Stan Kenton

Photo of Stan Kenton

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 in Wichita, Kansas,[1] Kenton spent his early years in Colorado before his family moved to south Los Angeles in 1917. His mother taught classical piano, an instrument which Kenton himself took up at age ten, though he showed no serious interest in music until he turned fourteen, when he began to take lessons.

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 in 1940 played piano in the pit band of the Los Angeles production of Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

Early Band

In May 1941, Kenton formed a rehearsal band that he soon took professional, landing bookings at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, where they spent the entire summer, and at the Hollywood Palladium in November, where they broke opening night attendance records. The group attracted a great deal of attention for their interesting compositions, featuring arrangements by Ralph Yaw and by Kenton himself, though Kenton soon became sole arranger. Kenton’s book was decidedly non-commercial, containing few pop tunes. Terry Harlan was female vocalist during the summer, with Kay Gregory replacing her by September. Tenor saxophonist Red Dorris sang male vocals.

Despite the band’s success in their home state, audiences on the East Coast proved more difficult, with many calling them “overrated” and “oversold” after their debut at the Roseland Ballroom in early 1942, which was acknowledged as a flop by even the band’s most ardent admirers. After their Roseland engagement, the orchestra went on a tour of the East before settling in for the summer at the famous Meadowbrook in New Jersey, where they finally found an appreciative audience and broke attendance records. Female vocalist Helen Huntley had accompanied the band east but was released soon after the Roseland engagement, leaving Doris as sole vocalist for a while. Eve Knight had joined by April, remaining through at least July, with Dolly Mitchell settling in for the long term by October. While on the East Coast, the band made its first recordings with Decca.[2]

Kenton’s music divided critics and audiences. 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, but others absolutely hated it, especially dancers and ballroom owners. The band’s odd timing and chord progressions made them extremely undanceable. Kenton was unapologetic to his naysayers, telling Down Beat magazine that he’d go back to playing piano in a saloon if the public didn’t accept his style.

I don’t claim to have the greatest band in the business, but I do feel my band is doing something different in the jazz field. I’ve got a lot of ideas. Some I’ve used, and some I haven’t gotten around to trying yet. But you can lay this on this board—we’re going ahead doing what we think is right… My own ideas may be wrong, but I’m going to stick with them until they break me.

By mid-1943, however, Kenton had given in to popular opinion and altered his style to be more commercially acceptable, using three pop tunes to every original super-arrangement. He told Down Beat:

Sure I’ve made concessions that I never thought I’d have to make. It was either that or completely giving up a musical idea that I still think is right.

Commercial Acceptance

Signing with Capitol in late 1943, the orchestra released several well-received sides the following year. Kenton began calling his new style progressive jazz and his band “Artistry in Rhythm.” Kenton’s change in style helped the band land a spot on Bob Hope’s radio show for the 1943-1944 season, though Kenton was unhappy working within the constraints of network radio, figuring it would cost him $50,000 in lost revenue because the band couldn’t travel. His managers, however, took the position that the notoriety would boost his ability to demand top rates later.

When vocalist Mitchell departed in April 1944, Anita O’Day took over. A talented jazz singer, O’Day had earned a national reputation from her time with both Gene Krupa and Woody Herman, and she brought much more visibility to Kenton’s band during her stay, singing on their first hit song, “And Her Tears Fell Like Wine.”

Dorris, facing imminent induction, left the band at about the same time as Mitchell, wanting to spend what remaining days he had with his family before entering the service. To replace him, Kenton brought in another former Krupa singer, Gene Howard. Howard was also a talented arranger and did his own arrangements. Unfortunately for Howard, according to him, Capitol disliked his voice and late in 1944 asked Kenton not to use him on any more recordings. Howard continued to sing with the band, however, and occasionally record until late 1946, when he became the band’s advanced publicity agent.

O’Day left the band in February 1945, replaced by the equally capable June Christy, who provided vocals on several of the band’s hit tunes, including “Tampico” in 1945 and “Shoo Fly Pie” in 1946. In late 1946, Capitol signed Christy to record as a solo artist while still remaining with the band. Christy, however, announced her departure soon after, only to change her mind and remain. At the end of 1947, Kenton added a vocal group whom he called the Pastels. Kenton also attempted but failed to lure former Duke Ellington singer Herb Jeffries into the band to replace Howard.

