gesture signaled for his players to take a bow. The baffled audience responded with a huge ovation.

City of Glass is one of the great, if misunderstood, extended compositions in jazz. Neither middle-brow or high-brow, but aimed well over the heads of most of Kenton's fans, it was berated by the critics for its "classical" aspirations. But this uniquely conceived piece had no precedent in either classical music or jazz, so there was no context in which to situate it. In fact, the endorsements of many great jazz musicians for such experimentation - Coleman Hawkins was one who praised the work - made tart contrast to the critics' instant dismissals.

Today, however, the conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller has hailed City of Glass for its striking originality and points out that in its multi-layered complexity, textural density and at times non-tonal language, Graettinger anticipated many of the European and American avant garde experiments of the 1950s and 1960s. After the comedian Mort Sahl heard the piece, he told his audiences how he went to see the Kenton band at a nightclub. "A waiter accidentally dropped a tray and three couples got up to dance," he quipped.

If Sahl's humour summed up Kenton's reputation for outre experimentation at this time, it is nevertheless to the bandleader's credit that he discovered and supported a young, and at the time, totally unknown talent which, with the passage of time, appears touched by genius. Yet surprisingly, Kenton himself was a reluctant leader, considering himself too tall, awkward and tongue-tied to front a band.

But charisma, infectious enthusiasm and his sheer physical presence made him a natural for the role. After establishing his reputation at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California in the early Forties, he never looked back. When Count Basie heard a Kenton broadcast, he told his band: "That is the new king!" Kenton gave his all, and his musicians responded with the zeal of men working for a mission rather than a weekly paycheck. But the transition from dance band existentialism to the concert platform clearly required something more than a pile of new arrangements. It needed a vision that saw beyond the jazz conventions of the day. Here Kenton was helped by the likes of composers and arrangers such as Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards and, briefly, Gerry Mulligan.

Various editions of his band came and went through the 1940s and into the 1970s, often pioneering challenging new directions for the large jazz orchestra and advancing the art of jazz in the process: the "Artistry in Rhythm" band; the 40-piece "Innovations Orchestra" that included a string section; the "Progressive Jazz" of the "New Concepts in Artistry in Rhythm" band; and the "New Era in Modern Music" band of the Sixties.

It was the latter band that produced Adventures in Blues, re-released on CD this week. Here the compositions and arrangements are provided by the long-time Kenton associate and multi-instrumentalist, Gene Roland. Among Kenton's finest albums, it is a reminder of how little Kenton material has found its way onto compact disc. While the re-issue of back catalogue has grown in recent years from a cottage industry to big business, with every last burp and squeak by other leading lights of the jazz world in danger of being enshrined in the digital format, the vast majority of Stan Kenton's recorded legacy still lies in the vaults.

This appears strange, particularly when Kenton can be said to have achieved so many of his goals. In 1959, he brought jazz education into the classroom in schools and colleges all over America (it is only now happening in the UK); he used his high profile to claim respect for jazz as an art form; he helped move jazz out from the nightclub and onto the concert stage; and he was among the first to see the value of a synthesis of jazz and classical music.

Now more than ever, Kenton's best albums needs to be heard, if only as a wake-up call to American jazz, which is in danger of relinquishing its pioneering spirit in favour of virtuostic recapitulation. In this period of unnerving conservatism and conformity, Kenton's music still sounds shockingly new. The provocative fantasias of the "Innovations" orchestra or the darkly moving tone colours of the Adventures in Blues album are the perfect antidote to easy grooves of complacency, and rote solos. It's all quite modern, really.

`City of Glass' is on Capitol Jazz 7243 8 32084-2; `Adventures in Blues' is on Capitol Jazz 7243 5 20089-2