Born Stanley Newcomb Kenton on December 15, 1911, in Wichita, KN; died August 25, 1979, in Hollywood, CA; married three times; three children; several grandchildren.

In 1996, 17 years after the bandleader's death, Scott Yanow of the All-Music Guide to Jazz stated, "There have been few jazz musicians as consistently controversial as Stan Kenton." Some critics have claimed that Kenton expanded the horizons of jazz music, while others considered him pretentious and more interested in overwhelming listeners with volume and power than with creating works of musical substance. He managed to sustain a number of large-scale bands during his more than 35 years of active performing, despite his willingness to stray from proven formulas. "The economics of maintaining a big band for nearly 40 years without pandering to fashion indicated Stan Kenton's great organizational skills, as well as great artistic conviction," noted the Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz.

Kenton continually experimented with the big band format, dissolving his bands and reforming new ones that attempted to set new standards in jazz music. Throughout his career he had a knack for recognizing and nurturing new talent, and his sidemen over the years represented an all-star lineup of jazz greats. In fact, J. Bradford Robinson, in his profile of the bandleader in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, asserted that Kenton's "own considerable talents as arranger and pianist were soon overshadowed by those of his superior sidemen and staff arrangers." Among those who made their way through the Kenton assembly line included Anita O'Day, June Christy, Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Maynard Ferguson, Kai Winding, Shelly Manne, and Laurindo Almeida.

Stanley Newcomb Kenton began taking piano lessons from his divorced mother, Stella Kenton, after she bought a used upright piano. He was ten years old at the time and two years started taking lessons with a private teacher. After hearing his musician cousins, Billy and Arthur Kenton, play jazz a few years later, he fell in love with the music and decided to pursue a career in it. "From the time I was fourteen years old, I was all music," he told Carole Easton in Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton. "Nothing else ever entered my head." As a teenager Kenton took lessons in jazz piano form an organist at a local theater, and he also learned to play a number of wind instruments. By then he was immersing himself in the latest releases of artists such as George Gershwin, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Benny Carter, and Louis Armstrong. He got his feet wet as a former by forming musical group called the Belltones that performed at school dances, parties, and local clubs.

After graduating form high school in 1930, the music-crazy Kenton scraped out a living as a musician for five dollars a night playing speakeasies and gambling halls in San Diego and Las Vegas. His talent began to develop after he joined Everett Hoagland's band, and in the late 1930s he also tickled the ivories in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim. By this time he was already developing a reputation as a skilled arranger, not to mention a cheerleader who could motivate other musicians to excel. In 1939 Kenton found himself in Hollywood as pianist and assistant conductor for the pit band at Earl Carroll's Vanities theater. A year later he formed his first band, which in 1941 became known as the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra.

Manned mostly by young, unknown musicians, the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra became a hit at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California. From there Kenton's band increased its popularity with a five-week stint at the Hollywood Palladium. "The group quickly gained notice for its thick, brassy voicings, staccato articulation and sheer volume," remarked Len Lyons and Don Perlo about this band in Jazz Portraits. By this time Kenton was composing his own songs, but they were the least popular of his band's repertoire. While the public received the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra favorably, jazz critics for the most part did not care for his music, saying his band was too loud, too structured, and without nuance.

Kenton's band became a mainstay on the music scene during the 1940s through steady touring and radio broadcasts. One of its first big hits was "Eager Beaver," a song composed by Kenton that became his band's theme song. He also scored big with "Tampico," "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine," which featured a vocal by Anita O'Day, and "Across the Alley from the Alamo," sung by June Christy. During the 1940s Kenton helped launch the career of saxophonist Stan Getz , who signed on with the band in 1943 at the age of 16. Two years later he brought in trombonist Kai Winding, trumpeter Ray Wetzel, and bassist Eddie Safranski.

To pursue new types of music other than the jazz standards of the day, Kenton broke up his band and formed the Progressive Jazz Band in 1947. Featuring arrangements by Pete Rugolo that favored heavy brass, and performers such as drummer Shelly Manne, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, and trombonist Milt Bernhart, his new band provoked strong reactions both pro and con. Down Beat magazine named the group best big band in 1947 and 1948, but some critics viewed his music unfavorably. "The sheer volume of the music, the screaming trumpet section, immensely structured works that slam in by section on schedule, intimidated the critics who declared Kenton's music empty and pretentious," claimed The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz.

Despite its popularity, Kenton's Progressive Jazz Band broke up in 1948 because the bandleader was pushed to exhaustion by heavy touring. After emerging from temporary retirement, Kenton struck out in yet another musical direction with his Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra. This 43-piece band featured a 16-piece string section that helped Kenton fulfill his desire to merge jazz and classical styles. He was aided in his quest by a lineup of top musicians that included Bud Shank on flute and sax, Pepper, and trumpeters Shorty Rogers, Chico Alvarez, Buddy Childers, and Maynard Ferguson. Now delving into the avant garde, Kenton began performing works by composer Bob Graetinger, whose music was known for its dissonance. Many critics labeled the band as no more than a big band trying to do modern classical music. They largely panned the band's performance of Graetinger's City of Glass in 1948, which in a 1993 review by Yanow was referred to as "avant-garde music that still sounds futuristic 45 years later."

