“Opus in Pastels” (1941) and (1963) Stan Kenton

 

“Opus in Pastels”

Composed and arranged by Stan Kenton.

Recorded by Stanley Kenton and His Orchestra for C.P. MacGregor Transcription Service, Hollywood, CA, October 10, 1941.

Stanley Kenton, piano, directing: Jack Ordean, first alto saxophone; Bill Lahey, alto saxophone; Red Dorris and Ted Romersa, tenor saxophones; Bob Gioga, baritone saxophone; Al Costi, guitar; Howard Rumsey, bass; Marvin George, drums.

The story:

As those of you who visit swingandbeyond.com know, whenever I visit somewhere that is connected in some way to the history of the swing era, I seek out the places I know about from my study of the history of that time. One such place that I visited a couple of occasions in the 1980s and 1990s was Balboa, California, which is a peninsula adjacent to Newport Beach. The reason why Balboa was of interest to me was that I knew that the famous Rendezvous Ballroom was there until it burned to the ground in 1966. And to me, the Rendezvous Ballroom will always be synonymous with the beginnings of the Stan Kenton band.

By the time I got to Balboa for the first time in the late 1980s, the only thing that was there that related to the Rendezvous Ballroom was a plaque that is located on or adjacent to the site of the ballroom.

After I read the words on this plaque, I had an empty feeling. Those words were like the information on a death certificate: factual but devoid of anything that even remotely hinted at the humanity and vitality that made the Rendezvous Ballroom special.

I wandered blankly to the nearby beach and it was still wonderful, with people of all ages walking, sitting or lying on it. An old pier ran out about 500 feet into the Pacific. I walked out toward the end of it and looked back across the beach to where the Rendezvous Ballroom once stood, and imagined what it must have been like.

Looking across the beach at Balboa, California from Balboa Pier toward the Rendezvous Ballroom – around 1940. 

Here are some lightly edited excerpts from a piece with no by-line called When Newport Was Fun, which appeared in Newport Beach Magazine on November 19, 2011.This will provide some background about the Rendezvous Ballroom, and various activities around it:

“Newport’s allure as a party town stretches back at least to the 1920s. We can probably thank Henry Huntington. The tycoon had a knack for buying up cheap property in remote areas of Southern California, and then making a killing after he’d made the areas not so remote by running light rail tracks to them.

That’s what he and some partners did in Newport, and the Pacific Electric Red Car line followed 1905. The tracks were extended down the Balboa Peninsula the following year. (It became the southern terminus for the Pacific Electric Railway, connecting the beach at Balboa with downtown Los Angeles. The railway’s Red Cars connected Balboa with Los Angeles, a trip that took one hour.) Along with being a boon to the Newport Beach real estate market, it opened the sleepy beach town to tourism.

The Red Cars delivered visitors practically to the door of the Balboa Pavilion. It was built in 1906 specifically to draw leisure-oriented folks to the then nearly unoccupied peninsula. It did its job well. The Pavilion—which still looks much as it did then—became a destination for both sport fishermen, and to those fishing for the opposite sex at informal evening dances. 

A collage of photos of the Rendezvous Ballroom, probably from the late 1940s.

The Gazebo’s success was to be greatly exceeded by that of the Rendezvous Ballroom. Today, there is nothing but a historical plaque where the sprawling 4,000-capacity dancehall stood between Washington and Palm streets. But for decades it entirely lived up to its name, becoming ground zero for a good time.

Built in 1928, the Rendezvous had a 12,000-square-foot dance floor, and had no trouble filling it. The national magazine Look dubbed the Rendezvous “the Queen of Swing,” and many of the top big bands played there, including those of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Harry James and Gene Krupa. In 1941, Stan Kenton began a long association with the venue (which culminated in him owning the place for a while in the late1950s).

It’s not every peninsula that has its own dance: The exuberant Balboa, which is still popular with swing dancers worldwide, originated at the Rendezvous.

Howard Rumsey, who was Kenton’s bass player before becoming a legendary concert promoter, told Jazz Times magazine, ‘If you weren’t in Balboa during Bal Week, you weren’t living.’

