The Music Lounge

On The Road With Stan Kenton

Legendary Jazz Man, Stan Kenton on Tour in 1955….

k-sixStan Kenton was one of America’s leading pioneers of jazz orchestral music, he was a great band leader rather than a great musician and his life and touring band courted interest and controversy wherever they went.

Kenton’s life began as it meant to go on. Born out-of-wedlock, his parents told him as well as friends and family that he was born in February 1912 when he was actually born in December 1911! This would set the tone for his adult life, a life tormented, it is alleged by drink he faced accusations of racism in the 50s and incest by his daughter after his death. There are many who would say both counts are dubious but what cannot be doubted was his presence both on and off the stage.

To dominate the jazz word from the late 40s and through the 1950s took hard work, dedication and the ability to lead a group of very talented musicians, Kenton had that and his style of big band jazz would influence generations to come. In 1956, Playboy Magazine which, by then had established itself as the leading champion of jazz music in America ran a feature on Stan Kenton on tour. Written by former band member Bill Russo with photographs by Herman Leonard it is a fascinating insight into touring musicians of the period.

Kenton toured constantly, touring in those days meant sleeping on a bus for days on end, lear jets and limousines would be the preserve of the rock bands twenty or more years later. For Kenton and his band it was a rigorous schedule; periods of boredom through hours of travel, the physical demands of setting up and breaking down a full orchestra every night interspersed with moments of great excitement on stage playing to rapturous audiences.

He won two Grammy awards in 1962 and ’63 for ‘Kenton’s West Side Story’ and ‘Adventures in Jazz’ respectively, but his enduring musical legacy will be for the musicians he nurtured and helped turn into greats of their own. Despite his critics who lambasted his ‘big wall of sound’, accusing him of being ‘too loud’ he was one of the very few to come out of the big band era and survive its demise. His experimental approach ensured his longevity but by the mid-fifties he turned his attention to teaching music before making a comeback in the sixties.

Kenton married three times, his second wife shot herself in the head in 1981 and their son, Lance was arrested in 1978 for placing a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer. There has been much muck-spreading over the life of Kenton since he died but ultimately his life, unless proven otherwise should record one of a hard-working musician who turned up gig after gig, sober, suited and booted and full of charm and grace for the paying audience.

Here then are Herman Leonard’s images of a touring jazz band in America in the 1950s, playing, sleeping and rehearsing on the move…


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