People I’ve Met Along The Way: Stan Kenton

Feb 15, 2012 by

People I’ve Met Along The Way:  Stan Kenton

Some the earliest recollections of my childhood are of watching my dad play the banjo, saxophone and drums. He and my mother were children of the 1920’s Flapper Era but, both being musicians, they adapted to swing and the syncopated jazz big band sounds of the early thirties and forties. My dad settled on drums as his instrument of choice and as with everything else he ever did he became an excellent drummer. He was soon playing dynamic rhythms with a big band from the late thirties through most of the war years. My mother sang with that same band, Harvey Owens and the “Swingster’s”. Harvey led a group of sixteen musicians every weekend at a local ballroom for entertainment-starved dancers. Remember this was the thirties and forties when the only form of home entertainment was the radio and if you were really lucky (and rich) a record player. All of the members of the orchestra had other jobs at which they made their livings, but music provided them all with a chance to exercise their artistic talents and the three dollars and fifty cents a night salary they were paid was not that bad either.

Speaking of their pay, which sounds ridiculously low in this day and age, the tip jar on the piano was how my mom was paid. I remember nights sitting around our kitchen table when she would count out the pennies, nickels and dimes and an occasional quarter that was tossed in the jar for her to sing a requested song. When her total was more than my dad was paid she would tease him unmercifully. It was her way of protesting being treated as a lesser member of the orchestra. Even Vi Rogers, the band’s piano player didn’t get three fifty. Because she was a woman, and even though she was a member of the Musician’s Union, Vi was still paid less than the men. She finally threatened to quit unless she was paid the same as the other band members. Harvey Owens, an old time showman and vaudevillian finally gave in and upped her salary to three dollars. She settled for that for a while but between her and my mom, Harvey knew no peace with his lady band members until he finally agreed to pay them three dollars and fifty cents a night. After that the tip jar was split between all of the musicians, mom and Vi included.

As a youngster you might say I learned my appreciation of big band music in that old Foster Park Ballroom. I was fascinated by the blaring trumpets and trombones in the back rows and that fascination has stayed with me ever since. It is probably why I chose the trumpet as my instrument later on. Listening to the brass of a big band became an unquenchable thirst for me. In the summer of 1941 my parents took us to Balboa Island for our one-week vacation. It was a paradise for kids with the old Balboa Penny Arcade, the seafood restaurants and the clear cool quiet waters of the bay to swim and boat in. For a kid of ten I loved Balboa Island even more than I did Catalina Island. I became an ace at the old Roll a Ball game where you would roll a ball up to a rise on the machine so the ball would fly into the air and hopefully land in one of the open holes with different scores on them. Real Kewpie Dolls were given as prizes and my sister still has one that she won playing Roll a Ball.

We loved to take long walks while we were there. On one of them my dad’s ears went up and he said, “Listen, do you hear that? That’s a big band playing nearby.” Well it didn’t take us long to find the source of the sounds. They were coming from a huge wooden building with a sign that identified it as, “The Rendezvous Ballroom”. The band was brassy and loud so I was captivated from the first notes I heard from the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Stan was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1915, cut his big band teeth with some of the early big bands of 1930’s such as Gus Arnheim and Vido Musso. His piano style was patterned after the Kansas City jazz legend Earl “Father” Hines and the greatest influence in his arranging skills he credited to Claude Thornhill.

That summer day Kenton’s 14-piece band was rehearsing some new numbers and we stayed and listened to our free concert until they broke up for dinner. None of us knew who Stan Kenton was. I’m pretty sure we may have been listening to his first gig at the Balboa Ballroom, if it wasn’t the first it sure wasn’t far from it. Mom and dad went back that night and danced to the music but they mostly listened to the new sound Kenton had devised which was a loud brassy sound with soloists hitting notes no one had ever included in their arrangements before.

By the time I was eleven or twelve Mr. Kenton was all the rage in a war weary, entertainment starved country. His popularity grew with his recording successes. Some of his recordings, Across the Alley From the Alamo and Tampico, both featuring vocalist June Christie, and instrumental pieces such as Intermission Riff and his theme song, Artistry in Rhythm, were very popular in the late 40’s. Replacing Anita O’Day with June Christie as his “out front singer” was a stroke of genius for both Miss Christie and for the popularity of the band. By the time I was a junior in high school it was a must see event when Kenton brought his whole band and Miss Christie to the Santa Barbara Armory. I was an occasional reporter for the school paper and so with my trusty Kodak Brownie under my arm I got myself and two buddies into the concert free so I could do an interview with Mr. Kenton.