He’s referring to the spring break tradition that took root in the 1930s. Most of the big band dances and other activities in Newport happened during the summer. It became a ghost town for much of the rest of the year. The exception was Easter week, when a summer’s worth of action would be jammed into one beer-laden mating dance of a week. It’s curious that Easter, which was adapted from pagan fertility rites, became the time for a revelry named Bal Week, so similar to the ancient Egyptian fertility god Baal.

The entrance to the Rendezvous Ballroom: Once inside, the young people of Balboa and environs would dance – a marvelous way to meet.

College kids, high school kids and anyone else aspiring to meet someone exciting made the Balboa peninsula their destination. Once school was out, youths from Orange County, Los Angeles and points beyond converged on Balboa, via the Red Car (until it was discontinued in 1940), or in jalopies, that so filled every street that emergency vehicles had trouble maneuvering through them.

Those vehicles were sometimes needed. Though Bal Week was surprisingly peaceful by modern standards, you don’t get that crush of people, alcohol and the sexes trying to impress each other without brawls, lifeguard tower topplings and would-be daredevils with broken pates to contend with.

The week was an annual madhouse, where every rental bungalow would be crammed with dozens of extra guests, while the human overflow slept on porches, in garages or carports and on the beach.

Bal Week was a mixed blessing, but a mix that worked for Newport. There weren’t that many year-round residents to be inconvenienced by the throngs, and the tax revenue from suntan oil sales alone probably more than made up for the cost to city services.”

The music: “Opus in Pastels” originated as the first “movement” of a four-part Suite for Saxophones written by Stanley Kenton in the period 1940-1941. This performance of it (1) was recorded before a live audience in the C.P. MacGregor (2) recording facility, which was located at 729 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. The voice introduction on this recording is by Jimmy Lyons.(3)

 The Kenton saxophone section summer 1941 at the Rendezvous Ballroom. L-R: Ted Romersa, Hollis Bridwell, Jack Ordean, Red Dorris, Bob Gioga.

Over the years, much has been made of the supposed influence the Jimmie Lunceford band had on the early music of Stan Kenton. Kenton had met Lunceford several years before he (Kenton) became a bandleader, had heard Jimmie’s band, and was generally familiar with their music. In addition, the Lunceford band played a one-nighter at the Rendezvous Ballroom in the summer of 1941, while the Kenton band was playing a summer-long engagement there. Here is what Kenton himself had to say about that: “(The Lunceford influence) wasn’t intended, but several people have said (that it was so). I think probably there was some similarity. We were close for a bit, but he didn’t have anything to do with me musically. We had been friends and had seen each other socially.” (4)

In this early performance of “Opus in Pastels,” I hear no Lunceford influence. In fact, the vertical, sometimes staccato phrasing often employed by the saxophones in this performance is quite different from the fluid, horizontal legato phrasing generally used by Lunceford’s saxophone quintet in 1941. (At right: L-R: Carlos Gastel, Kenton’s manager, Kenton, and Jimmie Lunceford, pictured at the Rendezvous Ballroom in the summer of 1941.)

It cannot be said that the music we hear in this performance swings, as the word “swing” was commonly used in 1941, or indeed today. More than one musician who worked with Kenton in the 1940s has said Stan had his musicians deliberately play in a manner that did not swing. My opinion is that in 1941, Kenton was seeking various musical devices that would identify his band, and set it apart from other bands. As Kenton’s music became recognizable to the public through the 1940s, he did play music that did swing, at least to some degree. But he never limited himself to swing in his overall approach to his music.

I also think that this early, highly stylized performance of “Opus in Pastels,” to some extent at least, interfered with the actual beauty of Kenton’s melody. My informed speculation is that Stan himself recognized this as the years passed. Kenton audiences always requested to hear “Opus in Pastels,” and Stan allowed his approach to it to evolve toward a legato phrasing by the saxophones, contrasted with attractive, melodic (though forceful) piano by Kenton that allowed the melody to be elevated and celebrated in a flowing, romantic way, which it most certainly deserved.  Kenton’s 1963 recording performance of “Opus in Pastels,” played by the saxophones in legato fashion against a gentle, insinuating bossa nova rhythm, with richly voiced, though softly played trombone cascades placed strategically, is a perfect example of that mature approach.

