The Creative World of Stan Kenton

May 13, 2023

Beginning with Back to Balboa, a four-day celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Stan Kenton Orchestra that took place in Newport Beach in 1991, producer Ken Poston has presented over 40 multi-day events with themes centering around individuals such as Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, Terry Gibbs, Bill Holman and Frank Sinatra, as well as celebrations of genres of jazz like West Coast Jazz, Bebop, West Coast Big Bands, East Coast Sounds, Latin Jazz, International Big Bands, Broadway Music, and Jazz Vocalists of the West Coast in the 1950s.  

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and “The Creative World of Stan Kenton” was the final event in this remarkable series. It was held at Los Angeles’ Four Points Sheraton LAX in late May. There are several factors that have brought about this sad reality.  The primary audience for this music has been, as they say, of a certain age.  Attrition through death, infirmity and increasing stress on financial resources have impacted attendance.  A major attraction at the events was the participation of musicians who had been a part of the area of concentration for particular events.  The availability of these musicians also decreased for reasons similar to those that affected attendance.  Finally, the expense of putting on these events, which were held at a variety of hotels, has increased to a point where the decreasing attendance no longer covered the costs involved in making them happen.

The activities actually kicked off on Thursday, May 25 with a special event at the Balboa Pavilion in Balboa Beach. A presentation about Kenton was given at the Rendezvous Ballroom, the venue where the band debuted in 1941, followed by a concert featuring Joe Coccia arrangements from the Rendezvous with Kenton album that was recorded at the Rendezvous Ballroom in 1957.  Kim Richmond led the band on a program that included tunes such as “With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair,” “They Didn’t Believe Me”, and “Walkin’ By the River”, among others. 

Each of the three days started with a program of rare Kenton-related films from the collection of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute.  Poston, LAJI Founder and Director, has been diligently accumulating a remarkable archive of materials relating to West Coast Jazz that includes those he presented at this event.

Poston also prepared a series of five presentations titled “Artistry in Rhythm and The Bob Hope Show,” “Pete Rugolo: The Architect,” “The 1948 Hollywood Bowl Concert,” “Youngblood: The Music of Gerry Mulligan” and “The 1953 European Tour and Howard Lucraft’s Jazz International.”  During each presentation, Poston, a walking encyclopedia of jazz history with a particular in-depth knowledge of West Coast Jazz, included photos and recordings that enhanced his enlightening commentary.  

Another feature of these events is a series of panel discussions.  This time, there were three panels. The first, presented by Robert Morgan and Mike Vax, was an exploration of “Stan Kenton and the Explosion of Jazz Education.”  Kenton was the first jazz musician who took a personal interest in formal jazz education.  Through contacts with Dr. Gene Hall and Leon Breeden at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), NTSU became the first college to offer a Jazz Studies program in 1947.

Kenton established a summer clinic at Indiana University in 1959.  Kenton was also active doing clinics at high schools across the nation.  He eventually did more than 100 one-day clinics and four week-long summer clinics.  Vax and Gordon were excellent choices to present the pertinent information.  Gordon was an esteemed jazz educator.  He studied at the jazz program at North Texas State, then briefly taught at Sam Houston State before spending 23 years at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he mentored future jazz stars such as Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Eric Harland.  Trumpeter Vax was a student at the 1960 Kenton summer clinic.  He eventually joined the Kenton band in the lead trumpet chair and was on staff at some of the summer clinics.  He is currently is the director of the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra.

The other panels, The Sixties Alumni, comprising saxophonist Kim Richmond, trumpeter Mike Price, trombonist Jack Redmond and bass trombonist Kenny Shroyer, and The Seventies Alumni, with trumpeters Mike Vax and Clay Jenkins, saxophonists Al Yankee and Bob Crosby, and drummer Peter Erskine, were chock full of stories about the challenges of life on the road, their interactions with Kenton and many other moments filled with humor and insight.  

