One of the most innovative and controversial figures in jazz history, Stan Kenton led a series of orchestras that challenged the conventions of big band music. His recordings emphasized advanced harmonies over the typical four-beat swing rhythm. Despised by some, loved by others, he will always be remembered as a true pioneer.
Born February 19, 1912,* in Wichita, Kansas, Kenton spent his early years in Colorado before his family moved to south Los Angeles in 1917. His mother was a classical piano teacher, an instrument which Kenton himself took up at age ten. He showed no real interest in music, though, until age 14, when he first heard jazz. He began to take lessons and soon was playing in a quartet at Bell High School.
In 1930 Kenton joined the Flack Brothers Septet on a six-week tour to Las Vegas, after which he played with a territory band in Arizona. During 1933 and 1934 he worked with the Everett Hoaglund Orchestra at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. In 1935 he joined Russ Plummer's band and later played with the Hal Grayson Orchestra in San Francisco before joining Gus Arnheim in 1936. In 1938 he worked with Vido Musso, and from 1939 to 1940 played piano in the pit band of the Los Angeles production of Earl Carroll's Vanities.
In 1941 Kenton formed a rehearsal band that he soon took commercial, landing bookings at the Rendezvous Ballroom and, later that year, at the Hollywood Palladium. The early group struggled, recording with Decca and spending a brief, unhappy period on Bob Hope's radio show. Though initially geared toward commercial arrangements, the band's imaginative sax voicings, paired with a powerful brass section, quickly developed a following among those who liked their music loud and brash. The band signed with Capitol in 1943, and by 1945 it had finally begun to catch on.
Kenton called his style ''progressive jazz'' and his band ''Artistry in Rhythm.'' The group's fresh new sound attracted adventurous musicians, like Art Pepper, Kai Winding, and Bob Cooper. Arrangements were by Pete Rugolo, Gene Roland, and Kenton himself. Vocalists were Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, and June Christy.
Kenton managed to keep his group together and financially afloat during the late 1940s, long after most of the other big bands had given up. In 1949, though, he took a break, returning the following year with a new band, the 39-piece ''Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra'' that included 16 strings, a woodwind section and two French horns. Though critically-lauded it was a commercial failure, and Kenton was forced to revert to his previous 19-piece line-up.
The ''New Concepts in Artistry and Rhythm Orchestra'' unexpectedly featured a swinging sound. It still maintained the distinctive Kenton style, though, both pleasing his fans and the general public. In 1961 Kenton tried another experiment, the 23-piece ''New Era in Modern Music Orchestra,'' which featured four mellophoniums. Trouble keeping the mellophoniums in tune forced him to disband the group in 1963. In 1965 he founded the 28-piece ''Neophonic Orchestra,'' which performed neo-classical music.
During the 1970s Kenton, who toyed briefly with rock music, continued leading his orchestra and began to make the college lecture and teaching circuit, feeling that the future of progressive jazz lay in the school setting rather than in the commercial world. His health, though, began to deteriorate in the latter part of the decade. He underwent a serious operation in 1977 after a fall caused an aneurysm. In 1979 Stan Kenton passed away, suffering from a massive stroke.
*Some sources list his birthdate as December 15, 1911