Stan Kenton – Artistry in Rhythm, Portrait of a Jazz Legend – Jazzed Media DVD JM9004, 117 minutes ****½:
Graham Carter of Jazzed Media has done a Herculean job of documenting through archival footage and 20+ interviews with Kenton alumni and family, the jazz life of Stan Kenton from the early 1940s all the way to end of Stan’s life in the late 1970s. This 40 year period encompasses all the generations of Kenton’s bands from the Artistry in Rhythm Band of the early 1940s; through the 1950s Innovations in Modern Music and Contemporary Concepts; the New Era in Modern American Music and The Neophonic Years of the 1960s; and concluding with The Creative World of Stan Kenton period of the 1970s when Stan created a record label just for his band.
What jumps out to viewers of this extended period of Kenton excellence is Stan’s restlessness. For example, Stan would do largely commercial work to support the costs for his band to incorporate strings in a 43 member band at the beginning of the 1950s, which was an artistic success but a financial failure to tour. He was arguably the first big band leader – certainly on the West Coast – to incorporate Afro Cuban rhythms by using the talents of Johnny Richards.
Kenton’s arrangers are famous and legendary and included Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Pete Rugolo, Lennie Niehaus, and even for a period Gerry Mulligan. These men worked for Stan due to his lack of ego and the freedom he gave them to explore new directions in keeping the Kenton band vibrant.
Early on, Kenton was first known for his use of multiple saxophonists and later developed a powerful brass section made up of five trumpeters and five trombonists. His trombone sections, early on led by Kai Winding, were larger than any other band. The constant theme brought out by commentators including historians Dr. Herb Wong, and Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s Ken Poston, is how ahead of his time Kenton’s bands were. He incorporated dissonant chords and classical music into his bands well before most other big band leaders. He was at the cutting edge of many stylistic changes.
Kenton’s vocalists including June Christy and Chris Connor kept the mainstream fans interested, while the band could explore new themes, enabling the band to escape a dance band categorization. Kenton was smart enough to merge the commercial with new modern concepts. His national radio show in the 1950s kept the band’s reputation strong so when they toured they would have anxious audiences even in the smaller venues.
Kenton’s band members approach the legendary status of those with Ellington, Basie, and Herman. Certainly on the West Coast they had no peer. No need for first names when you are mentioning Pepper, Shank, Sims, Rosolino, Konitz, and Ferguson just to scratch the surface. His arrangers as mentioned, were top tier with Pete Rugolo being as important to the Kenton sound as Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington.
When other big bands were dropping off the scene in the late 60s and early 70s, Kenton was savvy enough to incorporate Broadway themes, rock and pop music including tributes to Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Beatles, and Chicago. Kenton remained dapper in his suits while his band members sported long hair and bell bottoms of the period. With Stan it was not about ego, but about keeping his band vibrant and more importantly, working.
Throughout this historically well researched near two hour encapsulation of the musical life of Stan Kenton it became clear that he was a father figure to his band. They represented the family that he did not have the time to raise. His failings as a family man were partially “cured” by the love of the musicians he traveled with on lengthy bus trips.
Proper time in the DVD is devoted to Stan Kenton’s role as a jazz educator. He knew full well that fostering jazz education in the schools would keep jazz alive. For that alone he should be honored.
Graham Carter’s prior DVDs on the lives of Phil Woods and Bud Shank were a joy to view. With the release of this new Kenton documentary, he has provided a video document of historical value. This DVD belongs in the home of every Kentophile as well as in high schools and every university jazz program. It is an effort of exhausting research and has the benefit of the fond recollections of many of Kenton’s bands including Bill Holman, Jack Costanzo, and Howard Rumsey just to name a few. Making this tribute to Kenton while these musicians are still alive was the right thing to do. Also the archival footage includes recorded comments by Kenton himself to help us better know this musical genius. It is hard to think of what Graham Carter could do to top this endeavor. When the 2011 documentary video award season arrives this portrait of a jazz legend must be at the top of the list for consideration.
— Jeff Krow