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Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm — Portrait of a Jazz Legend (DVD Review)

25 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$14.99 DVD
Not rated.

Taking a straight-on clinical approach to a rather fascinating figure, this talking-heads portrait is basically “inside baseball” — or as detractors of Kenton might say, inside cacophony. But I like brass, and more times than not, liked Kenton — and if you’re interested in the subject, there are a lot of interesting tangential issues that involved a conservatively garbed guy who stood 6-foor-4 and cut one of the most distinctive figures ever seen on a bandstand.

What you will not get here — and it wouldn’t necessarily be expected from a biopic released under a jazz label umbrella — is any discussion of daughter Leslie Kenton’s recent book about the rape and then consensual incest she suffered from ages 11 through 13 at the hands of a father she loved, though there are allusions in the documentary to his drinking, which eventually got out of hand. Oddly, someone notes that the senior Kenton considered getting out of the band business in the late 1940s to study psychiatry — certainly an interesting juxtaposition there.

Putting all this aside, it is still quite a story that gets a functional telling. Just think: Trying to establish yourself and your group, you have to the fortune to be playing on national radio just when everyone is tuning in because of the Pearl Harbor attack. You sign with fledgling Capitol Records — which, because it is new, settles earlier with the American Federation of Musicians strike that crippled recording during much of World War II. This allows you to record when even singers as big as Crosby and Sinatra had to go through a litany of a cappella backings. You then have the commercial fortune to get (briefly) Anita O’Day as your vocalist — but not so briefly that there isn’t time for a major hit (“And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”). She leaves, but her replacement is the also formidable June Christy (another big hit: “Tampico”). Such commercial success funds experimentation with what Kenton called “progressive jazz” featuring more voluminous instrumentation — which finally proved financially prohibitive when it came time to take double busloads of personnel out on the road.

Then, there’s the jazz-camp part of the story (possibly underrated in terms of Kenton’s heritage) that provided a model for subsequent youth operations that function today — a move not just altruistic but shrewd on Kenton’s part because he was hoping to build a fan base for the future. A list of past students constitutes quite a lineup (I keep trying to imagine what Keith Jarrett must have been like when he was a kid), which brings one to the lineup of major figures who played for Kenton at one time or another. Just a quickie think-back brings to mind Kai Winding, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, the dynamite Anita-June combo and … well, you get the idea.

Not surprisingly and perhaps unavoidably, this is predominantly a talking-heads treatment, though key Kenton arranger Bill Holman does get to talk for himself (predecessor Pete Rugolo doesn’t — though he’s way, way up there at age 95). We see significant musical clips that span the ages (the earlier ones are Soundies, or at least look like Soundies). Interviewed are a couple ex-wives, though the marital chronology isn’t easy to follow. The fact that one former wife committed suicide and a son once got into hot water in an incident involving a rattlesnake and a mailbox — well, it’s indicative of a rather turbulent life when you add the incest. But by all professional accounts, Kenton was a regular guy, and there’s great color footage here from him out on the road pushing the tour bus and loading up on bananas at the grocery store.

Appropriately, the focus here is on Kenton’s prolific output, and the best of it still gives great pleasure: Cuban Fire, Adventures in Jazz and a standout West Side Story album (of many) to name three. He also did an album with Tex Ritter, which my best friend in college used to have — still a musical concept that still to fry anyone’s brain.

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