Stan Kenton

Stan Kenton

Kenton in 1973
Background information
Birth name Stanley Newcomb Kenton
Born (1911-12-15)December 15, 1911
Wichita, Kansas, United States
Died August 25, 1979(1979-08-25) (aged 67)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Genres Progressive jazz, West Coast jazz, swing
Occupation(s) Bandleader, pianist, composer, arranger
Instruments Piano
Years active 1930s–1970s
Labels Capitol, Decca, Creative World
Associated acts Maynard Ferguson, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O'Day, June Christy, Chris Connor, Art Pepper, Pete Rugolo, Eddie Safranski

Stanley Newcomb "Stan" Kenton (December 15, 1911[1] – August 25, 1979) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger who led an innovative, influential, and often controversial progressive jazz orchestra. In later years he was active as an educator.

Early life

Stan Kenton was born in on December 15, 1911, Wichita, Kansas, and was raised first in Colorado, then in California. (He wrongly believed that his birthdate was February 19, 1912 and many sources still report this date.) He was graduated from Bell High School, in Bell, California, in 1930.


Rise to stardom

Kenton learned piano as a child, and while still a teenager toured with various bands. Kenton played in the 1930s in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, but his natural inclination was as a band leader.

In June 1941 he formed his first orchestra, which later was named after his theme song "Artistry in Rhythm". A competent pianist, influenced by Earl Hines, Kenton was much more important in the early days as an arranger and inspiration for his loyal sidemen. Although there were no major names in his first band (bassist Howard Rumsey and trumpeter Chico Alvarez come the closest), Kenton spent the summer of 1941 playing regularly before a very appreciative audience at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, CA. Influenced by Jimmie Lunceford (who, like Kenton, enjoyed high-note trumpeters and thick-toned tenors), the Stan Kenton Orchestra struggled a bit after its initial success. Its Decca recordings were not big sellers and a stint as Bob Hope's backup radio band during the 1943-44 seasonwas an unhappy experience; Les Brown permanently took Kenton's place.[2]

Stan Kenton with Eddie Safranski, 1947 or 1948

Kenton's first appearance in New York came in February 1942 at Roseland Ballroom, with the marquee featuring an endorsement by Fred Astaire.[3] By late 1943 with a Capitol Records contract, a popular record in "Eager Beaver", and growing recognition, the Stan Kenton Orchestra was gradually catching on; it developed into one of the best-known West Coast ensembles of the 1940s. Its soloists during the war years included Art Pepper, briefly Stan Getz, altoist Boots Mussulli, and singer Anita O'Day. By 1945 the band had evolved quite a bit.[2] The songwriter Joe Greene provided the lyrics for hit songs like "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'".[4] Pete Rugolo became the chief arranger (extending Kenton's ideas), Bob Cooper and Vido Musso offered very different tenor styles, and June Christy was Kenton's new singer; her hits (including "Tampico" and Greene's "Across the Alley from the Alamo") made it possible for Kenton to finance his more ambitious projects. A popular recording of "Laura" was made, the theme song from the film Laura (starring actress Gene Tierney), and featured the voices of the band.[2]

Kids are going haywire over the sheer noise of this band... There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon.
 Barry Ulanov, Metronome, 1948[5]

In the mid-1940s, Kenton's band and style became known as the "wall of sound"[6] or "wall of brass".[7] Calling his music "progressive jazz,"[8] Kenton sought to lead a concert orchestra as opposed to a dance band at a time when most big bands were starting to break up. By 1947 Kai Winding was greatly influencing the sound of Kenton's trombonists, the trumpet section included such screamers as Buddy Childers, Ray Wetzel, and Al Porcino, Jack Costanzo's bongos were bringing Latin rhythms into Kenton's sound, and a riotous version of "The Peanut Vendor" contrasted with the somber "Elegy for Alto". Kenton had succeeded in forming a radical and very original band that gained its own audience.[2]

In 1949 Kenton took a year off. In 1950 he put together his most advanced band, the 39-piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra that included 16 strings, a woodwind section, and two French horns. Its music ranged from the unique and very dense modern classical charts of Bob Graettinger to works that somehow swung despite the weight. Such major players as Maynard Ferguson (whose high-note acrobatics set new standards), Shorty Rogers, Milt Bernhart, John Graas, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Laurindo Almeida, Shelly Manne, and June Christy were part of this remarkable project, but from a commercial standpoint, it was really impossible. Kenton managed two tours during 1950-1951 but soon reverted to his usual 19-piece lineup.[2]

