Stan Kenton : The Post War Pop Hits©2006JCMarion


Stan (Stanley Newcomb) Kenton was born in December of 1911 in Wichita, Kansas, but grew up in Southern California, in the Los Angeles area. He studied music as a teenager, both composition and piano until at age 22 he joined the orchestra of Everett Hoagland which had a steady gig at Balboa Beach. After a number of jobs in the Southern California area he realized in 1941 that the only way he could control his creativity and gather its rewards was to organize his own band playing his own arrangements the way he saw fit. Thus began one of the most adventurous and prolific careers in what is called “progressive” or modern jazz. The aim here is not to discuss and expand on the jazz career of Kenton but rather to concentrate on the impact he made on mainstream popular music during the decade following the second world war, the scope of this publication. Kenton was one of the very very few musicians that successfully bridged the gap from the serious presentation of American jazz to the pop music best sellers during the Interlude Era.

Stan Kenton had written a complex work which he called “Artistry In Rhythm” and it was well liked by fans of the band and Kenton responded by naming his orchestra after that song which made the top sales charts in 1944, the year he had a monster hit record with “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” / “How Many Hearts Have You Broken” on Capitol # 166. “Tears” with a vocal by Anita O’Day was a top ten seller and a four month mainstay on the best sellers. “Tampico” on # 202 featuring new band vocalist June Christy (who would provide subsequent vocals on future Kenton recordings), and “Its Been A Long Long Time” on # 219 were also solid sellers in late 1945 for Kenton. Now the war was over and 1946 dawned and the Stan Kenton band was well known enough to have racked up six solid hits in the previous two years, no small feat for a big band playing “progressive jazz”.

In early 1946 Kenton recorded a snappy swinging version of “Artistry In Rhythm” which he called “Artistry Jumps” and Capitol released the song on # 229. The flip side was also good enough to make the charts – “Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’ “. The record got to the number fifteen position in the country. In the spring of 1946 June Christy vocalized a novelty tune with the band that turned out to be the biggest post war hit the band ever had – “Shoo Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy” (with "I've Been Down In Texas" on the flip side). The song written about a sweet treat favored by the Pennsylvania Dutch community (shoo fly from the action taken while the pie was being cooled on a window sill) took the country by storm. A competing version by Dinah Shore was also a big seller but it was the Christy-Kenton version on Capitol # 235 that came out on top. A top five seller and a three month stay on the charts solidified Kenton as a pop music star of the first order. This continued success with the mainstream audience by a “committed” jazz artist led to a great deal of resentment and a mid forties version of charges of “selling out” his principles for mass appeal. This would trouble Kenton until the end of his career.  Stan Kenton continued to go his own way, his critics be damned.

In 1947 he reformed his band by expanding the brass section and called his new unit “The Progressive Jazz Orchestra”, and coined the term for the music he composed and arranged. Kenton continued to score on the popular music front. Another novelty tune “His Feet Too Big For De Bed” on # 361, featuring trombonist Kai Winding and June Christy with The Pastels ("Down In Chi-Hua-Hua" on the flip side) was a number twelve seller. The follow up record found Kenton recording one of his forays into progressive jazz with "The Concerto To End All Concertos" parts 1 and 2 on # 382 which did not dent the pop charts ,but  a cover of The Mills Brothers hit “Across The Alley From The Alamo” on # 387 with saxist Vido Musso and vocals by Christy with The Pastels (coupled with "There Is No Greater Love") , was a good seller for the band getting into the top ten and having a good run on the charts. "Alone Too Long" / "Don't Take Your Love From Me" on # 14302 was not successful, but one last charted hit in 1947 was the song “Curiosity” (b/w "Theme From The West") with another June Christy vocal on # 15005 again for Capitol Records. Balancing his “Progressive Jazz” presentations along with some successes in the mainstream pop field continued to make the Kenton orchestra unique in music. 1948 was not a particularly bountiful year for him on the pop charts but even when he concentrated on being taken seriously as a jazz artist and composer he had limited success with the public at large. “I Told Ya I Love Ya Now Get Out” with Christy on # 15018, a novelty tune (coupled with "Unison  Riff")  and then another Christy vocal on “Lonely Woman” both of which charted in the top twenty five, as did Kenton’s version of the pop standard “How High The Moon” with June Christy on # 15117 (with the lovely "Interlude" on the other side).