The panels have proven to be a popular feature of these events.  The fans are always interested in inside stories and the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists.

Of course, the main attraction is the music offered up at the concerts.  For this event, there were eleven concerts, most of them directly involving the recreation of the original charts from the various iterations of the Kenton Orchestra.  Those were “Artistry in Rhythm and Progressive Jazz,” “Innovations in Modern Music,” “Concerts in Miniature,” “Contemporary Concepts,” “Cuban Fire and More” and “The Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra.”  The other concerts were by The Bill Holman Big Band, The Steve Huffsteter Big Band, a tribute to the late trumpeter Carl Saunders by The Marina Pacowski-Scott Whitfield Quintet and the Kim Richmond Jazz Orchestra.

The first two Kenton-related concerts were led by Mike Vax.  

The first concert included songs from the early band, “Eager Beaver,” “Artistry Jumps” and “Come Back to Sorrento.”  The addition of Pete Rugolo as an arranger marked a new direction for the band, what became known as Progressive Jazz, as his more adventurous approach on songs like “Capitol Punishment,” “Artistry in Percussion,” “Unison Riff” and “Interlude” started moving the band more in the direction of a concert orchestra than a dance band.   The singular charts of Bob Graettinger were represented by “Thermopylae.”  

The second concert was mostly devoted to the next phase of Kenton’s evolution, and, included several charts from Shorty Rogers, who had moved into the trumpet section and became one of the bands primary arrangers, songs like “Round Robin,” “Sambo” and “Shorty’s Mambo.” 

Next up was a concert by the Bill Holman Big Band.  Holman has one of the best big bands on the scene today.  At the age of 96, he has some physical limitations, but his mind is lucid and he got onto the stage to lead the band through a ten-song set featuring his peerless arrangements.  He chose a program that included four of his originals, “Woodrow,” “No Joy in Mudville,” “The Primrose Path” and “Make My Day;” three Thelonious Monk compositions, “Misterioso,” “’Round Midnight” and “Friday the 13th;” Billy Strayhorn’s “Rain Check;” “Just Friends;” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Dizzy Atmosphere.”  Many attendees expressed their belief that this concert was as musically satisfying as one could desire.

The next two Kenton-centered concerts found Al Yankee, a saxophonist and arranger for Kenton in the 1970s, fronting the bands.   

During 1952 and 1953, the Kenton band broadcast live from the road in a series called Concert in Miniature.  The programs included a broad spectrum of songs from the Kenton catalog, including charts by two recent additions to the Kenton arranger roster, Gerry Mulligan, “Youngblood” and “Swing House;” and trombonist Bill Russo, “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” “Portrait of a Count” and “Frank Speaking,’ the latter two features for trumpeter Conte Candoli and trombonist Frank Rosolino respectively.  

The next concert centered on the Bill Holman charts from the Contemporary Concepts album, “Cherokee,” “What’s New,” “Yesterdays,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Stella by Starlight” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy;” plus three other Holman arrangements “Themes and Variations,” “Fearless Finlay” and “Kingfish.”

Trumpeter Steve Huffsteter led his band on a six-tune concert that featured six of his original compositions.  The band was tight and there were several fine soli, but the music never lit a flame, at least to my ears

Next up for the Kenton-centered concerts were two led by Kim Richman, a saxophonist on the late 1960s Kenton band.

Kenton, always looking for new approaches to his music, decided to add a four-man Mellophonium section to add a brass sound between the trumpets and the trombones.  He worked with the Conn company to adapt this instrument designed for marching bands to his needs.  The resulting horn was difficult to play in tune and most of the players on the Kenton band were primarily trumpet players who despised the instrument.  While this phase of the Kenton orchestra only lasted for a few years, they did record several albums with this orchestra, most notably Kenton’s West Side Story that won a Grammy.  The primary arrangers for this band were Johnny Richards, Gene Roland and Bill Holman.  This concert also concentrated on Holman arrangements including “Granada,” “What’s New,” “Stairway to the Stars,” “Tico Tico” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Also included were Roland’s “Dragonwyck” and a suite of selections from the West Side Story album, arranged by Richards.

