Stan Kenton: Progressive Concepts in Jazz
© 1997, Michael Boyd
Stanley Newcomb Kenton is one of the most influential figures to be found in
all of jazz history, even being called "the most significant figure of the
Modern Jazz age" by Frank Sinatra (Agostinelli, 6). Kenton's progressive
concepts of how music is written and performed greatly affected the genre of
jazz, and created something new and unique. Always under controversy, Kenton
and his band always strove to do something different, never settling into a
niche for long periods of time. Even today, when hearing modern jazz performers
(particularly big bands) one can often hear the influence from Kenton's music.
Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas on December 11, 1911, although he spent
most of his youth in the Los Angeles area. He began studying piano and
composition early with his mother and eventually with bandleader and pianist
Earl "Fatha" Hines. Kenton was influenced by many different kinds of music
other than jazz, including twentieth century composers Claude Debussy, Igor
Stravinsky, and Bela Bartok. Once he was a little older, Kenton began playing
around in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, and formed his first band in
1941, beginning his career as a bandleader. Kenton's music is best organized
into the different "eras" of the Kenton bands: Artistry in Rhythm (mid-1940s),
Progressive Jazz (mid- to late 1940s), Innovations in Modern Music (early
1950s), New Concepts in Artistry in Rhythm (Contemporary Jazz) (early to
mid-1950s), Orchestra in Residence (late 1950s), New Era in Modern Music
(Mellophoniums) (early 1960s), Neophonic (mid-1960s), and Fusion (early 1970s).
Each era had different elements which made it unique while still maintaining
the inimitable Kenton sound. Kenton also separated his music by type into three
categories: dance (more popular jazz standards), concert (modern jazz
compositions), and experimental (used to explore new musical ideas).
The standard big band sound of the late 1940s and 1950s was very laid back.
Rhythmically, it was normal to play just behind the beat to create this relaxed
feel, with a definite emphasis on the "swing" style. Swing music was usually
composed of one melody played by one section of the band, and other sections,
if playing at all, would play chord hits in different places. The function of
the rhythm section is mostly to comp and stay out of the way. These bands
usually stayed within either 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, or 2/4 time signatures. Kenton
altered this system in many ways to create something fresh and progressive.
Kenton's sound was more aggressive and even occasionally more abrasive than of
other bands. The saxophones played strongly, with screaming trumpets, and a
lush, rich trombone sound. One aspect that made the Kenton charts different
from others was the layering techniques used within the band. This would
involve one section of the band playing a melody. Then another section would
play a different melody over top of the first one. Both would compliment each
other rhythmically and harmonically. This process could then continue, adding
more lines. When extracted, each line is still interesting by itself. The best
example of layering in the Kenton library is "Artistry in Rhythm." This tune
begins with the rhythm section playing a riff over which the sax section plays
the main melody [sample]. The trombones
then come in with another melody over top of the saxes
[sample]. The sound achieved is very complex and really requires the
audience to listen. "Intermission Riff" is another example of this arranging
technique, beginning with the rhythm section playing a pattern which the
trombones join. Next, the trumpet section enters, followed by the saxophones
who are playing the main melody [sample].
Kenton's band also used different harmonies than most other big bands of the
time. Although seventh and ninth chords as well as tritones are common in jazz,
creating dissonance, Kenton took dissonance a step further, using very thick
and grating dissonances which sound like no other. "The Peanut Vendor" is a
great example of the dissonant chords Kenton uses. The trumpet section plays
chords at the end which every note is dissonant to at least one other note in
some way. The notes are clustered together very densely. The result is this
massive tension which just sits there without resolving
[sample]. Dissonance aside, Kenton's groups used more complex harmonic
structures than standard jazz, often due to the influence of modern classical
Rhythm was another factor which made the Kenton band unique. Pete Rugolo, one
of Kenton's arrangers, commented, "I began writing in 5/4 time and changing
time signatures in the middle of a piece which I didn't think had been done
before in jazz" (Woodley, "Pete Rugolo", 13). A Kenton album which was recorded
just after the 1950s, Adventures in Time: A Concerto for Orchestra,
uses different time signatures other than the standards (4/4, 2/2, 3/4, 2/4) as
a theme. Specific pieces from the record include "Quintile," which is in 5/4,
"3x3x2x2x2" which is in 9/8, "March to Polaris," which is in 6/8, "Septuor From
Antares," which is in 7/4, and "Apercu," which switches from 6/8 to 7/4 to 3/4.
Kenton was also known for not always sticking religiously to the swing rhythm
style, and he often explored different rhythmic patters like the Latin rhythms
used on the Cuban Fire recording. In commenting on his use of rhythm
Kenton once said that "there are many more emotions that can be portrayed and
felt in addition to just swinging. Swinging is a happy thing, and most swing is
happy. But other emotions must be expressed, too" (Agostinelli, 9).
