Stan Kenton Day

December 15, 1911 – August 25, 1979

A tribute to the innovative if controversial bandleader

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Bandleader, arranger and pianist Stanley Newcomb “Stan” Kenton was born December 15, 1911 in Wichita, Kansas.

He grew up in Colorado and, by 1924, Southern California where he started playing piano.

Kenton had a variety of musical jobs in the 1930s including playing solo piano at a hamburger restaurant, leading the “Bel Tones,” and working with the big bands of Gus Arnheim (with whom he made his recording debut) and Vido Musso.

His piano style was influenced by Earl Hines and although not a virtuoso, Kenton was able to make a living as a pianist-arranger; however he dreamt of leading his own big band.

Kenton goal was to perform adventurous concert music for audiences that sat down and listened rather than danced and, while it took some time, he eventually achieved his goal.

Starting in 1941 and continuing up until his death in 1979, Kenton led a series of challenging orchestras that, while having occasional hits, emphasized advanced arrangements played by top-notch musicians.

His first band in the summer of 1941 played regularly at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA and built up a strong regional following.

While working as Bob Hope’s backup radio band during 1943-44 was not satisfying, signing a contract with Capitol in 1943 (which resulted in his first hit “Eager Beaver”) really launched Kenton’s career.

The Artistry In Rhythm band of the mid-1940s (named after his stirring theme song) featured Pete Rugolo arrangements and made Kenton into a national name.

Among the many other Kenton Orchestras were ones named Progressive Jazz (1947-48), his somewhat forbidding and very expensive Innovations In Modern Music Orchestra (1950-51) which included a full string section, his New Concepts of Artistry In Rhythm (an all-star and mostly swinging ensemble during 1952-53), and his Mellophonium Orchestra of 1961-62.

While many of his sidemen during 1945-65 became major soloists and arrangers on the West Coast and cool jazz scenes, Kenton’s bands after 1965 mostly spawned educators who invigorated the jazz education movement.

Throughout his career, Kenton encouraged young arrangers to write for his band (including Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Gene Roland and Johnny Richards) and he was a father figure to scores of top musicians, staying active until shortly before his death and consistently creating unique music that, while sometimes bombastic, always had the Kenton sound.

Here is the 1962 Stan Kenton Orchestra performing “Malaguena.”

-Scott Yanow

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