by Chuck Reider
Each spring and fall we host a concert at the intimate one hundred seat Good Luck Macbeth theater in mid-town. This November 8th and 9th we are featuring the music of Stan Kenton, legendary bandleader and pioneer in jazz education. A perfect fit as our guest conductor is Vern Scarbrough, director of the Reno Youth Orchestra, and students participating in our Saturday morning jazz workshop open the concert. First, let me tell you about Kenton and his connection to jazz education.
Born December 15, 1911 in Wichita, Kansas the Kenton family moved to southern California in 1924 where his music career began. As a teen he began learning the piano and his high school yearbook picture was captioned “Old Man Jazz”. Quite prescient! By sixteen he was gigging and assembled his first band “The Bell-Tones”. In his twenties he learned his craft performing with the NBC House Band, various studios and clubs, and as Assistant Music Director at the Earl Carroll Theater. He started a rehearsal band which eventually became his first orchestra in 1940. 1943 saw his first record contract with Capitol Records which “Eager Beaver” was a hit. His popularity rose with hits “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” and “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’”. These and other hits financed projects that etched his name in the jazz history and propelled jazz in new directions.
I mentioned in last month’s article that Kenton along with Count Basie and Duke Ellington were at the forefront of taking big bands from the dance hall to the concert hall. In 1946 Kenton released the groundbreaking album “Artistry in Rhythm” featuring Pete Rugolo arrangements. These years were a popular and financial high point for Kenton, but ever reaching for new horizons in jazz he disbanded the Artistry in Rhythm band and created Concerts in Progressive Jazz, a larger ensemble. This ensemble only lasted fourteen months but produced such classics as “The Peanut Vendor” and premiered the arrangements of Russ Garcia. His quest continued with the thirty-nine piece Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra that included a string section, woodwind section, and french horns. The roster of musicians were a who’s who of the L.A. jazz scene where Maynard Ferguson, Art Pepper, and Bud Shank were among those featured. Though an artistic success this ensemble was not financially feasible, so Kenton returned to the standard big band instrumentation. The following years produced many classic Kenton albums such as Kenton in Hi-Fi, Contemporary Concepts, and Cuban Fire featuring arrangements by Johnny Richards, Bill Holman, and Bill Russo.
With the advent of rock and roll Kenton’s popularity was in decline, but his desire to reinvent the Kenton sound led to the introduction of the mellophoniums, similar to French horns, into the orchestra. He earned two Grammys in 1962 and 1963 with “Kenton’s West Side Story” and “Adventures in Jazz”. Always up for a musical challenge he teamed up with country and western star Tex Ritter on the album “Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter!”. Note, I worked in the showrooms with trombonist Dave Wheeler who was on that album. Wheeler said that Ritter was having a hard time finding the beat and would bang the music stand with a pencil to find it. To meet the challenge of the changing recording industry, in 1970 he created Creative World Music and sold records directly to his fans. During his last decade he continued to bring new sounds by introducing arrangers Hank Levy and Bob Curnow. His last performance with the orchestra was August 1978. For over forty years Kenton’s band was home to hundreds of great jazz musicians, arrangers, and vocalists. His legacy lives today through his constant drive to innovate and to share his jazz knowledge through his clinics.
Because Kenton recognized that students who loved jazz did not have a venue to learn it and that the survival of jazz depends on future generations of jazz musicians, he founded his summer programs in 1959. The first of their kind. What began at Indiana University blossomed to two more locations in 1961 and in 1967 he formed Stan Kenton Jazz Clinic held at the University of Redlands. By 1975 there were one hundred clinics a year! Did they have an impact? Well consider some former students, Randy Brecker, Lyle Mays, David Sanborn, Keith Jarrett, and eleven-year old Peter Erskine. That truly is a legacy. This brings me to our guest conductor Vern Scarbrough.
Scarbrough is the co-founder (with wife Karen) and Director of the Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO) I and II. He and his wife formed RYJO in 2006 and are creating a legacy of their own by providing an opportunity for our students to flourish in jazz. Many have gone on to study music at college and to come back and be a part of Reno’s jazz community. In fact, RYJO alumni Chris Casaceli, Kim Rubio, and RYJO co-director Doug Coomler will be performing as a part of the RJO’s Kenton concerts. This year the Billy Strayhorn Foundation recognized their passion with the Billy Strayhorn Education Scholarship Award. For those not familiar with the Strayhorn name, he was Duke Ellington’s co-writer for many years and a great composer in his own right. As I write this the Scarbroughs are auditioning RYJO band members for the 2019-20 season and have recently released a CD single “Perfidia” featuring the RYJO vocalist. For more information about RYJO visit their website www.renoyouthjazzorchestra.com.
Let’s get back to our November concerts. Scarbrough has chosen eighteen Kenton charts spanning his entire forty-year career from the early charts “Opus in Pastels” and “Artistry in Bolero” to “Beeline East” of later years. Kenton fans will be familiar with “The Peanut Vendor” and “A Little Minor Booze”. Opening the concert is always one of my highlights. Students of the RJO’s Saturday jazz workshops open the show after spending eight Saturday mornings learning song melodies and then soloing over those songs, all by ear. Dylan Coleman-Tunstall is the director for those sessions and he will lead two groups, the intermediate and advanced groups. The RJO is proud to be a part of Reno’s jazz legacy and are so thrilled that the next generation of jazz musicians is stepping up.
Join us November 8th and 9th 7:30pm 124 West Taylor Street in the heart of Midtown. Tickets and more information at www.renojazzorchestra.org
My wish is Kenton’s spirit joins us in a celebration of his music and passion for jazz education.
Stan Kenton on YouTube
And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine