Reads and re-reads: “Straight Ahead..The Story of Stan Kenton” by Carol Easton

“Wagon”

Composed and arranged by Johnny Richards.

Recorded by Stan Kenton and His Orchestra for Capitol on September 26, 1960 in Los Angeles.

Stan Kenton, piano, directing: John Audino, Bud Brisbois, Dalton Smith, Sam Noto, Steve Huffstetter, trumpets; Dick Hyde and Ray Sikora, tenor trombones; Jim Amlotte and Bob Knight, bass trombones; Albert Pollan, tuba; Dwight Carver, Joe Burnett, Bill Horan, Tom Wirte, mellophoniums; Gabe Baltazar, alto saxophone; Sam Donahue and Paul Renzi, tenor saxophones; Marvin Holloday, baritone saxophone; Wayne Dunstan, bass saxophone; Pete Chivily, bass; Artie Anton, drums.

I have read and re-read many books about music and musicians, jazz and otherwise. Most of these books are good, in that they do the basic job required, to impart basic information about their subject.There are unfortunately some books about these topics that are not good or even acceptable. We’ll not waste any time on them. And then there are books that impart the basic information, and for one reason or another go beyond that basic standard of acceptability. Carol Easton’s biography of Stan Kenton, “Straight Ahead…The Story of Stan Kenton,” is such a book.

Ms.Easton’s book, published first in 1973, goes far beyond the basic standard of quality for a number of reasons. First, it is beautifully written. The prose in this book is alive with colorful stories and anecdotes, each of which is presented in crystal-clear language. But beyond that, the book contains many insights about Stan Kenton as a human being that I simply have not found elsewhere. Ms.Easton told the truth about Stan Kenton in her book, and sometimes that was not very flattering to Mr. Kenton. On the other hand, what she said about Kenton provided great insight into his attitudes about music, bandleading and the road life. This in turn, made it easier to understand Kenton’s troubled home life, his various obsessions and neuroses, and his alcoholism. What is most astonishing is that Ms. Easton wrote and published this very frank biography while Kenton was still living and with his full cooperation. Kenton accepted on faith Ms.Easton’s assurance that the book would be honest. She kept her promise, and Kenton never once attempted to interfere with her work. Although her book is not a definitive, scholarly Kenton biography, it is nevertheless essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon that Stan Kenton was. I wholeheartedly recommend Carol Easton’s book.

Here is one of many insightful observations contained in the Easton book. This was written as Stan Kenton, in his early sixties, had returned to the road with his band after almost dying from an aneurysm, having major surgery, and coping with a drainage tube sticking out of an incision in his gut: “Years ago, a young Stan Kenton discovered that music could ease a persistent internal ache, and he willingly became its prisoner for life. Music gave him the realization of his generation’s classic success fantasy: fame, fortune, creative satisfaction.It gave him the power to turn on an entire generation, and gratified his voracious ego by making him a legend before he was forty. In return, it occupied his life like a conquering army, displacing three wives,two daughters, a son, the warmth and companionship of innumerable good people, a college education,well-loved homes,boats and a list of simple everyday pleasures too painful to recount. Not to mention his youth and his health.”(*) Many artists have tunnel vision. They are single-minded, on a mission. To those outside their orbit, they often appear delusional. Stan Kenton was such an artist. His musical legacy, which is incredibly varied, is looked upon as a great gift to American music by some, and as an empty noise by others.

Kenton was a mass of contradictions, but that does not differentiate him from most of us. His relationship with swing was always fraught because he didn’t want to be compared with Basie, or Goodman, or any other master of the swing idiom. This created tensions between him and many of his musicians and arrangers. They wanted the Kenton band to swing, at least on occasion, and they were more than qualified to make that happen. Stan was ambivalent about swing. Nevertheless, on a number of occasions (happily many of those occasions have been recorded), the Kenton band did swing. The wonderfully colorful and vibrant Johnny Richards composition/arrangement “Wagon” is an excellent example.

A mellophonium.

The music: Even a quick glance at the personnel/instrumentation listed above will suggest immediately that the band that made this recording was no ordinary swing band. The five trumpets were a Kenton trademark, as were the mellophoniums, at least for a few years in the early to mid-1960s. The two bass trombones were unusual, as were the tuba and the bass saxophone. The thinking of composer/arranger Johnny Richards, probably was that he needed those low-voiced instruments to balance to some extent, the five trumpets. If one is skeptical about this band’s agility and ability to swing, just listen to the music. Stan Kenton was a masterful leader in that he knew how to and usually did facilitate the best possible performance from his bands.

After a brief, bright introduction played by the entire ensemble, we hear how arranger Johnny Richards mixes various of the instruments creating different sonorities. The mellophoniums are prominent. For purposes of this post, I will say simply that a four-man mellophonium section was used in this performance, and that the horns were in an alto register, acoustically nestled between the trumpets and trombones.(**) Trumpeter Sam Noto steps forward playing the first solo, really an obbligato, using a Harmon mute. Then, an arresting upward fanfare, with Bud Brisbois’s exciting high trumpet prominent, springs alto saxophonist Gabe Baltazar, into a brilliant and swinging jazz solo, the centerpiece of this performance (Baltazar is Hawaii’s gift to the jazz world, and a great talent.) Listen for the kaleidoscopic backgrounds Richard fashions to support Baltazar’s playing. They are the work of a master arranger. Trombonist Dick Hyde has a swinging solo, and then trumpeter Noto returns as the band swings this virtuoso arrangement to a close.

Alto saxophonist Gabe Baltazar.

 

(*) Straight Ahead…The Story of Stan Kenton, by Linda Easton, Morrow (1973), page 2.

(**) You can read more about mellophoniums here: http://www.middlehornleader.com/Kenton%20Mellophoniums.htm

The recording used for this post was digitally transferred and remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

 

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