The band’s fresh sound attracted adventurous musicians, including Kai Winding, Stan Getz, Vido Musso, Ray Wetzel, and arranger Pete Rugolo. When Musso left to form his own band again in summer 1946, Red Dorris returned to take his place, though Musso soon returned. Kenton’s band cracked the top ten of Down Beat’s annual poll for best swing band in 1944, finishing fifth. In 1945, he moved up a notch to fourth, and in 1946 he placed second.

Overwork and Exhaustion

In early 1947, Kenton’s manager informed the trade press that Kenton, under doctor’s orders, would disband on May 1 and take a vacation before reorganizing on August 15. Though close to suffering a nervous breakdown from years of hard work and an ongoing divorce, Kenton cancelled his vacation after fans and promoters sent him telegrams asking him to continue. His health soon collapsed however, and on April 16 he told the band he couldn’t continue any longer and wired his agency to cancel future dates. Kenton’s manager asked the band’s members to only take temporary jobs so they could rejoin on “a minute’s notice.” Several of his men put together a group billed as “Stan Kenton’s All-Stars,” led by Musso, and took a job at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago until Kenton reformed. Christy, married to band saxophonist Bob Cooper, confirmed that she would return after the break, though her success working as a single in the interim put that in doubt.

Kenton began to reorganize in August, with Christy finally deciding to return and the band playing its first date the following month at Balboa Beach, where Kenton had made his original debut in 1941. In 1947, he topped the poll for favorite band, taking second place in 1948. 1948, though, proved another exhausting year, with the band constantly working. A few musicians left due to the grueling schedule, while others contemplated doing the same.

In December 1948, Kenton disbanded for what he called a short vacation, during which, tired of playing locations where patrons expected pop music, he planned to organize a network of clubs and night spots that catered exclusively to jazz. Soon after, however, he sent telegrams to all his members informing them that he was quitting the music business. Kenton later told Down Beat that he had left because of the intense schedule he had to keep in order to remain successful.

Later Career

Kenton returned in 1950 with a new band, the 39-piece “Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra” that included 16 strings, a woodwind section and two French horns. Christy again became female vocalist, with Rugolo as arranger. The band performed through early June and made recordings before breaking up for the season. Though critically-lauded, it was a commercial failure, and Kenton returned in late June with his previous 19-piece line-up, sans Christy for the first time in six years. The “New Concepts in Artistry and Rhythm Orchestra” unexpectedly featured a swinging sound while still maintaining the distinctive Kenton style, both pleasing his fans and the general public.

Though originally developed for a series of weekend dates at Balboa Beach, Kenton eventually took his new band on the road. He again placed first in Down Beat’s band poll that year. In mid-1951, he organized a new 40-piece Innovations orchestra, with Christy returning for a series of concerts starting in September.[3] He reverted back to a 19-piece orchestra again for early 1952. Kenton finished first for best band in Down Beat’s 1951 and 1952 poll. In 1961, he 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, started 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.

Political Controversies

Kenton was an outlier in the band world in more ways than just his music. Unlike the vast majority of jazz artists, he leaned solidly to the right in his politics, which sometimes brought him into conflict with his peers, especially on matters of racial equality. Though he greatly admired Duke Ellington, Kenton’s band was almost exclusively white over the years, with the hiring of the occasional light-skinned black musician. Kenton often referred to his arrangements as superior to those of black bands and once proclaimed that his orchestra was more popular in Europe than Ellington and Basie because “the harmonic structure of Negro jazz was not enough to satisfy Europeans.”

Kenton’s attitudes towards race were well-known in the jazz community, though many gave Kenton the benefit of the doubt and looked the other way. That is, until 1956, when, upset that African-American artists had dominated a Down Beat critics’ poll while he had finished at the bottom, Kenton sent an angry telegram to the magazine which read:

Just saw your fourth jazz critics’ poll. It’s obvious that there is a new minority group, “white jazz musicians.” The only thing I gained from studying the opinions of your literary geniuses of jazz is complete and total disgust.

Kenton’s telegram provoked a major backlash, and many people distanced themselves from him. Noted jazz musician, critic and journalist Leonard Feather wrote a long response in Down Beat, condemning Kenton’s views. In the 1960s, Kenton supported white supremacist George Wallace in his campaigns for president.