Then quite unexpectedly, Kenton went through a swinging period. The charts of such arrangers as Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Richards, and particularly Bill Holman and Bill Russo began to dominate the repertoire. Such talented players (in addition to the ones already named) as Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, Sal Salvador, Stan Levey, Frank Rosolino, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, Sam Noto, Bill Perkins, Charlie Mariano, Mel Lewis, Pete Candoli, Lucky Thompson, Carl Fontana, Pepper Adams, and Jack Sheldon made strong contributions. The music was never predictable and could get quite bombastic, but it managed to swing while still keeping the Kenton sound.[2]

In 1956, when the band returned from its European trip, the Critics Poll in Down Beat reflected victories by black musicians in virtually every category. The Kenton band was playing in Ontario, Canada, at the time, and Kenton dispatched a telegram which lamented "a new minority, white jazz musicians," and stated his "disgust [with the so-called] literary geniuses of jazz." Jazz critic Leonard Feather, responded in the October 3, 1956, issue with an open letter which questioned Kenton's racial views. Feather implied that Kenton's failure to win the Critics Poll was probably the real reason for the complaint, and wondered if racial prejudice was involved.

Later years

Stan Kenton in Munich, September 25, 1973

Another Kenton successful experiment was his mellophonium band of 1960-1963. Despite the difficulties in keeping the four mellophoniums (which formed their own separate section) in tune, this particular Kenton orchestra had its exciting moments; the albums Kenton's West Side Story (arrangements by Johnny Richards) and Adventures In Jazz, each won Grammy awards in 1962 and 1963 respectively. Kenton Plays Wagner (1964) was an important project, produced in concert with his interests in jazz education and encouraging big band music in high schools and colleges instructing what he called "progressive jazz." Stan knew what he had in the body of work that was The Stan Kenton Orchestra and in the remainder of his life and career, he took on the challenge of ensuring his legacy that was Progressive Jazz.

A somewhat ironic twist to his jazz roots emerged in his 1962 single "Mama Sang A Song". His last US Top 40 (#32 Billboard, #22 Music Vendor), the song was a narration, written by country singer Bill Anderson. He re-released it in the 1970s on his Creative World label.

In the early 1970s Kenton split from his long-time association with Capitol Records and formed his own label, "The Creative World of Stan Kenton". Recordings produced during the 1970s on this new label included several "live" concerts at various universities. Kenton also made his charts available to college and high-school stage bands. When Kenton took to the road during the early 70's and up to his last tour, he took with him seasoned veteran musicians (John Worster, Willie Maiden, Warren Gale, Graham Ellis and others) teaming them with relatively unknown young artists, and new arrangements (including those by Hank Levy, Bill Holman, Bob Curnow, Willie Maiden and Ken Hanna) were used. Many alumni associated with Kenton from this era became educators (Mike Vax, John Von Ohlen, Chuck Carter, and Richard Torres), and a few went on to take their musical careers to the next level, such as (Peter Erskine.

Kenton continued leading and touring with his big band up to his final performance in August 1978.


Kenton was a salient figure on the American musical scene and made an indelible mark on the arranged type of big band jazz. Kenton's music evolved with the times throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and although he was no longer considered a contemporary innovator, he promoted jazz and jazz improvisation through his service as an educator. The "Kenton Style" continues to permeate big bands at the high school and collegiate level, and the framework he designed for the "jazz clinic" is still widely in use today.

His music has experienced a resurgence in interest, with later critical "rediscovery" of his music and many reissues of his recordings. An alumni band tours to this day, led by lead trumpeter Mike Vax, which performs not only classic Kenton arrangements, but also new music written and performed in the Kenton style.