In the early 1950s Kenton made an about face by focusing on swing music. He also put together smaller bands and toured with singers like Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn. He was a big hit on his European tour in 1953, and later returned there in 1956. In 1952 he formed the first of his new series of more traditional big-band groups called the New Concepts in Artistry and Rhythm Orchestra. "Performing dance tunes, driving modern jazz, and Afro-Cuban- influenced pieces, these groups represent Kenton's most important style and repertory of big-band music," according to Jazz Portraits. Among Kenton's most noteworthy recordings during the 1950s were 1954's The Kenton Era and 1956's Cuban Fire. Kenton "creates a warm ambiance that contrasts his lush, Ellingtonian orchestral charts with his spare, evocative piano lines," noted Billboard in its review of a reissue of The Ballad Style of Stan Kenton from 1958.

By 1957 Kenton was fed up with touring, which prompted him to buy the Rendezvous Ballroom as a permanent home base for his band. Then he found himself on the road again within a few months, after discovering he could not attract big enough crowds in the same location to make it pay. The versatile Kenton broadened his career once again in 1959 when he founded the first of his university "jazz clinics," at Indiana University and Michigan State University. These clinics, which he later set up in other schools as well, proved to be highly fertile training grounds, and Kenton proved to have a sharp eye for hot new talent.

As rock 'n' roll eroded the popularity of his band in the early 1960s, Kenton branched out again with his New Era in Modern Music Orchestra. This 23-piece ensemble included a mellophonium, a cross between a trumpet and trombone that produced a sound similar to a French horn. Unlike his bands of the past, this Kenton group relied mostly on young performers rather than highly paid established stars. The band recorded eleven albums during its two-year history and received much acclaim for its recordings of the sound track for West Side Story and another album called Adventures in Jazz.

Kenton's next band was the highly experimental Neophonic Orchestra, which featured 14 brass instrumentalists among its 28 players. The bandleader's high visibility and popularity at this time attracted some top Hollywood musicians and jazz-oriented composers, as well instrumentalists who played with his previous bands. Many critics considered this band to be Kenton's creative peak. As was pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor in 1966, "One gets the feeling that this is what Stan Kenton has been working up to all his musical life ... music that has integrity, individuality, and modernity, without bogging down in atonality, electronic gimmicks, and self-conscious abstractions." In an ironic shift from his past history of popular acceptance and critical derision, the Neophonic Orchestra was championed by the critics but lost money. Financial setbacks forced Kenton to bolster his income by performing with a pickup band, recording albums, and making guest spots on television during the late 1960s.

In the 1970s Kenton devoted more attention to the educational and business ends of his music. By 1975 he was conducting over 100 music clinics a year, as well as four week-long summer clinics on college campuses. At this time he was also distributing various educational materials and stage-band charts, as well as his own albums, with his Creative World company. Still active on the performance circuit with a new band formed in 1970, Kenton toured Europe and Japan during the early and mid 1970s. Various illnesses and hospitalizations slowed him down somewhat, including an aneurysm in 1972 and a cerebral hemorrhage in 1977, before he passed away in 1979. To his dying day he remained highly critical of country music, as well as rock 'n' roll, and had little respect for the musical tastes of people in general. "Sophistication only exists in one or two percent of the masses," he told Thomas Lyles in an interview for the Washington Star in 1975. "And that two per cent is the two per cent that has to support jazz, classical music and the arts. The masses can't communicate with art."

by Ed Decker

Stan Kenton's Career

Began taking piano lessons from mother, 1922; formed group in high school called the Belltones; played in speakeasies and other clubs; performed with Everett Hoagland's band, 1930s; played with dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, 1938?39; studied music theory with Charles Dalmores, late 1930s; landed studio jobs in Hollywood, late 1930s; became pianist and assistant conductor for pit band in Hollywood, CA, 1939; formed Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra, 1940; became well-known as bandleader through radio broadcasts and nationwide touring, 1940s; formed Progressive Jazz Band, 1947; retired briefly due to exhaustion, 1949; assembled Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, 1950; went on first European tour with band, 1953; organized "A Festival of Modern American Jazz" program, 1954; hosted television show called Music '55, 1955; bought Rendezvous Ballroom as home base for his band, 1957; established his first university jazz clinics at Indiana University and Michigan State University, 1959; set up his own promotional organization called The Creative World of Stan Kenton, 1960; formed New Era in Modern Music Orchestra, 1961; created Neophonic Orchestra, 1965; served as guest conductor of Danish Radio Orchestra, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1966; organized clinic for music students at University of Redlands, CA, 1966; produced The Crusade for Jazz, a television special, 1968; produced The Substance of Jazz, a film designed for educators, 1969; began marketing his own records on his Creative World label, 1970; toured Europe and Japan with his band, 1972?75.

Stan Kenton's Awards

Best Big Band, Down Beat, 1947, 1948; elected to Down Beat Music Hall of Fame, 1954; Grammy Award, Stan Kenton's West Side Story, 1961; Grammy Award, Adventures in Jazz, 1962; Jazz Band of the Year, Society for the Appreciation of Big Bands, 1974; honorary doctorates: Villanova University, Drury College, and University of Redlands, CA.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

In 1944,I overheard a dynamic recording over the radio called "Artistry Jumps." Vido Musso's booming tenor solo blew me away! Today's date is December19, 2008. For all these years I have been a Stan Kenton fan.Among others,I have attended Kenton concerts at Symphony Hall in Boston,(the 1972 concert combined the Kenton group with the Boston Pops orchestra with Arthur Fiedler as conductor. Stan was Ill at the time and could not attend.) There are many jazz artists, with many gendres of music. There is one jazz artist who stands alone. Stan looks down on us and smiles, knowing his place in history.