“Eager Beaver” (1943) Stan Kenton

“Eager Beaver”

Composed and arranged by Stan Kenton.

Recorded on November 19, 1943 for Capitol in Hollywood, California.

Stanley N. Kenton, piano, leading: Marion “Buddy” Childers, Karl George, Ray Borden, John Carroll, Dick Morse, trumpets; Harry Forbes, George Faye, tenor trombones; Bart Varsalona, bass trombone; Eddie Meyers, Art Pepper, alto saxophones;  Red Dorris, Maurice Beeson, tenor saxophones; Bob Gioga, baritone saxophone; Bob Ahern, guitar; Clyde Singleton, bass; Joe Vernon, drums.

The Story:  Stanley Newcombe Kenton (1911-1979) was always an imposing presence, both personally and musically. The young saxophonist Art Pepper, who later had a major career as a jazz soloist, began his musical career in Kenton’s band. Here is how he recalled Kenton: “Stan Kenton was incredible. He reminded me a lot of my dad. Germanic, with the blonde straight hair. He was taller than my dad was; I think Stan was about six feet three, and slender. Clothes hung on him beautifully. He had long fingers, a long hawk-like nose, and a very penetrating gaze. He seemed to look through you. It was hard to look him in the eye, and most people would look away and become uncomfortable in his presence. And just like my dad, he had presence. When he spoke, people listened. He was a beautiful speaker, and had the capacity to communicate with an audience, and adapt to any group of people.”  (Art Pepper, “Straight Life” (19), Schirmer Books.)

The music of all of his bands from the early 1940s until the late 1970s was distinctively different from the music of other bands, something Kenton worked very hard to achieve. First of all, it was loud. Kenton used five trumpets from practically the very beginning. Kenton also greatly expanded the role of the trombone section in the swing idiom. And he used a rhythmic approach, centering around the use of staccato phrasing, that was different from the flowing, relaxed rhythms of most of the best swing bands. This made it somewhat difficult to dance to the music of the Kenton band. Also, Stan could be rather melodramatic when leading his earliest bands, leaping about and waving his long arms, in an effort to whip up enthusiasm.

The Kenton band debuted on June 6, 1941 at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, a venue that had been and would continue to be important to Kenton for many years. Most of the arrangements played by the earliest Kenton band had been written by Stan himself. Among those arrangements was “Eager Beaver,” which is presented here. It provides a glimpse of what Kenton was trying to achieve musically in his band’s earliest years. He gave an interview in a magazine called Band Leaders, shortly after the time of the first Rendezvous engagement in which he explained what he was doing: “The band was originally designed, through both orchestration and presentation, to thrill as much as possible. I strove for flash and wanted every arrangement, whether slow or fast tempo, to be a production in itself. Everything was written to swing to a driving beat. Spirit and enthusiasm had to predominate at all times. I wanted to play the strongest swing possible, and yet to present swing in as elevated a manner as I could. I figured that 11:30 to midnight gave us our high period. Our climax was so complete at that time of night, that had you touched any kid in the audience, I think he would have thrown off sparks.”

Clearly, the elements were in place from the very beginning of the Kenton band to make audiences take notice. As one might expect, Kenton and his music became somewhat controversial, because it was so different from swing era norms, and Stan himself became somewhat controversial because of his messianic approach to presenting his music to audiences. (The entire story of Stan Kenton and his music is a very interesting one, and it is well-told in the book The Kenton Kronicles, by Steven D. Harris (2000), Dynaflow Publications. I must also mention that some of the information and photos in this post came from the excellent four-CD set called The Stan Kenton Story, issued in 2000 by Proper Records, in England. That set contains extensive notes by Kenton expert Joop Visser, a discography, and many of Kenton’s early recordings.)