Kenton donated his entire library to the music department of North Texas State University[9] (now the University of North Texas), and the Stan Kenton Jazz Recital Hall is named in his honor. His arrangements are now published by Sierra Music Publications.[10]

Personal life


Kenton was born on December 15, 1911, and his birth certificate states this; but he was conceived out of wedlock, and his parents told him (and everyone else) that he was born on February 19, 1912, to obscure this fact.[1] Kenton believed well into adulthood that February 19, 1912, was his birthday,[1] and recorded a concert on February 19, 1973 which he released as Birthday In Britain.[11] Because this remained a family secret, even his grave marker showed the 1912 birthdate.[1]

Marriages and children

Stan Kenton had three marriages. His first produced a daughter, Leslie, who was a successful expert on and author of several books about health, spirituality and beauty.[12][13] His second – to Ann Richards, who sang with his band and who later shot herself at age 46 – produced two children, daughter Dana and son Lance. All three marriages ended in divorce. Kenton had three grandchildren.[7]


Kenton fractured his skull in a fall in 1977 while on tour in Reading, PA. He entered Midway Hospital on August 17, 1979 after a stroke and died on August 25, 1979. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles.[7] Kenton's consumption of alcohol had grown over the years,[14] and the Telegraph described his death as coming "after a long battle with alcoholism".[15]

Allegations of incest

Kenton's daughter Leslie Kenton wrote a 2010 book "Love Affair" about her upbringing and her close and complicated relationship with her father.[16] In the book, Leslie Kenton alleged that Stan Kenton initiated a sexual relationship with her beginning when she was 11 and lasting three years. In spite of this, Leslie Kenton maintained an emotionally close relationship with her father before, during, and after this time, although also suffering from traumatic effects.[12][13][17][8][15]

Noted band personnel

Composers and Arrangers


Studio albums

Live albums



Stan Kenton's compositions included "Artistry in Rhythm,” "Opus in Pastels,” "Artistry Jumps,” "Reed Rapture,” "Eager Beaver,” “Fantasy," "Southern Scandal,” "Harlem Folk Dance", "Painted Rhythm,” "Concerto to End All Concertos,” “Easy Go,” “Concerto for Doghouse,” “Shelly Manne,” “Balboa Bash,” “Flamenco,” and "Sunset Tower.”

Although several compositions are co-credited to Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo, Rugolo was the primary composer, with Kenton often times merely offering verbal suggestions. Some of these titles include “Minor Riff,” “Collaboration,” "Artistry in Boogie", "Theme to the West,” and “Elegy for Alto.”


  1. 1 2 3 4 Sparke, Michael (2011). Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra!. North Texas Lives of Musicians. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1574413250. Retrieved February 14, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Scott Yanow. "Stan Kenton | Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  3. Spelvin, George (February 21, 1942). "Broadway Beat" (PDF). Billboard. p. 5. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  4. "Joseph Greene, Composer With Stan Kenton's Orchestra, Dies". Los Angeles Times. 1986-06-28. Retrieved 2015-11-13.
  5. Barry Ulanov in Metronome magazine, 1948, cited at John S. Wilson (August 27, 1979). "Stan Kenton, Band Leader, Dies; Was Center of Jazz Controversies". New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2016.
  6. Sparke 2011, p. 50.
  7. 1 2 3 John S. Wilson (August 27, 1979). "Stan Kenton, Band Leader, Dies; Was Center of Jazz Controversies". New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2016.
  8. 1 2 Will Friedwald (January 28, 2011). "A Restless Soul Revealed". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  9. "University of North Texas Libraries". Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  10. "Stan Kenton Orchestra". Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  11. 1 2 "Stan Kenton And His Orchestra – Birthday In Britain". Discogs. Retrieved February 14, 2014. The album was recorded on February 19, which is not Kenton's birthday; at the time, he either thought it was, or was publicly maintaining that it was.
  12. 1 2 Elizabeth Boleman-Herring (February 18, 2012). "Stan Kenton & His Daughter Leslie's 'Love Affair'". The Blog. Huffington Post. Retrieved May 22, 2014.
  13. 1 2 Nick Duerden (February 19, 2010). "Leslie Kenton: 'I was angry, but never hated my father'". The Guardian. Retrieved May 22, 2014.
  14. Sparke 2011, p. 279.
  15. 1 2 Anita Singh (January 30, 2010). "Jazz great Stan Kenton raped his daughter, she claims in new book". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved June 10, 2016.
  16. Kenton, Leslie (2010). Love Affair. Vermilion (Ebury Publishing). ISBN 978-0312659080.
  17. Carlo Wolff (February 20, 2011). "Stan Kenton's daughter opens door to their dark past". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  18. Morgan, Alun (June 24, 1998). "Obituary: Benny Green". The Independent. Retrieved October 4, 2016.


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