Since I know how touchy jazz people can be, let me just say at the outset that I’m no jazz aficionado. I love lots of Miles, of course, and Ornette Coleman, and I even know some Henry Threadgill; and one of the greatest live performers I’ve ever seen was Sonny Rollins. But I was born and raised a rocker.
So, although serious jazz fans may find much familiar in the new documentary Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm: Portrait of a Jazz Legend, and have their own hard-set opinions about Kenton, I was surprised by how ferocious and dynamic most of his music is, both in the sense of a dynamo and in its rhythmic structure. Sometimes what sounded daring yesterday sounds quaint today; much of the Big Band music of the ‘40s, even if new and exciting in its time, has now been heard so often, in so many incarnations, it has become the muzak of our lives. Big Band music was my dad’s music. I liked the hooks, but it always sounded so soft.
Not the Stan Kenton Band. In hearing just the snippets of music in this documentary, it’s obvious that here is something beyond the round-edged, white-guy-in-glasses pep-swing of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller. Like the timeless Duke Ellington and his orchestra, the Stan Kenton Band still sounds adventurous, with a driving wall of sound—one of, if not the earliest example of such a thing—that is dark, wild and above all rhythmic.
Many of the historians, critics and musicians interviewed here tell how Kenton’s band played louder than everyone else. This was due in large part to Kenton’s preferred instrumentation of, initially, five saxophones, and then an additional five trombones—the famed “Wall of Brass”. Rather than the familiar slides of the trombone (waaa-uuuuu-aaaah!), Kenton and trombonist Kai Winding arranged steady note-holds five times over, with the effect of a freight train bearing down. The sheer power of the band is so evident even on film that I can only imagine what it was like in person, especially in the pre-canonized era of dance hall swing bands.
Famously, Kenton ordered his bands to not swing. “To swing” seems to be that ineffable sense of movement or jump or sway that is inherent to the rhythm of much traditional jazz and is, above all, a physical thing as it gets people to move in time almost against their will. Though obviously Kenton wanted his music to move and connect with an audience on a visceral level, he desired also the more cerebral attention paid to modern classical music, elements of which—such as dissonance and essentially non-danceable melodies—he incorporated early on. In fact, Kenton’s entire career involved this (usually) successful interplay between the popular ballroom and the classical concert hall.
He began as a piano player in the Vido Musso Band before swiftly, restlessly moving on to form his own band. Though initially some critics disliked his heavy-on-the-brass sound—one critic called him “Kant Standhim”—he quickly became known as a great modern innovator, and a band leader who allowed many young and eventually legendary jazz musicians to pass through his band: Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman (who went on to compose and arrange many things for Kenton), Lee Konitz and Shelly Manne among them.
In the late-‘40s, Kenton moved into a more progressive era with the vital input of Pete Rugolo, who by consensus was to Kenton what Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington—an “architect” who had with the bandleader a symbiotic sense of composition and musicality. Kenton and Rugolo went on to create several original works, among them the “Concert To End All Concerts”, the truly weird “Artistry In Percussion”, with Shelly Manne using mallets instead of drumsticks, and the pure concert music of “City of Glass” and “Innovations in Modern Music” which in Kenton’s account was an “artistic success and financial fiasco”.
Though Dizzy Gillespie gets much of the press for Afro-Cuban influences in jazz, I was surprised to learn that, in fact, Gillespie and Kenton were neck-in-neck. From nearly his earliest years onward, Kenton infused his music with strong but subtle Afro-Cuban elements, and yet was criticized by Cuban critics for his “wrong” rhythms. He silenced them all finally with the release of things like “Cuban Fire”—a song that blazes even more than its title suggests—and the driving “Malaguena”.
In the late-‘50s Kenton undertook what is undoubtedly, besides his music, of course, his greatest legacy: jazz education. Through his formation of jazz camps or clinics, Kenton ensured not only a continued appreciation and knowledge of historical jazz, but solidified or even created a jazz future by educating and encouraging some of the music’s later stars—Peter Erskine, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, to name just three among scores. Also, the clinics provided a steady personnel for Kenton’s band, allowing the older bandleader to stay current—his now-bearded band played things like “MacArthur Park” and “Hey Jude”—while employing and inspiring literally generations of jazz musicians. Let me repeat that, as it’s an immense achievement: literally generations of jazz musicians.
Unfortunately, the end of his life was a sad deterioration composed of voluminous amounts of vodka (one ex-wife: “He didn’t drive because if he drove he couldn’t drink.”), an aneurism, and a debilitating brain operation. He died working in 1979 at the age of 67.
I suppose it is not so much a fault that this documentary feels almost over-informative, though I expect this has more to do with its educational workman-like presentation than anything else. I wasn’t expecting the compelling cinematic structure of something like Ken Burns’ Jazz, but nearly two-hours of oftentimes lengthy interviews with seated historians, critics and musicians, with only swells and snippets of the bands, kept me craving more music. Which I’m sure is what Kenton would have wanted, too.
Note: There are no extras with this DVD.