Stan Kenton

Photo of Stan Kenton
  • Birth Name

    Stanley Newcomb Kenton
  • Born

    February 19, 1912
    Wichita, Kansas
  • Died

    August 25, 1979 (age 67)
    Los Angeles, California

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,[1] 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, 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.


  1. Some sources list his birth­date as December 15, 1911.


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  • And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine
    Stan Kenton (Anita O'Day), Capitol (1944)

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