Kenton also often altered the instrumentation of his jazz orchestras to add
different voices or additional depth to the sound. The standard big band
instrumentation consisted of five saxophones (two alto, two tenor, and one
baritone), four trombones (three tenor and one bass), four trumpets, and a
standard rhythm section (bass, drums, piano, and sometimes guitar). Kenton
began with such a setup in his formative years. Later on he added a fifth
trumpet and trombone. This occurred mainly because of people leaving and
returning to the band, and rather than cutting someone out, Kenton simply wrote
in an additional part. The fifth trombone ended being a second bass trombone,
adding more to the bottom end of the music. Also, Kenton would sometimes either
cut out an alto saxophone, and add a baritone, or just add a baritone sax and
have six sax players, again adding to the bottom of the sound. These were the
most conservative instrumentation changes Kenton made.
Kenton drastically altered the big band sound by adding strings on two
occasions. During the "Innovations in Modern Music" era, Kenton used music
penned by Bob Graettinger for the City of Glass album. This album
added a string section, in addition to double reeds (bassoon, oboe, and English
horn), French horns, and tuba. This instrumentation, combined with very
progressive music, gives the listener a real challenge. Some pieces are hardly
recognizable as jazz, and sound very much like atonal chamber music. This music
comes under the "experimental" category of Kenton music
[sample]. BBC Music Magazine considers this effort to be
Kenton's most important endeavor because of its unusual nature. He used strings
on the Lush Interlude album, in addition to five trombones and a
rhythm section, to create a rich, smooth sound.
The Cuban Fire album is another instance of Kenton's use of altered
instrumentation. For this recording, which featured compositions by Johnny
Richards, Kenton added French horns, tuba, tympani, bongos, congas, timbales,
claves, and maracas [sample]. The horns and
tuba provided new timbres to the group, a more mellow, rounded sound that is
not obtainable on the trumpet or trombone. The French horns are best heard in
the introduction of "El Conga Valiente (Valiant Congo)," where they play the
main melody [sample]. Even though this
album featured Latin jazz, the use of the horns, tuba, and tympani gave it a
somewhat symphonic sound. The Latin percussion, which can be heard on all
pieces, gives the real Latin rhythmic feel that the pieces require.
Mellophoniums, or front projecting French horns, were used by Kenton beginning
in the late 1950s. These instruments were similar to the French horn, but were
more useful because they projected better. The mellophonium was used to fill
the range gap between the trombone and trumpet sections. Gene Roland, who had
once played trumpet and trombone for Kenton, was one of the mellophonium
players, and composed and arranged a great deal of music for the Kenton
orchestra featuring the instrument. One tune which is well know for featuring
the mellophonium is entitled "Mellophobia" and begins with a section soli,
displaying the technical capabilities and mellow sound the instrument produced
Many members of Kenton's orchestras became famous either through Kenton's
groups, or through success in a solo career. These players pioneered styles
that differed from their big band predecessors, and even from those who
pioneered the "bop" style at the same time. Lennie Niehaus was one of Kenton's
alto saxophonists in the 1950s. His style of playing was different from older
sax players in that he used vibrato sparingly, as an expressive tool, but had a
sweeter, less harsh and edgy than the new bop players
[sample]. Art Pepper also started out as an alto player for Kenton, and
later launched a successful solo career. A tenor sax player of the Kenton band,
Don Menza, is better known for his playing and composing for the Buddy Rich
band, and has contributed much to the big band repertoire. Gerry Mulligan, a
baritone saxophonist in Kenton's band, got his fame from his solo career as a
member of the "cool jazz" movement.
Kenton's trombone players brought around a new concept of how to play the
trombone. Previous big band trombonists, such as Tommy Dorsey, played the
trombone with a lot of vibrato, and a very wide, almost fuzzy sound
[sample]. The trombone in the Kenton band was played with a more
centered, solid sound, with less vibrato. Soloists overcame the technical
difficulties of the slide, and began using more notes in their solos, making
them more complex and interesting. Some of the more famous trombonists include
Frank Rosolino [sample], Carl Fontana, and
Kai Winding. Kenton also began using the trombones in four and five part
chorale style where the top voice would play the melody, and the lower voices
would fill in the harmony, creating chord changes with smooth voice leading.
