Stan Kenton led a remarkably creative life: he was a composer and a pianist, and he formed several of the most forward-thinking jazz ensembles of his time. Many jazz lovers of the 1960s first learned to appreciate this genre through the works of Stan Kenton, and his contributions undoubtedly made him one of jazz’s top figures.
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Stan Kenton was born on December 15, 1911, in Wichita, Kansas, but he spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles. Kenton was only 8 years old when his mother noticed his interest in playing piano, and he showed remarkable progress during his early practice sessions. His first lesson in jazz came from Earl Hines, an iconic figure whose influence undeniably helped Kenton shape the history of jazz. After high school graduation, Kenton played gigs in numerous bars around Los Angeles and San Diego. In 1933, Kenton attracted the attention of Everett Hoagland, who invited him to play piano in his jazz orchestra, which was a remarkable experience for him. However, Kenton dreamed about starting his band and playing his music, different from anything that was being played at the time.
After some preparation, he formed his orchestra called Artistry in Rhythm in 1941. The unique sound of his music was dismissed by most jazz critics; for instance, one of his songs, “Artistry in Rhythm,” has loud anthem vibes to it, not entirely suitable for a dance floor. Nevertheless, the controversial style attracted the public’s attention and contributed to the success of his group, which went on to create such hits as “Eager Beaver.” Thanks to the growing recognition, Kenton was able to finance an ambitious new project he called Progressive Jazz Orchestra. The harmonies became even more unusual, with Latin rhythms added to the layered sound. Kenton created a widely successful jazz orchestra with a unique musical style that attracted its own audience.
Kenton did not stop there, however. He continued to encourage musical experimentation, and in 1947, one of the first Afro-Cuban jazz recordings was created. The musician valued young talent even at the cost of experience, and some of the people who worked with Kenton went on to become notable composers themselves. In 1951, he created his most ambitious project, a 40-piece orchestra called Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, expanding on his success in creating modernistic jazz-tinged orchestral music. The orchestra was too big to be a commercial success, however, which led to the creation of New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm. The music continued to be unpredictable, but Kenton managed to keep his trademark musical style. With this ensemble, Kenton toured Europe and was in fact the first American musician to tour in the years after WWII.
Upon his return to the United States, Kenton began exploring new creative ideas, including the creation of his own jazz club, which was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1961, Kenton started another musical revolution with the inclusion of the newly created mellophone into his new orchestra, contributing to the instrument’s rate of adoption. During his later life, Kenton continued his work as an educator, promoting jazz, sponsoring summer camps, and conducting innumerable clinics which he shared with other jazz players. His framework is still widely used today.
Stan Kenton was undoubtedly a prominent figure in the jazz world whose creative vision inspired many distinguished musicians and who continued evolving and popularizing this genre until his last days.