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JAZZ : The Creative World of Kenton and Mulligan

February 25, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Stan Kenton in action was a sight to behold. Well over 6 feet tall, conducting his brass-dominated big bands with arms spread like a condor about to spring into flight, he was the epitome of the jazz band leader.

But Kenton was a controversial figure, largely because of his insistence upon generating cutting-edge music, in part because of his outspoken political views (especially in later years). And, despite his popularity, created by walking a fine line between adventurous, concert-style music and calculatedly commercial outings, he never completely convinced the full jazz community of the significance of his music.

Aside from what that significance may or may not have been, Kenton, like other jazz bandleaders, was at the mercy of rapidly changing societal attitudes in the pre- and post-World War II years. Of all the many ways in which racial segregation affected jazz, the separatism it produced in big-band personnel was one of the most pervasive and long-lasting--continuing, to a large extent, to this day.

Early on, in the '30s and '40s, the net result, sadly, was the aggrandizement of the all-white (with very rare exceptions) swing bands at the sacrifice of the work of lesser-known but equally skilled African American ensembles. Ironically, the longer-term effect was just the opposite: a celebration, unquestionably justified, of mostly black bands such as those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson, combined with a parallel tendency to place the mostly white ensembles of, say, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa and Kenton on a lower tier of musical achievement.

Which is not to say that any of those bands, both black and white, were, in their heyday, lacking in either fan support or financial reward. But the retrospective look provided by these two intriguing collections reveals that some unusual and fascinating music was being produced by ensembles not always recognized as major jazz organizations.

The Kenton recordings disclose that almost from the beginning, he--like many other big bandleaders--was obliged to record pure pop pieces like "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" (with Anita O'Day as vocalist) to be able to explore brassy, quasi-classical works such as "Artistry in Rhythm."

The pattern leaned heavily toward the pop side as the familiar Kenton ensembles--featuring such names as Buddy Childers and Gene Roland (trumpets), Bart Varsalona (trombone) and Boots Muselli (alto saxophone)--began to coalesce in 1944. Despite this increasingly proficient instrumental personnel, the majority of these early dates were devoted to vocal numbers for O'Day, Gene Howard and June Christy.

By 1946-47, however, Kenton was coming up with a more equal blend, producing such orchestral classics as "Collaboration," "Concerto to End All Concertos," "Opus in Pastels," "Peanut Vendor," Pete Rugolo's dissonant vocal settings of "Lonely Woman" and "This Is My Theme" for Christy and Bob Graettinger's powerful "Thermopolae."

The Kenton bands of the '50s (notably those that performed arrangements by Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan) are usually viewed as his "swinging" groups. But Mosaic's comprehensive view of the 1943-47 bands--including outtakes and unreleased material--displays ensembles fully capable of swinging hard (within the rhythmic style of the era), as well as a musical perspective that was continually attempting to open the envelope of big-band jazz.

(The Kenton collection is the latest release from Mosaic Records, a company that specializes in limited-edition jazz recordings. It will be issued in CD and long-playing formats in numbered editions of 7,500 copies. The seven-CD set is $112; the 10-LP set is $150. Write or call Mosaic at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902; [203] 327-7111.)

Mulligan, like Kenton, was also a charismatic figure--lean, carrot-topped and vital, generating energy every time he stepped onstage.

His Concert Jazz Band, quixotically formed in 1960, at a time when large congregations were quickly disappearing, has been unjustly overlooked, perhaps because it existed so randomly for such a short period of time. Nonetheless, it served as a showcase for arrangers such as Bob Brookmeyer, Gary McFarland, George Russell and Al Cohn and opened up a brand of wide-open, free-swinging, ultimately quite influential jazz.

Strongly oriented toward its soloists, the Concert Jazz Band, at Mulligan's direction, solicited arrangements in which ensemble passages flowed freely in and out of the improvisations, creating musical patchworks that quilted together written and solo segments.

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