  1. Kenton’s birth date is often listed February 19, 1912, even in obituaries and the California Death Index, though the United States Social Security Death Index lists the 1911 date. According to secondary sources, Kenton’s parents lied about his birth date because he had been conceived out of wedlock, with Kenton only learning the truth later in life. ↩︎

  2. None of Kenton’s 1942 recordings had vocals. Kenton was unhappy with their quality as well, saying they didn’t reflect the band’s sound accurately. ↩︎

  3. Kenton had tried to get “Peruvian” singer Yma Sumac for the 1951 Innovations tour but wasn’t successful. Sumac’s trills, growling, and high-piercing shrieks would have made an interesting combination with Kenton’s music. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Red Doris
Terry Harlan
Kay Gregory
Helen Huntley
Eve Knight
Dolly Mitchell

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. O'Day, Anita. High Times Hard Times. 2nd ed. New York: Limelight, 2004.
  3. “Stan Kenton Band to East.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1941: 7.
  4. Emge, Charlie. “Ralphs Wonder and Yaw Are Guns in Stan Kenton Band's Jump to Headlines.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1941: 13.
  5. “Stan Kenton Ork Set for New York Debut at Door.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 1.
  6. “Stan Kenton Ork in Full.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 13.
  7. “Stan Kenton Cracks JD's Opening Marks.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 11.
  8. “Stan Kenton a Hollywood Riot.” Billboard 3 Jan. 1942: 13.
  9. “Stan Kenton To New York This Week.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 1.
  10. “On the Stand: Stan Kenton.” Billboard 14 Feb. 1942: 22.
  11. “Mixed Reaction on Kenton Band's First N.Y. Job.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 2.
  12. “Checking Over.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 2.
  13. Frazier, George. “Stan Kenton Band's Will Devastate 'Em!” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1942: 9.
  14. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 4 Apr. 1942: 23.
  15. “On the Air: Stan Kenton.” Billboard 18 Jul. 1942: 22.
  16. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 24 Oct. 1942: 16.
  17. Beckwith, Fred. “Chords and Discords: How About Kenton?” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1942: 11.
  18. “Night Club Reviews: Sherman Hotel, Panther Room, Chicago.” Billboard 19 Dec. 1942: 14.
  19. “On the Stand: Stan Kenton.” Billboard 19 Dec. 1942: 23.
  20. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Stan Kenton.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 4.
  21. “Swing Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 13.
  22. “Kenton Revisits St. Louis, Draws Bigger Crowds.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1943: 9.
  23. Meehan, Reg. “I'll Go back to a Saloon If I Fail.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1943: 15.
  24. “Kenton Style Altered Drastically.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1943: 21.
  25. “Costs Kenton $50,000 to Play for Hope.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1943: 2.
  26. “Swing Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 13.
  27. “Send Birthday Greetings To.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1944: 15.
  28. “Kenton Loses Tenor; Adds Anita O'Day.” Down Beat 1 May 1944: 7.
  29. “Stan Kenton Adds Three.” Billboard 6 May 1944: 13.
  30. “Swing Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1945: 13.
  31. “Kenton Loses Anita O'Day.” Billboard 24 Feb. 1945: 27.
  32. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Billboard 1 May 1945: 4.
  33. Ehrlich, Evelyn. “Kenton Almost Hit Top With First Band.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1945: 4.
  34. “Kenton Uses Ork As Medium For His Unique Ideas.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1945: 12.
  35. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Stan Kenton.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1945: 11.
  36. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Kenton Solid Click On First NYC Hotel Date.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1945: 2.
  37. “Swing Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 5.
  38. “On the Stand: Stan Kenton.” Billboard 9 Mar. 1946: 36.
  39. “Kenton Crew Worth A Long Trip Anytime.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 5.
