BluRay/DVD Reviews

STAN KENTON: ARTISTRY IN RHYTHM, PORTRAIT OF A JAZZ LEGEND

By • Apr 1st, 2011 •

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A few months ago I was asked to write an article about training programs for actors. The research involved speaking to a score of teachers. These were experienced and, in many cases, legendary people. I hung on their every word. What better way to write an article, I reasoned, than to string together the pearls of wisdom I had gathered?

My editor didn’t think so. As he explained, the average reader, who might not be familiar with the philosophy or approach of all of these trainers, was going to get lost in the welter of words. Without context, the quotes would be meaningless.

I raged; then I re-wrote. Of course the editor was right. Watching Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm for the first time, I had the same problem my editor had when he read my first draft. I knew that Kenton was a Big Band guy who had a strong connection to jazz. I’d heard some of his music. But I knew little about the music scene he was associated with, and really nothing about his legacy. And that proved to be a problem coming into this documentary, because it assumes that the viewer already has a context. Although the filmmakers do include archival photos, lots of snippets of Kenton’s music, and an impressive number of interviews with musicians who knew and worked with Kenton, there is no over-arching narrative for the uninitiated. The super-imposed lower-third identifiers that we viewers usually use to anchor ourselves to time and meaning–oh, that’s Bill Holman–are employed meagerly, which means that if you don’t fix a speaker in your mind at his first appearance, and commit his significance to the Kenton story to your short-term memory, you are going to be at sea every time he reappears on the screen.

The music is mostly used as background–Kenton’s voice introduces a piece, we see grainy footage of musicians playing it, and after a few seconds, the image is supplanted by a talking head, and the instrumental volume fades. Except for one seventies-era concert. That fuzzy de-saturated footage keeps reappearing like a bad penny and synching with the sound track for a few minutes, before the music recedes once again to the background and interviewees dominate the foreground. This concert footage has way too much prominence.

Overall the interviews are hagiographic, more accolades than information, which is frustrating to the non-aficionado. I should note, however, that the juxtapositioning of archival pictures of the interviewees back when they were cocky young cats with the film of their twenty-first century alta-cocker selves is predictably unsettling.

Repeated viewings of this documentary do begin to make its structure clearer, and its story more poignant, however. There is a narrator, Ken Poston, founder of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, who is obviously very well versed in the history of Kenton, jazz, and Big Bands. It’s just too bad that the filmmakers don’t ask him to spend more time providing the uneducated with a musical and historical framework. Still, one does begin to appreciate the passion and the drive that made this piano player from Kansas and California commit his life and soul to leading a series of big bands. There is quite a bit of thoughtful narration in Kenton’s own voice–obviously re-purposed from earlier recorded interviews, since Kenton died in 1977.

The DVD is divided into chronological chapters, and after repeated viewings, you begin to understand what Kenton was exploring in his Artistry in Music phase, what he meant by the term Progressive Jazz, why he wanted to work with mellophoniums. Listening to the musicians from various eras of the Kenton band talk about their experiences, it’s easy to picture the grueling, unglamorous, yet compelling life of being perpetually on tour – from ballroom to concert hall to high school auditorium.

The DVD is also intriguing for the issues that it does NOT address, which brought up areas of inquiry for me. For example, when the seventies band footage first came on the screen, my husband Mark, who was watching with me, said, “Man, that is the whitest jazz band I have ever seen!” No one in the documentary ever says anything about race. However Jack Costanzo, a percussionist from Kenton’s 1947 band, reminisces about how he was never happy with a piece that was written for him by Kenton’s arranger Pete Rugolo. “Bongo Riff” was supposed to have a Cuban beat, but, says Costanzo, “We sounded like an American band playing Latin music.. . . Kenton made me play [Bongo Riff] every place. . . And there’s no Latin in it. . . I wish he’d written something I would have been more comfortable with. . . I could have really cooked.”

To me, this implied an unintended racism. Along with Mark’s comment, this anecdote made me dig deeper. Well, not really that much deeper. Not much further than Wikipedia. Apparently Kenton made some remarks about being part of the “white minority” in jazz, after musicians like Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie received more praise than he did. This led to the music critic Leonard Feather questioning Kenton’s racial views–although in fact, Kenton later worked with or toured with many black artists, including Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Two other areas of inquiry exposed but unexplored by this documentary are addiction and dysfunctional family. Not that it’s necessary to dwell on gossip or armchair psychology, but when these issues surface, like the tip of the iceberg, it is difficult not to wonder about them. Two of Kenton’s four former wives participated in this documentary, although the viewer only surmises that they are former wives because the supertitle hovering over them contains the surname “Kenton.” JoAnn, wife number three (I think) says, in an off the cuff way, something like Stan really liked to socialize with all the guys on the bus (when they were touring) but when we were home alone we never went anywhere because if he drove us somewhere he wouldn’t have been able to drink. Wife number four, Audree, blithely tells of waking up to find herself married to Kenton following a “leisurely, three martini lunch in Tijuana.” These sort of casual mentions of alcoholism, and elusive references to family made me really curious about Kenton’s personal history.

Which led me to Leslie Kenton’s 2010 memoir, Love Affair. Leslie is Kenton’s daughter by his first wife, Violet. (He had two other children with his second wife, Ann Richards-Kenton.) The book contains a lot of remembrances of a disjointed childhood, spent alternately in the company of her strict grandmother while her parents were on the road, or, in a chaotic series of cars and hotel rooms when she traveled with them. Her father comes across as a troubled character, perpetually at war with himself: his drive and ambition constantly battling self-torturing doubt about his talent as a musician and his abilities as a band leader. But the book is really centered around memories Leslie recovered after attaining adulthood. She discovered suppressed memories of her father, who raped her a number of times when she was child, and also of her father’s mother, who apparently enlisted her in Satanic rituals. I am not sure what to make of this. Ms. Kenton also underwent LSD therapy during the sixties, so draw your own conclusions, I guess….

Getting back to Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm, the more often I watched it, and the more I thought about it, the more resonance it had for me, and the more interest I had in its subject. I wish that in and of itself it had had more educational value–more information about Progressive jazz, more about East coast versus West coast, black and white, more about Kenton’s life, deeper examinations of Kenton’s music. On the other hand, it certainly piqued my curiosity.

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