In 1950 Stan Kenton re-programmed his orchestra again, this time bringing up the membership to more than forty in a huge endeavor called “The Innovations In Modern Music Orchestra”. Two new names from this aggregation were trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers, and trumpet star Maynard Ferguson. Before the big band left on a national tour, Capitol Records tried something different – pairing the Kenton band with long time star pianist and vocalist Nat Cole. The result was the recording of “Orange Colored Sky” on Capitol # 1184 (note the constantly changing numbering system used by the label). The record was a huge success spending most of the second half of 1950 on the charts and getting as high as number five in the country. Kenton hits again, this time thanks to the vocal artistry of Nat “King” Cole.

In the spring of 1951 Kenton records the old American chestnut “September Song” (made famous in the play “Knickerbocker Holiday”) featuring Art Pepper on alto sax and the resulting sales are a surprise. It is a solid hit inside the top twenty and it has “legs” remaining on the best seller charts for three months. Later in the year is another surprise with the success of the Stan Kenton version of the movie theme song “Laura” done by everybody from Tony Martin to Spike Jones. Kenton’s version with some of his noted jazzmen such as Art Pepper, Bud Shank, and Maynard Ferguson, is a solid top ten seller for Capitol on # 1704 (with "Jump For Joe" on the back) . During 1952 Stan gives up the huge orchestra and forms the “New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra” with less than half the members. During the year the only chart action by the band is a cover of Percy Faith’s hit “Delicado” released on # 2040 that does manage to hit number twenty five.

In 1953 the Kenton band featured new vocalist Chris Connor who replaced June Christy, and her vocal on the novelty pop tune “And The Bull Walked Around Olay” on Capitol # 2388 and “Hush-A-Bye” from the remake of “The Jazz Singer” with Danny Thomas on # 2373 barely charted in the top thirty. Kenton had one last hit on the pop charts which came in early 1954. A cover version of “The Creep” a dance tune from England originally recorded by The Three Suns was released on Capitol # 2685. That ended a run of eighteen chart hits since 1946 (plus the six from the prior two years) for Stan Kenton. This was certainly not an easy task for one so steeped in the complexities of modern jazz and its intricate compositions. But - Kenton made it work and the results were not always fashionable to achieve. It can be said he lived up to the lesson of Sinatra’s theme and did it his way. Stan Kenton – a true American original.

There is a huge body of work by Stan Kenton that is available on cd. A great number of live performaces from his career are among them. However there is no single package that concentrates on his pop chart hits. The closest to that is a four disc set called "The Stan Kenton Story" for Proper Box. It contains 92 tracks and a lot of the big sellers are included. There is also "The Very Best Of . . ." on Empress (24 tracks), "The Ballad Style" on Blue Note with 13 tracks, and "Artistry In Rhythm" for Dutton Vocalion with 25 tracks. For the more definitive catalog seekers there is "Complete Capitol Studio Recordings" a seven disc set from Blue Note with 154 tracks, "Complete Capitol Studio Transcriptions from Definitive with 54 tracks,  "The Complete Capitol Master Takes" from the same label, and the Jazz Classics series "The Chronological Stan Kenton" with volumes from 1945, 1946, 1947 in two volumes, 1950, and 1951. The other years are probably available as well. "Transcription Performances : 1945-46" for Hep has 25 tracks, and for the last word there is a video dvd called "The Lost Concert" from March 18, 1978 at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles which is the last performance of the last Kenton band.

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