“Dragonwyck” (1961) Stan Kenton with Marvin Stamm, Gabe Baltazar and Gene Roland

“Dragonwyck”

Composed and arranged by Gene Roland.

Recorded by Stan Kenton and His Orchestra for Capitol on December 13, 1961 in Hollywood.

Stan Kenton, piano, directing: Dalton Smith, first trumpet; Bob Behrendt, Bob Rolfe, Norman Baltazar and Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Bob Fitzpatrick, first trombone; Dee “Captain Kangaroo” or “Walrus” Barton, Bud Parker, Jim Amlotte and Dave Wheeler; trombones; Dwight Carver (lead); Ray Starling, Keith Lamotte, Carl Saunders, mellophoniums; Gabe Baltazar, first alto saxophone; Buddy Arnold, Paul Renzi, tenor saxophones; Allen Beutler and Joel Kaye, baritone saxophones; Pat Senatore, bass; Jerry McKenzie, drums; Gene Roland, soprano saxophone soloist.

The story: The history of the mellophonium is much longer than commonly thought, and actually begins in the late 1800, with its antecedent, the mellophone. The mellophone evolved from its early design, with a rear or sideways facing bell similar to the French horn to what is called the marching mellophone, with a forward-facing bell. The reason for redesigning the bell to face forward was to project the horn’s sound toward audiences as opposed to down toward the floor. This permitted the musical quality of the horn to be more easily heard. The mellophone was and is commonly used in marching bands.(1)

Jazz musician Don Elliott (1926-1984) deserves much credit for making suggestions to the C.G. Conn Co. which ultimately resulted in the tubing leading to the horn’s large bell being on top of the instrument, giving it the appearance of an oversized trumpet. Although Stan Kenton played no role in redesigning the instrument, he became fascinated by the sound it produced in the late 1950s. In 1962, Kenton explained: “For some time, I recognized the need for using an instrument that would not only give the orchestra another solo voice, but would add more warmth and emphasis to the thematic line. The mellophonium has not only met all the preliminary requirements, but has also suggested intriguing new ways to shade and dramatize sound. My decision to use four mellophoniums didn’t just happen overnight. Nor are they gimmick instruments. Both the arranging staff and myself realized the need for an instrument that would capture the width of sound that virtually lay untouched between the trumpets and trombones. We first tried ten trumpets—five B flat and five E flat. They didn’t make it because it was impossible to distinguish any difference between the two instruments….After experimenting for two days with the flugelhorn, we were ready to give it up completely! Finally, the Conn Instrument Corporation learned that we were interested in locating a new brass instrument and asked us to try the mellophonium. After much experimentation and many preliminary rehearsals, the mellophonium became the answer we had been looking for.” (2)

The use of mellophoniums in Stan Kenton’s orchestra was controversial with both Kenton fans and with the musicians in the Kenton orchestra. Nevertheless, Kenton used a four-man mellophonium section on the band’s various tours from September of 1960 through November of 1963, and on 11 albums. Two of those albums received Grammy Awards: Kenton’s West Side Story and Adventures in Jazz. (3)

The first recording session on which Kenton used mellophoniums was on September 19, 1960. Shown here with Stan are: Tom Wirtel (left) and Bill Horan with their mellophoniums.

Despite Stan’s enthusiasm for the mellophoniums, the men who played those instruments in the Kenton orchestra were basically outcasts from the rest of the musicians for the entire three years mellophoniums were a part of the Kenton sound. The animosity was never personal however. The musicians in the Kenton band, including the ones who played them, were generally not fond of them. Bob Faust, who played in one of the Kenton mellophonium sections later recalled: “I was on the band six months before I found out that f……mellophonium was not one word.” (4) Another musician who played mellophonium for Kenton was Carl Saunders. When asked how the instrument sounded, he replied: “…like an elephant in heat.” (5)

It seems that it was difficult for a number of reasons to play the mellophonium in tune. Dick Hyde, a Kenton trombonist, had this opinion: “When the whole (mellophonium) section joined, (a number of us) in the band just lost interest because the mellophoniums were so out of tune. Ray Starling came the closest to really managing that instrument. At the Christmas break (in 1960), several of us left and never came back, including me.” (6) (Below left: The talented Ray Starling, playing a mellophonium, is shown with Stan Kenton. Starling was also an excellent jazz pianist.)