“Opus in Pastels”

Composed and arranged by Stan Kenton.

Recorded by Stan Kenton for Capitol on April 17, 1963 in Los Angeles.

Stan Kenton, piano, directing: Gabe Baltazar, first alto saxophone; Steve Marcus and Ray Florian, tenor saxophones; Jack Nimitz and Joel Kay, baritone saxophones; Bob Fitzpatrick, Kent Larsen and Gil Falco, tenor trombones; Jim Amlotte, bass trombone; Don Bagley, bass; Dee Barton, drums; Milt Holland and Frank Guerrero, Latin percussion.

Tag ending: 

On a later trip to Balboa, I wandered into the small park which lies adjacent to the area that once was the parking lot for the Rendezvous Ballroom. It is some distance away from the site where the ballroom stood. Near the old-fashioned gazebo (Balboa Gazebo) in that park, I found another historical marker. This one bore no official State of California or Orange County seal. The words on its top plaque suggest some link between Stan Kenton and the Balboa Gazebo. I am unaware of any connection between them. Nevertheless, this marker is more specific in recognizing Stan Kenton’s role in the history of the Rendezvous Ballroom in the summer of 1941. It apparently is a memorial placed by a devoted Kenton fan, albeit one who spelled saxophones “saxaphones.” Someone had backed their car into the marker, taking a chunk out of it. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Kenton had recorded “Opus in Pastels” previously on November 1, 1940.

(2) The C.P. MacGregor Company was a Los Angeles sound recording firm that was started in the 1920s by C.P. MacGregor. It continued operations until his death on December 5, 1968 at age 71. The company produced, recorded, and transcribed numerous radio commercials for business and politics, radio shows, public service announcements, educational and instructional recordings, training recordings for many large companies, interviews and speeches, and a wide variety of music as a sub-contractor for various record companies between the 1930s and 1970s.

By 1924 C.P. MacGregor was the manager of Brunswick Records for the San Francisco territory. This was probably the same MacGregor who later made custom records issued by the MacGregor and Ingram Recording Laboratories, a firm listed in San Francisco’s 1930 and 1931 phone books. From 1932 to 1937 the company was called MacGregor and Sollie.  C.P. MacGregor Studios were located at 729 S. Western Avenue, Hollywood, CA.

(3) James L. Lyons was born in Beijing, China, in 1916 of Presbyterian missionary parents. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1922. In the 1930s, Jimmy decided on a career in radio, which was then experiencing a period of exponential growth. He wanted to be a disc jockey.  After finishing his education in Southern California, Lyons became a radio personality in Santa Ana, and soon was drawn to jazz. His enthusiasm caught the attention of Stan Kenton, and he became Kenton’s remote announcer when the Kenton band band played at the Rendezvous Ballroom. Lyons went on to be the founder (in 1958) and then general manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival for 35 years.

(4) The Kenton Kronicles …A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton, by Steven D. Harris (2002), 6.

Here is a link to a latter-day Kenton performance of a tune called “Wagon,” that features mellophoniums, and some fine jazz:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/08/12/reads-and-re-reads-straight-ahead-the-story-of-stan-kenton-by-carol-easton/

 

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4 Comments

  1. Loved this post, Mr. Zirpolo. Great history of a rendezvous spot on Newport Beach during an Easter break and throughout the rest of the year. I remember so looking forward to the spring break during my college years. I never went to a coastal beach like Ft. Lauderdale but I did go to Geneva on the Lake (Ohio) on the north coast. Any jazz bands playing there?

  2. As a high school junior in 1954 in San Diego, I spent Easter break (Bal Week) in a rented bungalow on Balboa Peninsula with three buddies. Your description of the action is essentially accurate, which my photos taken at the time validate. This also was the time when West Coast jazz could be heard everywhere, from portable radios on the beach to those great sounds pouring out of the rentals onto the streets and alleyways of the Peninsula. To this day, when I hear the sounds of Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, et al, I recall that great Bal Week.

    Roger Brenes

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