  40. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1945: 29.
  41. “Vaudeville Reviews: Million Dollar, Los Angeles.” Billboard 17 Aug. 1946: 40.
  42. “Vido Musso to Have Own Band.” Down Beat 12 Aug. 1946: 1.
  43. “Music As Written.” Billboard 19 Oct. 1946: 32.
  44. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 26 Oct. 1946: 49.
  45. “Music As Written.” Billboard 2 Nov. 1946: 30.
  46. “Hefti Fills In With Kenton.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1946: 1.
  47. “Stan Has Name But No Group.” Down Beat 2 Dec. 1946: 1.
  48. “June Christy Leaving Stan.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 1.
  49. “Trade Tattle: Locations.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 14.
  50. “June Christy To Stick, Jeffries Won't Join Stan.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1947: 7.
  51. “Kenton Defies Doctors, To Work.” Down Beat 23 Apr. 1947: 1.
  52. “Yes, In The Spring, Young Man's Fancy.” Down Beat 23 Apr. 1947: 8.
  53. “Stan Throws In Towel, Busts Ork.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 2.
  54. “Stan Relaxing On Ranch, No Plans.” Down Beat 21 May 1947: 6.
  55. “Kenton All-Stars at Sherman.” Down Beat 4 Jun. 1947: 1.
  56. “Kenton To Rebuild Band On Coast.” Down Beat 13 Aug. 1947: 1.
  57. “Christy, Manne To Rejoin Kenton.” Down Beat 27 Aug. 1947: 1.
  58. “Kenton Starts This Weekend At Balboa.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 1.
  59. “Stan, Duke, Hamp Tops.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1947: 1.
  60. Harris, Pat. “Here's Summary of Music World Doings Since January, 1947.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1947: 3.
  61. “Kenton Chances Blasting A Path To Prostration.” Down Beat 2 Jun. 1948: 10.
  62. Ronan, Eddie. “Kenton And Gastel In Amicable Split.” Down Beat 30 Jun. 1948: 1.
  63. Egan, Jack. “Kenton Plan Seeks Spots Exclusively For Modern Jazz.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1948: 1.
  64. “Stan Cops 2nd.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1948: 1.
  65. “Kenton Quits Music Business.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1949: 1.
  66. “Price We Paid Too Great.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1949: 1.
  67. “Barnet Restyles Band To Help Fill Kenton's Gap.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1949: 1.
  68. “Wald, Too, Gives Stan's Ideas A Try.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1949: 1.
  69. “Kenton Readies Ork For Concert Tour.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1949: 2.
  70. “Kenton To Debut In 'Workshop Concert.'” Down Beat 13 Jan. 1950: 1.
  71. Hallock, Ted. “Kenton's Music 'Greatest Ever.'” Down Beat 24 Mar. 1950: 1.
  72. “Christy, Kenton On The Cover.” Down Beat 14 Jun. 1950: 1.
  73. Emge, Charles. “Kenton Winds Up 1st Innovations Tour.” Down Beat 14 Jul. 1950: 5.
  74. Emge, Charles. “Kenton Back—With A Dance Ork!” Down Beat 28 Jul. 1950: 1.
  75. “Kenton, Shearing Poll Winners.” Down Beat 29 Dec. 1950: 1.
  76. “Click Purchase Falls Through.” Down Beat 12 Jan. 1951: 10.
  77. “Kenton Lectures On Jazz At Minn.” Down Beat 9 Mar. 1951: 7.
  78. “Kenton Packs The Palladium.” Down Beat 6 Apr. 1951: 1.
  79. “Music Biz Is Sick, But Jazz Will Never Die, Says Kenton.” Down Beat 20 Apr. 1951: 2.
  80. “Only Gioga, Alvarez Left Of Stan's Original Crew.” Down Beat 20 Apr. 1951: 3.
  81. “New Kenton Singer.” Down Beat 13 Jul. 1951: 4.
  82. “June To Rejoin Stan For Tour.” Down Beat 7 Sep. 1951: 1.
  83. “Kenton Full Of Faith As '51 Tour Opens'.” Down Beat 19 Oct. 1951: 3.
  84. McCormick, Mack. “Rogers, Russo Works Are Peaks Of '51 Innovations.” Down Beat 16 Nov. 1951: 1.
  85. “Kenton, Shearing Victors Again.” Down Beat 28 Dec. 1951: 1.
  86. “Ferguson, Manne, Pepper, Others Exit Kenton Band.” Down Beat 21 Mar. 1952: 3.
  87. “Kenton, Shearing Win Again.” Down Beat 31 Dec. 1952: 1.
  88. Hentoff, Nat. “Kenton Calls Europe Trip 'A Fantastic Experience.'” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1953: 4.
  89. Feather, Leonard. “Dear Stan.” Down Beat 3 Oct. 1956: 17.
  90. “United States Social Security Death Index,” database, FamilySearch ( : 9 January 2021), Stanley Kenton, Aug 1979; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).
  91. “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” database, FamilySearch ( : 26 November 2014), Stanley Newcomb Kenton, 25 Aug 1979; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.