Stan Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas, moved as an infant with his parents Floyd and Stella (Newcombe) Kenton to Colorado where they lived for six years, and then finally relocated to Los Angeles in 1917. Stanley’s mother played piano, and occasionally gave lessons to children. His interest in music appeared early, and his mother sent him to a more accomplished musician than she for lessons. This was Frank Hurst, an organist in a Los Angeles theater. Hurst provided young Stanley with a solid musical foundation which included not only piano performance lessons, but an understanding of music theory, harmony and composition as well. Hurst was the perfect musical mentor for Kenton, and their teacher-pupil relationship lasted until Stanley was in his mid-teens. By then, he had been exposed to jazz recordings of early masters of the idiom, including Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Benny Carter. By the time Stanley was in his mid-teens, his overall interest in music had become somewhat obsessive.

Stanley played saxophone in his high school band for only the first two years he was there. He spent his second two years continuing his private study of music, and beginning to use the natural leadership skills he had. These emerged quite early. In 1928, as a junior in high school, he founded a popular music sextet called the Bell-Tones. (The Kenton family lived in the Bell section of Los Angeles, and Stan went to Bell High School.) That same year, he sold his first musical arrangement. He was class president in his senior year. He graduated from Bell High School in 1930.

He did many small-time musical jobs in Los Angeles from high school graduation (spring 1930) until September 1931, when he first joined Everett Hoagland’s territory band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. It is unclear how long he stayed on this first employment with Hoagland, but he was back at the Rendezvous with the same band after a hiatus for the summer 1933 season. By that time, the Hoagland ensemble had become the house band there. Kenton’s association this time lasted almost a year. In the 1935 summer dance season at the Rendezvous, the band there was led by clarinetist Russ Plummer. Kenton, along with many other Hoagland holdovers, joined the Plummer band. Among the other sidemen in this band were tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, and drummer Spike Jones.

Stan and Violet, 1940, at Idlewild.

In March of 1936, Kenton joined the established and nationally-known Gus Arnheim band. Much of the time he was with Arnheim was spent in New York City, where he made some recordings with Arnheim. He remained with Arnheim until the fall of 1937, when he returned to Los Angeles. There he resumed studying piano technique and musical theory, this time with Charles Dalmores. He worked a variety of musical jobs in Los Angeles in 1938, but by 1939 was steadily employed in various musical capacities at the Earl Carroll Theater in Hollywood, working on various productions staged there. This lasted until August of 1940, when he began assembling a rehearsal band that would eventually become his first band. Then Stanley, and his wife Violet, whom he married in 1935, retreated to a cabin resort called Idlewild in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, where he began composing and arranging music for what he hoped would be his own working, full-time band. “Eager Beaver” was created there.

The music: “Eager Beaver” is one of Kenton’s earliest compositions. It provides a good early glimpse of what Kenton was up to musically in the early 1940s. After a four-bar introduction where bold brass and reeds are heard, Kenton steps out presenting the exposition of the simple, catchy melody of “Eager Beaver” on piano. Despite much study and experience, Kenton was never a virtuoso pianist. But he was a competent band pianist who could play an acceptable jazz chorus when that was required. Here he repeats the first two eight-bar segments of the main theme, and follows with the bridge, then the reeds and brass finish the first chorus. Note the use of “oo-wah” in the brass. This effect is created by the trumpet/trombone players either cupping their hands or using a small toilet plunger in front of the bell of their instruments, and “fanning,” with the “oo” effect being created when the cupping is near the bell, and the “wah” effect coming when the cupping is flexed away from the bell.

The tenor saxophone solo that comes next is played by Red Dorris (pictured at right), whose robust, big sound clearly was modeled on those of Coleman Hawkins, the “father” of the tenor saxophone (at least in the jazz world), and Vido Musso, one of Hawkins’s earliest and most forceful stylistic adherents, who was one of the best (though not well-remembered) early tenor saxophone swingers. Dorris undoubtedly heard Hawkins’s playing on records, while he most certainly heard Musso, a Los Angeles musician, in-person, and also probably on the records he made in 1936 and 1937 with Benny Goodman’s highly popular band. Despite a couple of minor intonation glitches, Dorris creates a very effective 16-bar jazz solo.

Following Dorris, the Kenton band itself shines, with excellent ensemble playing, effective use of dynamics, and a building, explosive finale.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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