In 2003, Richmond arranged music from Kenton’s Cuban Fire album for the Wide Range album by the Phil Norman Tentet.  Richmond led a ten-piece group playing that chart.  Since they had not had any rehearsal time, he had his players sight-read the chart and play through it once.  Amazingly, these cats are such excellent musicians that they sounded great the first time through, but Richmond had a few places that he felt needed improvement in execution, so he went over these observations and had the band play it a second time, this one met his standards.  It was an interesting opportunity for the audience to see what kinds of things the leader picks up in the rehearsal play through.  The concert was filled out with a Richmond arrangement of “You Stepped out of a Dream.”

Prior to this concert, the Marina Pacowski-Scott Whitfield Quintet honored the memory of trumpeter Carl Saunders, long a fixture at the events produced by Ken Poston.  Pacowski is a fine jazz singer who was joined by Whitfield on trombone, Jeff Colella on piano, Mike Gurrola on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums for a program of six tunes with music by Saunders and words by a variety of lyricists, “I Need a Dream,” a song written by Saunders’s uncle Bobby Sherwood, and “Up Jumped Spring,” a jazz classic by Freddie Hubbard and Abbey Lincoln.  Pacowski lets her jazz sensibility shine through in her vocalizing and she is a nimble and creative scat singer.  Whitfield is at the top of the list of my favorite trombone players.  The trio also excelled.

The final evening kicked off with a concert by the Kim Richmond Jazz Orchestra.  Richmond is an arranger and composer whose concepts are a bit too far out for my ears.  His reconception of “Artistry in Rhythm” that led off his set was the most accessible number on his program.  The final piece, titled “Crazy Ladies,” was like a cross between Charles Ives and Sauter-Finnegan.

The event ended with two scintillating sets by Mike Vax’s Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra.  Kenton stated that he did not want a ghost band that recycled his music.  Vax’s concept was to select as many players who had played on Kenton bands for his band, play some of the existing Kenton charts, but also create new music in the Kenton style, creating a band that would carry on the Kenton tradition of bringing fresh sounds to the audiences.  In addition, Vax wanted to continue the Kenton music education initiative by conducting clinics in high schools when the band goes out on tour.   Originally Vax organized the Mike Vax Big Band featuring alumni of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, but with the approval of the Kenton estate,  the band adopted the name The Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra.

As is their tradition, the SKLO opened the first set with “America the Beautiful“ and closed the set with the most requested Kenton piece, “The Peanut Vendor,” with all of the horns coming out into the audience to create a real surround sound.  In between, we heard the dynamically impressive Dee Barton arrangement of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” plus a few new charts on “Bolero,” “They’re Just Trying to Confuse Us and “Ice Castles.”  The second set opened with a Kenton classic, Ray Wetzel’s “Intermission Riff.”  Other selections included “Young at Heart,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Falling in Love with Love” and an original tune, “Africa.”  One of Kenton’s most ambitious undertakings was National Anthems of the World, a collection of original charts for 39 titles arranged by Bob Curnow.  Here they played the Czech National Anthem.  To close the evening and the event, Vax called for the exciting Bill Holman take on “Malagueña.”

When the event was completed, the general feeling was excitement for having been in attendance, but sadness that it was the last event of its kind.  Thanks to the commitment and knowledge of Ken Poston, this event, like those in the past, provided attendees experiences that were unique, educational and entertaining.  He plans on continuing producing concerts in the future, but on a much more modest scale, as he wants to continue putting to use in a public manner the vast library of materials in the LAJI collection.  You are encouraged to visit to find out more about the institute and consider becoming a member or making a contribution to help it remain a viable entity. –JOE LANG


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