Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stan Kenton - Artistry In Rhythm

It was my father who first introduced me to jazz, simply by playing it when I was around. In my late teens and early twenties I started listening to Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Bird… the bop and post-bop era. My father’s musical taste however was rooted more in the 40’s and 50’s big bands, swing jazz and balladeers. There was of course cross overs, we both loved Kind Of Blue, early Coltrane, Dizzy but in the main we were interested in different styles of jazz. I should point out too that my father was an original "Bodgie" and had been featured in the local paper as an example of the evils of zoot suits and cool jazz. A fact he was quite proud of.
It wasn’t until my father died and I inherited his quite substantial record and CD collection that I really started to listen to the music that he liked. Artists like Billy Eckstine, Errol Garner and Stan Kenton. I’d given them cursory listens before but never really paid too much attention. They were good sure but I was still entranced by Miles’ trumpet lines, Bird’s sax, the fracture of Monk and Mingus. Eckstine’s rich baritone had yet to drag me in and enchant me, Kenton’s bombastic swing just seemed loud and slow. But with time now to listen properly and a collection of their best works in front of me I was discovering the real music and style that was there all the time just waiting for me to catch up.
Stan Kenton in particular was a revelation. Like bop, free jazz, rock and roll, the hippy movement, punk, house, etc Kenton’s music and ideas were ignored and misunderstood by the critics, the press and his peers. He was trying to push the boundaries of what was accepted as swing, as jazz and as popular music. He was incorporating polytonal concepts based on Stravinsky and Bartok. He called his band The Progressive Jazz Orchestra; he made sure his band was louder, bigger and harder than everyone else. He wasn’t short on ideas or ego. But he was also commercially astute enough to record songs that he knew would be hits. There was in fact an almost schizophrenic schism in the band, especially when you look back now over the music and see the track listings that include his more serious compositions like "Concerto To End All Concertos" and "Opus In Pastels" next to novelty songs (and big sellers) like "Across The Alley From The Alamo" and "Shoo Fly Pie & Apple Pan Boogie".
He was also possibly the harbinger of rock and roll although I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted to be thought of as such a barbarian. But his early work in the early and mid 40’s with tracks like Artistry in Rhythm, Eager Beaver, Machito and especially Artistry Jumps foreshadowed the 3 minute rock song’s formula of build up, crescendo and dissolve by a good ten years. And he hit hard, loud and fast.
When Kenton’s band first started playing, it was the white kids, the college boys that got into his music. The critics, the owners of the clubs, other musicians, they didn’t think much of his style. It was too loud, too raucous, you couldn’t call it swing it was too noisy and fast but the kids, they flocked to see the band play. It wasn’t long before the club owners, who personally didn’t understand the popularity of Kenton’s music, were booking him simply because of the crowds the band were drawing. That was the thing about Kenton, the point that the critics, his peers, the purveyors of what was fashionable missed. It was the kids that found Kenton, discovered his music, his power. It wasn’t something their parents understood or liked, it was music that was panned and criticised by the press, it was unfashionable and looked down upon. Who could resist that? It was rock and roll, before rock and roll existed; same feelings, same presence, same empowerment. This was music that belonged to them. And if along the way Stan had some high falootin’ ideas about structure and sound, form, theories on music and its unfortunate categorisation, well that was fine too. They were college kids; they could enjoy the bombastic power and motion as well as understand his theories and ideals.
And it has only really been in the last decade or so that Kenton has really been given his place in jazz history. Sure he was recognised by Downbeat back in the 50’s and given a place in the hall of fame, but there was always a certain amount of resistance in the 60s and 70s to actually admitting that his music was anything more than loud, crass and stilted. The age of the compact disc changed all that. Now the critics and the public could re-enter the Kenton zone and rediscover songs like Peanut Vendor, Alamo, The Artistry tracks and they discovered that he stood the test of time pretty well. And that the fucker could swing with the best of them, when HE wanted to. It also allowed the discovery of his more ambitious projects like City Of Glass. A concept album based more on classical motifs than jazz. An album who’s music is supposed to represent the motion, movement and life of a city. Recorded in 1951 this is one album that has withstood the test of time and still sounds rich and exciting today, drawing you into a city of discoveries, of flowing modes and styles.
Now I know Stan Kenton is white, unfashionable, didn’t do drugs or o.d. or go insane or change the face of music so therefore totally uncool to name drop or to listen to but trust me on this. Grab a six pack, a copy of "Opus In Pastels" [Jazz Roots CD 56023] and sit back and really listen. Oh yeah and turn the fucking thing up loud! That's as good a place to start as any. And when you’ve drunk all six beers put Artistry Jumps [track 1] on repeat and tell me that ‘ain’t rock and roll.
I’d recommend the 4CD box set that came out on Capitol but you might not be ready for that just yet. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a Billy Eckstine concert to listen to.


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