This can be heard in the song "You and I and George" from Live From the Las
Vegas Tropicana, which was used as filler in the concert. A later and
more well known example is "Here's That Rainy Day," which begins with snare
drum and four trombones which begin on a unison F and one by one break off into
Maynard Ferguson is the usually the first name to come to mind when one thinks
of Kenton Kenton's trumpet players. Ferguson took lead trumpet playing to new
boundaries. Pete Rugolo commented on his playing by saying, "all the fellows
could play high but Maynard was very unusual. He could play an octave higher
still and we used to write that way for him." Ferguson, besides stretching the
trumpet's range, also changed its sound to a fatter, larger sound. Ever since
then, lead trumpet players have been judged against the standard that he set
for them. Maynard started a band of his own, and still tours today. It is easy
to see the Kenton influence in the music his band plays. "Fireshaker," from his
Live From San Francisco album, follows the Kenton style of layering. The rhythm
section begins playing a riff, followed by the saxes who play the melody, over
which the trombones play another melody, over which the trumpets join in
Kenton also used many arrangers (besides himself) throughout his career. Some
of these include Peter Rugolo, Gene Roland, Johnny Richards, Bil Holman, and
Bill Russo. Often, these were members of the band, although Rugolo and Richards
were there mostly to arrange/compose. Rugolo studied composition with Darius
Milhaud, a classical composer who was influenced by jazz and created works such
as "La Creation Du Monde" and "Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit," in which the jazz
influence is especially evident. Rugolo's composition style was very similar to
Kenton's, and his music was used heavily by Kenton in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Richards wrote most of the pieces on the Cuban Fire album, and was very
interested in the Latin music that the band was playing. It was composers and
arrangers such as these who also shared Kenton's musical vision that really
helped to push the bands to new boundaries.
Having unique and progressive music did not come without problems. Kenton and
his music were constantly under controversy. Although he practically had a cult
following of fans, there were times when he had "almost universal condemnation
from the jazz critical establishment" (New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,
648). Kenton's music has also been frequently called undanceable, and he has
been accused by many different people of not being able to swing (Agostinelli,
9-11). Record sales were also problematic at times. City of Glass in particular
did not sell very well. Kenton even comments in the beginning of the Live at
the San Francisco Tropicana album that this recording was an endeavor to
make an album that would sell. However, Kenton did receive some critical
success and did last through the decades proving that music with integrity will
The music of Kenton has had a great impact on the music know as jazz. By
introducing progressive arranging techniques, harmonies, and rhythms, as well
as concepts on how a band should sound, and integrating jazz and classical
genres, Kenton forever changed the jazz world. Today, when listening to big
bands, one can surely hear some of Kenton's ideas present and at work.
Bibliography and Discography
Agostinelli, Anthony. Stan Kenton: The Many Musical Moods of His Orchestras.
Providence, Rhode Island, 1985.
Cook, Richard. "Building a Jazz Library." BBC Music Magazine.
(Exploring Jazz Special Issue): 68-81.
Daryll, Ted. Liner notes. Cuban Fire. Music by Stan Kenton. Capitol
Dorsey, Tommy. Golden Hits. CD. Masters Music.
Duke Ellington Orchestra. Duke Ellington Orchestra. CD. Laserlight
Ferguson, Maynard. Live From San Francisco. Rec. 27 May 1983. CD.
Avenue Jazz, 1994.
Gillette, Lee. Liner notes. Adventures in Time, A Concerto For Orchestra.
Music by Stan Kenton. Capitol Jazz, 1997.
Great Bands of the 40's and 50's. CD. Sony Music, 1992.
Jazz: Classic Cuts from 80 Years of Jazz. CD. BBC Music Magazine,
Kenton, Stan. Adventures in Time. A Concerto For Orchestra. Rec.
24-28 September 1962. CD. Capitol Jazz, 1997.
Kenton, Stan. City of Glass. Rec. 6 December 1947-28 May 1953. CD.
Capitol Jazz, 1995.
Kenton, Stan. Cuban Fire. Rec. May 1956. CD. Capitol Jazz, 1991.
Kenton, Stan. Kenton in Hi-Fi. Rec. February 1956. LP. Capitol, 1956.
Kenton, Stan. Live From the Las Vegas Tropicana. Rec. 2 February
1959. CD. Capitol Jazz, 1996.
Kenton, Stan. The Peanut Vendor. Rec. 1961. CD. Eclipse Music Group,
Kenton, Stan(ley Newcomb)." New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Ed. Barry
Kernfeld. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Rosolino, Frank. Free For All. Rec. 22 December 1958. CD. Specialty
Records, Inc., 1991.
Sparke, Michael. Liner notes. Live From the Las Vegas Tropicana.
Music by Stan Kenton. Capitol Jazz, 1996.
Wooley, Stan. "Pete Rugolo: Artistry in Arranging." Jazz Journal
International, June 1989: 12-14.