I seem to have gotten stuck in 1977 recently. In the space of a week my friend Joe Dennis wrote up a beautiful brown 1977 Chrysler Newport over on Curbside Classic that is much like the one that my best friend’s father bought new. Then in this space I wrote up an experience of taking my sons to the soon-to-be defunct circus, which involved meeting an old friend from high school. In 1977. And finally I was noodling around on Spotify and re-discovered a piece of music that was being played by my high school’s jazz band. In – you guessed it – 1977. And I can’t stop listening to it.
I was not in the jazz band in 1977. I had just taken up the trombone a few months earlier and had barely worked up the competence to sit last chair in the Grade B concert band. But I loved sitting in the band room after school during jazz band practices. It is one thing to listen to the power of a big brawny jazz band on record, and something else entirely to have every bit of that raw sound blasting at you from fifteen feet away.
My school had a very good jazz band in those years. At that time, there was still some new music coming out of some venerable bands. Both Count Basie and Stan Kenton were still actively recording new material in the mid 1970s, something that didn’t impress me as much as it should have then. Their written arrangements were available for schools to buy and use for jazz bands, so I got exposed to a fair amount of stuff from both of them.
At the time, Basie was more up my alley. His straight-ahead style appealed to me, and after some exploration on my part, I could see the progression from his earliest work in the 1930s to his current stuff. For Basie, an infectious four-four swing was as second-nature as breathing, and he probably did it longer and more consistently than any other jazzman fronting a big band. His album of 1975 (simply titled Big Band) spent a lot of time on my turntable and remains a favorite.
Stan Kenton, on the other hand, was more of an acquired taste. Kenton’s band came along a few years behind Basie’s, and other than its fairly standard composition of brass, reeds and rhythm, the two could hardly have been more different. Where The Count was all about that fabulous rhythm section and generous solo time for his star players, Kenton was more about written arrangements that were more complex and adventurous. Stan Kenton never really led a “normal” band, but had a career that wildly gyrated between various instrument combinations and styles. The only thing really constant about Kenton was change. If you didn’t like what he was doing at a certain time, give it two or three years and he was probably going in a completely different musical direction.
Kenton’s fans, though, ate it up. Sure, they would debate whether this phase or that phase was worthwhile and which was his most innovative, but this small but devoted group of fans would buy his records, whether in season or out.
Over the years I dipped my toe into Lake Kenton a couple of times, but only within the last five years or so did I try to sample a broad section of his output (which is impressive). But even in my period of Kenton Fever, I never ventured much beyond the mid 1960s. I was into discovery and had no desire to replay things I had heard years earlier.
And then a couple of weeks ago I replayed Decoupage. I had not heard this piece since 1977 and was suddenly whooshed through a time tunnel, listening in Snider High School’s band room.
Hank Levy wrote this original piece for the Kenton band (along with several other original works) for the album Kenton ’76. After several listenings, I think I can say with some confidence that it is sort of a microcosm of Kenton’s long career.
First, the time. My non-musical friends will find the rhythm a little odd. This is because it is written in 5/4 time instead of the common 4/4. (Translation: instead of counting beats 1-2-3-4 – – 1-2-3-4, you count 1-2-3-4-5 — 1-2-3-4-5). But unlike Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 (probably the most widely known piece of 5/4 jazz) which is played to accentuate that recurring five count, Kenton manages to play it with enough of a swing beat that it can fool the casual listener into a 4/4 listening groove – until that fifth beat comes along and crashes the party. Over and over.
Second, Kenton liked loud. Although he went through periods that were quite subdued (like his brief dalliance with an all-string orchestra), other eras of his output had all the nuance of a blackjack. This piece sort of straddles the extremes. Yes, those brass players are making some real noise (enough to still appeal to my inner 17 year old), but there is a lyricism to it that keeps this one out of the “blunt force trauma” category.
Another Kenton signature was his love of low brass, mostly trombone. Stan’s was often very much a trombonists’ band with lots and lots of time and room for that oft-ignored instrument that is ever-present but seldom noticed in most big jazz groups.
Finally, this piece fits very much with Kenton’s preference for relatively complex arrangements. This is not a chart that a bunch of musicians would make up from their heads in a jam session, but is very much a jazz composition. The piece makes way for a couple of solos, but is largely an effort that mixes and matches ensemble groups within the band in ways that keep the theme fresh from beginning to end.
Although there are no well-known musicians aside from Stan on the record (personnel was mostly made up of young graduates of music school jazz programs) the energy and enthusiasm with with young jazz artists play is on full display here.
Stan Kenton died about three years after this album came out, at the age of 67. He left us with a legacy as complex as much of his music. There were allegations of racism (vigorously denied by many who knew him) and a messy personal life, all mixed in with many years of hard drinking. The life of a jazz musician who is on constant tours to keep the bills paid cannot be an easy one, then or now.
What we know for sure is that Stan spent much of his final years as a teacher and mentor to young jazz players, holding clinics and making his works easily available to music educators. As a result, most high school and college large jazz bands still play a lot of Stan Kenton music in their performances.
I have been going through this album for a couple of weeks now, and keep hearing new things in it. At the same time, I am brought back to early 1977 when I got the rare pleasure of listening to it being played live by my friends in the school jazz band. And it is a good combination.