I have no idea what I asked him or for that matter what I asked Miss Christie who came up to us while the interview was in progress. It was done, by the way, with Kenton sitting at the piano and Miss Christie leaning in to hear what was said. I know he said he wanted to thank all of the youngsters at Ventura High School for being such loyal fans. Somewhere, in the deepest darkest depths of a drawer full of pictures I have three or four black and white shots of Kenton playing piano while June Christie was singing a Pete Rugolo arrangement of Midnight Sun. I also got most of the band member’s autographs on a one-dollar bill that I still have and even though the ink is turning brown from age you can still read the signatures. It was a singular experience for three 16-year old high school students who had Kenton’s style and sound indelibly inscribed in their brains that night.

A few years later I was attending school in Hollywood at Don Martin’s School of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences. Donna and I rented our home in Ventura to a nice couple while I went to school in Tinsel Town. We, in turn, rented a house on Cahuenga Boulevard almost under the new (at the time) Hollywood Freeway. It was not even open to traffic yet but it made a great playground for my daughters Terri and Vicki who were three and two at the time. While I was going to school to learn how to be a disc jockey Stan Kenton was becoming more and more popular.

His recordings were selling in the millions and his ever changing musical style just made him more and more popular. I played his records every night on my late night show, Midnight Matinee on KVEN radio in Ventura. Although it was basically a Rock and Roll show, I intermixed Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll with Jazz. Norman Grantz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic was always a big hit as was anything of Stan Kenton’s.

When I heard that Stan had been booked into Szardi’s in Hollywood I just had to go. Szardi’s was just west of Vine St. on Hollywood Blvd. It was a hole in the wall nightclub that seated 100 patrons at the most. The place became famous for booking in “A” talent and then charging a huge cover charge, three drink minimum and ten per cent mandatory tips for the waitresses. With Kenton’s 16-piece band crushed up against the back wall they were lucky to get 75 patrons in the joint, but they came in droves. It took me a week of bargaining with Sammy Laine, Frankie Laine’s brother who was A and R man for Capitol Records at the time, to get reservations for four. Donna, Bob Greene from Mutual Broadcasting Company, Bob’s his date, and me were seated in a front row table where we were offered ear plugs.

At the time, around 1956, Kenton was reclaiming his jazz sound that he had abandoned for Symphonia orchestral arrangements with orchestras that had as many as fifty musicians. We were all delighted to hear the Stan Kenton sound that we had grown up with and had a few more than the required three drinks. We stayed the whole night and I had trumpets and trombones ringing in my ears for days afterwards but what a night it was. I even got to say hi to Kenton who knew Bob Greene from the old days. I reminded him of our interview in Santa Barbara so many years before and he remembered me. After the concert was over he came back to our table with two copies of his album, Artistry in Rhythm, and thanked us for coming.

I have been told that Kenton was a cold, calculating musician who ruined a lucrative career by dreaming of larger and larger jazz orchestras. Well he may have been that to some but to me he was a warm, intelligent, outgoing professor of music whose every note meant something to him. His big disappointment was that they didn’t mean the same to everyone else.

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2 Comments

  1. Billy, Billy, Billy…Oh that we could somehow fly back in time to that night when you and George Essick and I went to Santa Barbara in George’s Model A to hear Kenton. What a night of memories it was. June Christie singing “Midnight Sun” in front of that extraordinary orchestra. I wish George had lived long enough that he could relive our precious memories with us…Grateful to God that we are still here…My love to you my dear friend. Thank you for the tribute…JWSIII

  2. William (Bill) J. Nelson

    A truly wonderful article that recreates for me, nostalgia of lasting value as I
    relive some truly great teenage memories. I was and still am a fierce Stan Kenton
    fan. From time to time, I bring out my 45rpm Kenton Capitol Records album and reminisce about that trip to the Santa Barbara Armory to see him and his great band in person. Having been a clarinet player in High School and later, while in the Army, I became a fairly good tenor sax player and formed a four man combo
    in Alaska providing music entertainment at the Officers Club dances. Kenton’s
    lead tenor sax player was Vido Musso, whose great play is featured in most of
    Kenton’s “Milestone” songs and whom I grew to idolize.