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The Neglected Legacy Of Kenton

October 11, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

Despite the affection in which he was held by virtually everyone who worked for him and the relatively recent time frame of his contribution (he was active as a bandleader from 1941 until 1978, the year before he died), Stan Kenton's image seems to have faded, while that of Duke Ellington, who died five years earlier, seems today stronger than ever.

What are the reasons for this disparity?

Several explanations come to mind. Although both men were active in the same four areas--as composer, arranger, bandleader, pianist--there was a vital difference: Many of Ellington's instrumental works became pop-song hits and are constantly being played. Kenton, although words were once set to several of his pieces for an album, simply never had a hit song; his music remained primarily instrumental. Thus the volume of Ellington air play, either by the band itself or by innumerable singers, far outweighs the occasional reminder of Kenton's works.

Second, and perhaps no less important, is the absence of an authorized Kenton ghost band; he decreed in his will that no such entity should be allowed. Meanwhile, Mercer Ellington continues to be heard, leading a band that includes several members who were with Duke in the early 1970s; in fact, the recent "Digital Duke" on GRP records has been on the jazz charts for several months.

Still another explanation lies in the roller-coaster nature of Kenton's career on records, due partly to Capitol Records' conversion to a pop-rock direction that left him on the sidelines. Four years ago, Gene Norman, of the Hollywood-based GNP-Crescendo Records, took over the rights to Kenton's Capitol LPs and to those recorded for Kenton's own label, Creative World. According to Norman, 68 Kenton albums are now available, though only two have appeared so far on CDs. Ellington is represented by a dozen CDs, some offering material never previously issued.

More relevant than any of these reasons is the jagged course that Kenton took during his 37 years in front of a band. In the early days, Kenton's own writing, with a personal sax-section sound, gave the band its character. Then came Pete Rugolo, who was to Kenton as Billy Strayhorn was to Ellington. But Rugolo left early, in 1949, and the Kenton library for the rest of his career was drawn from dozens of sources, some verging on the classical (William Russo, Robert Graettinger), others closer to the Woody Herman concept (Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman), as well as Johnny Richards, Willie Maiden, Hank Levy and too many more to enumerate.

It wasn't just the style of the band that kept changing from tune to tune; the size, personnel and objectives underwent a series of major transformations. There was the big, ambitious, string-laden orchestra of the "Innovations" years (early 1950s); the more swinging band of the mid-1950s, which for some of us was the best Kenton group of them all; the oddly enlarged band in the early 1960s using a section of "mellophoniums" (a short-lived experiment); the elaborate Neophonic Orchestra that lasted for a few seasons in Los Angeles and, of course, the various ventures with Latin or Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Because of these fluctuations, it is impossible to get a handle on exactly whom and what the Kenton orchestra represented. Meanwhile, the Ellington career from start to finish reflected the writing talent of one man--or, from 1939 on, of Duke and Billy Strayhorn, who was in effect his compositional twin. During that entire time (essentially 1927 to 1974), the band underwent relatively few changes in personnel; in 1970, Duke was able to frame works for Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams and others just as he had decades earlier.

Yet there is much in the Kenton legacy that sounds, in retrospect, more valuable than it seemed originally. Rugolo's "Interlude" is a work of lasting charm; "Collaboration" by Rugolo and Kenton has a brashly distinctive character. Even "The Peanut Vendor," mainly a head arrangement with a few Rugolo ideas added, is as invigorating now as when the band recorded it 40 years ago.

All this came to mind while attending a recent celebration staged in Kenton's honor at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. Among the 730 present were numerous Kenton alumni, non-Kenton celebrities (Henry Mancini, Dudley Moore) and a healthy contingent of Kenton camp followers, along with members of the bandleader's family.

In general, it was a warm, touching evening, thanks mainly to the role played by Milt Bernhardt. A trombonist with the early Kenton orchestra, he is now a travel agent and, for nonprofit kicks, president of the Big Band Academy of America, under whose aegis the event took place.

Although various phases of the Kenton career were represented by the USC Studio Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Thom Mason, it was Bernhardt's introductions of the band's graduates that kept things moving. They were laced with a dry humor of which Kenton surely would have approved.

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