Here is the recollection of Carl Saunders, one of the chosen few who played the mellophonium in the Kenton orchestra: “My whole family had perfect pitch and I developed mine in high school. Usually, people get perfect pitch from a keyboard. I was getting mine from my trumpet. I’d be in the band room with the other guys checking me out. G-flat, A, D- sharp, I had it down and was flaunting it. Then I joined Stan on the mellophonium. Trumpets are keyed in B-flat concert while the mellophonium is in F. So every time I was reading C on the music an F was coming out instead of a B-flat. Well, after two years of this, my perfect pitch was in the toilet!” (7)

The musicians who played the instruments were constantly trying to improve not only their intonation, but their range. Carl Saunders remembered a trip to a Cincinnati music store that proved interesting: “Ray Starling and I went to a music store and got some cornet mouthpieces and tried them out. It was much easier to play (the mellophonium) with them, and we could reach higher notes. Pretty soon, all the mellophonium players were using cornet mouthpieces. I’m sure that Stan thought, Wow! what the hell has happened to these guys; they’ve got some chops all of a sudden. Then he discovered that we were all using cornet mouthpieces, and he wigged out. Stan told us to switch back to the old mouthpieces.” (8) (Above right: Stan Kenton wigs out – really he’s conducting his orchestra in rehearsal. Kenton was much respected by the musicians in his orchestra because he respected them and treated them as the professionals they were, even when their behavior was less than ideal.)

There was at least one dissenting opinion regarding whether the mellophoniums were never or rarely in tune. Arranger Howard Lucraft said later: “A complaint from everyone involved was that the mellophoniums were never in tune. I don’t think it was a flaw of the instrument itself. Stan and Johnny Richards, who wrote a majority of the arrangements (for those instruments) would always write for (them) very high, which I disagreed with. They’d be in the French horn register, in high unison lines. That’s where a part of the problem lay. I wrote for the instrument in the middle register, whether alone or in harmony. They didn’t take this into consideration. That’s just my opinion, but it is why I think the mellophoniums were out of tune.” (9)

The music:

“Dragonwyck” was recorded as a part of Stan Kenton’s 1962 album entitled Adventures in Blues. That LP contained nine Gene Roland composition/arrangements. “The title originally planned for (it was) Kenton Plays Roland, which is more suited to the music, since only one of the selections, “Fitz” (dedicated to Stan’s longtime lead trombonist, Bob Fitzpatrick), was an actual blues. “Blue Ghost,” “The Blues Story,” and “Night at the Gold Nugget,” come close, only for the reason that they’re based on the 48-bar chorus.” (10) Nevertheless, much of the music on that LP has a haunting, late-night quality to it, and this certainly includes “Dragonwyck.”

The first sequence of this performance has the 23-piece Kenton orchestra purring, with the mellophoniums playing a recurring melodic fragment, atop Pat Senatore’s (10A) walking bass, and Jerry McKenzie’s hushed cymbals. Gene Roland adds his own soprano saxophone coloration to this, along with some quiet riffs from the saxophone quintet. Then, the transitional passage has Roland playing a repeated trill, while the saxophones (hear the two baritones at the bottom of the reeds), riff gently along with the quiet Harmon-muted trumpets. (Below left: Stan Kenton and Gene Roland – early 1960s.)

The saxophone section then states the minimalist melody robustly under Gabe Baltazar’s strong alto lead. Roland has divided the saxophones for this passage with probably the lead alto, one tenor and one baritone playing the melody, while another tenor and baritone play rhythmic riffs. This is followed by the entire saxophone section playing riffs, in a sonic kaleidoscope along with the open trumpets and trombones massed, and the mellophoniums playing as a discrete section. Some ensemble riffs set up the entrance of trumpeter Marvin Stamm, playing with a Harmon mute with its stem removed. (11)

Although Marvin Stamm was only 22 years old when this recording was made, his improvisation on it is brilliant, absolutely first-class jazz. After his early experience in the Kenton band, he has had a marvelously successful career as a jazz trumpeter that continues to this day. Notice the subtle yet strong backing Stamm gets from Pat Senatore on bass and Jerry McKenzie on drums in the first half of his solo, when all other background drops away. Arranger Roland fashions provocative backgrounds for Stamm to play against in the second half of his solo. (At right: trumpeter Marvin Stamm.)

The next chorus showcases the entire ensemble. Roland reprises the sonic kaleidoscope he used before Stamm’s solo, then builds a shout sequence atop it as the climax of this performance. Kenton’s trumpets, led brilliantly by Dalton Smith, shine here atop the alternating static and shifting ensemble below.

A contrasting, quiet interlude follows, with Pat Senatore on bass playing against a cushion of reeds. Then alto saxophonist Gabe Baltazar improvises, his bright sound glistening against a background of softly played brass. Roland then returns with his soprano saxophone for the quiet finale. (At left: Kenton with Gabe Baltazar – 1961.)

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Much of the basic information regarding the mellophone and its evolution can be found in the article on the mellophone on Wikipedia. More information about its evolution as an instrument used in a jazz setting can be found in The Kenton Kronicles …A Biography of Modern America’s Music Man, Stan Kenton, by Steven D. Harris, (2000), 187. Hereafter Kronicles.

(2) “Stan explains his new sound.” Crescendo, August 1962, 4, cited in the Wikipedia article referred to above.

(3) Stan Kenton: The Man and His Music, by Lillian Arganian, (1989) 141.

(4) Kronicles, 204.

(5) Kronicles, 197.

(6) Kronicles, ibid.

(7) Kronicles, ibid.

(8) Kronicles, ibid.

(9) Kronicles, 189-190.

(10) Kronicles, 191.

(10A) Pasquale “Pat” Senatore later operated and played bass at a jazz club called Pasquale’s, located at 22724 Pacific Coast Highway in Mailbu, California.

(11) By 1960, the sound of a Harmon-muted trumpet played with the stem removed was de rigeur among jazz trumpeters. This practice had started in the mid-1940s in various swing bands, and continued gaining popularity, which reached its zenith with Miles Davis’s classic Columbia album,  Kind of Blue, which was released in August of 1959.

Here is a link to a worthwhile article on the Kenton mellophoniums: http://www.middlehornleader.com/Kenton%20Mellophoniums.htm

Here is a link to a marvelous recording by Buddy Rich’s band that includes a fine jazz solo by Ray Starling on piano: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/12/08/new-blues-1967-buddy-rich/

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2 Comments

  1. Why the Conn mellophonium is out of tune is quite simple–in a mathematical sort of way. The problem was not with the players, it was the instrument.

    The mellophonium was designed to be keyed in Eb. By removing a section of the tubing “in front of” the valve cluster (between the mouthpiece and the valves), thus shortening the length of the horn, it could also be played in the key of F. The Kenton orchestra mellophoniums were played in F, with the tubing section removed. Every Conn 16E mellophonium I have seen (and at one time I owned nine of them) came with this removable tubing section, complete with its own storage location in the instrument case.

    Like a trumpet, the mellophonium has three piston valves. Press the first one and additional tubing is opened, lowering the tone by one full step (such as from C to Bb). Press the second one and the tone is lowered one half step (e.g., from C to B natural). The third valve lowers one and one half-step, (e.g., from C to A).

    The length of the short sections of extra tubing that were opened by these three valves was designed to change the resulting pitch assuming the instrument was being played in Eb. But when played in F, with the tubing section removed, those three tubing sections were very slightly too long to result in the correct pitch–unless the player “lipped up” the pitch to compensate.

    I believe the problems of the Conn 16E mellophoniums could have been resolved if they had been played in Eb. The arrangers could have easily written the parts in Eb instead of F. The results would have been better in tune. Why this was not done, I have no idea.

    Mike

  2. According to Michael Sparke in “Stan Kenton This is an Orchestra,” Kenton insisted that the design of the mellophonium be changed to be capable of being played in F because he and Johnny Richards felt it would give the instrument a more distinctive sound.

    Both Ray Starling and Dwight Carver later moved to Phoenix. Starling, who was a talented jazz pianist, played in Phoenix area nightclubs for a number of years before dying of cancer at age 49.. Carver taught french horn and played in the Phoenix Symphony.

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