Jazz pianist, arranger, composer
In 1996, 17 years after the bandleader’s death, Scott Yanow of the All-Music Guide to Jazz, stated, “There have been few jazz musicians as consistently controversial as Stan Kenton.” Some critics have claimed that Kenton expanded the horizons of jazz music, while others considered him pretentious and more interested in overwhelming listeners with volume and power than with creating works of musical substance. He managed to sustain a number of large-scale bands during his more than 35 years of active performing, despite his willingness to stray from proven formulas. “The economics of maintaining a big band for nearly 40 years without pandering to fashion indicated Stan Kenton’s great organizational skills, as well as great artistic conviction,” noted the Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Kenton continually experimented with the big band format, dissolving his bands and reforming new ones that attempted to set new standards in jazz music. Throughout his career he had a knack for recognizing and nurturing new talent, and his sidemen over the years represented an all-star lineup of jazz greats. In fact, J. Bradford Robinson, in his profile of the bandleader in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, asserted that Kenton’s “own considerable talents as arranger and pianist were soon overshadowed by those of his superior sidemen and staff arrangers.” Among those who made their way through the Kenton assembly line included Anita O’Day, June Christy, Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Maynard Ferguson, Kai Winding, Shelly Manne, and Laurindo Almeida.
Stanley Newcomb Kenton began taking piano lessons from his mother, Stella Kenton, after she bought a used upright piano. He was ten years old at the time and two years started taking lessons with a private teacher. After hearing his musician cousins, Billy and Arthur Kenton, play jazz a few years later, he fell in love with the music and decided to pursue a career in it. “From the time I was fourteen years old, I was all music,” he told Carole Easton in Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton. “Nothing else ever entered my head.” As a teenager Kenton took lessons in jazz piano form an organist at a local theater, and he also learned to play a number of wind instruments. By then he was immersing himself in the latest releases of artists such as George Gershwin, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Benny Carter, and Louis Armstrong. He formed a musical group called The Beltones and performed at school dances, parties, and local clubs.
After graduating form high school in 1930, the music-crazy Kenton scraped out a living as a musician for five dollars a night playing speakeasies and gambling halls
Born Stanley Newcomb Kenton on December 15, 1911, in Wichita, KS; died August 25, 1979, in Hollywood, CA; married three times; three children.
Began taking piano lessons from mother, 1922; formed group in high school called The Belltones; played in speakeasies and other clubs; performed with Everett Hoagland’s band, 1930s; played with dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim, 1938-39; studied music theory with Charles Dalmores, late 1930s; landed studio jobs in Hollywood, late 1930s; became pianist and assistant conductor for pit band in Hollywood, CA, 1939; formed Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra, 1940; became well-known as bandleader through radio broadcasts and nationwide touring, 1940s; formed Progressive Jazz Band, 1947; assembled Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra, 1950; went on first European tour with band, 1953; organized “A Festival of Modern American Jazz” program, 1954; hosted television show called Music ’55, 1955; bought Rendezvous Ballroom as home base for his band, 1957; established his first university jazz clinics at Indiana University and Michigan State University, 1959; set up his own promotional organization called The Creative World of Stan Kenton, 1960; formed New Era in Modern Music Orchestra, 1961; created Neophonic Orchestra, 1965; served as guest conductor of Danish Radio Orchestra, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1966; organized clinic for music students at University of Redlands, CA, 1966; produced The Crusade for Jazz, a television special, 1968; produced The Substance of Jazz, a film designed for educators, 1969; began marketing his own records on his Creative World label, 1970; toured Europe and Japan with his band, 1972-75.
Awards: Best Big Band, Down Beat, 1947, 1948; elected to Down Beat Music Hall of Fame, 1954; Grammy Award, Stan Kenton’s West Side Story, 1961; Grammy Award, Adventures in Jazz, 1962; Jazz Band of the Year, Society for the Appreciation of Big Bands, 1974; honorary doctorates: Villanova University, Drury College, and University of Redlands, CA.
in San Diego and Las Vegas. His talent began to develop after he joined Everett Hoagland’s band, and in the late 1930s he also tickled the ivories in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim. By this time he was already developing a reputation as a skilled arranger, not to mention a cheerleader who could motivate other musicians to excel. In 1939 Kenton found himself in Hollywood as pianist and assistant conductor for the pit band at Earl Carroll’s Vanities theater. A year later he formed his first band, which in 1941 became known as the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra.
Manned mostly by young, unknown musicians, the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra became a hit at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California. From there Kenton’s band increased its popularity with a five-week stint at the Hollywood Palladium. “The group quickly gained notice for its thick, brassy voicings, staccato articulation and sheer volume,” remarked Len Lyons and Don Perlo about this band in Jazz Portraits. By this time, Kenton was composing his own songs, but they were the least popular of his band’s repertoire. While the public received the Artistry in Rhythm Orchestra favorably, jazz critics for the most part did not care for his music, saying his band was too loud, too structured, and without nuance.
Kenton’s band became a mainstay on the music scene during the 1940s through steady touring and radio broadcasts. One of its first big hits was “Eager Beaver,” a song composed by Kenton that became his band’s theme song. He also scored big with “Tampico,” “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine, “which featured a vocal by Anita O’Day, and “Across the Alley from the Alamo,” sung by June Christy. During the 1940s Kenton helped launch the career of saxophonist Stan Getz, who signed on with the band in 1943 at the age of 16. Two years later he brought in trombonist Kai Winding, trumpeter Ray Wetzel, and bassist Eddie Safranski.
To pursue new types of music other than the jazz standards of the day, Kenton broke up his band and formed the Progressive Jazz Band in 1947. Featuring arrangements by Pete Rugolo that favored heavy brass, and performers such as drummer Shelly Manne, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, and trombonist Milt Bernhart, his new band provoked strong reactions both pro and con. Down Beat magazine named the group Best Big Band in 1947 and 1948, but some critics viewed his music unfavorably. “The sheer volume of the music, the screaming trumpet section, immensely structured works that slam in by section on schedule, intimidated the critics who declared Kenton’s music empty and pretentious,” claimed The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Despite its popularity, Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Band broke up in 1948 because the bandleader was pushed to exhaustion by heavy touring. After emerging from temporary retirement, Kenton struck out in yet another musical direction with his Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra. This 43-piece band featured a 16-piece string section that helped Kenton fulfill his desire to merge jazz and classical styles. He was aided in his quest by a lineup of top musicians that included Bud Shank on flute and sax, Pepper, and trumpeters Shorty Rogers, Chico Alvarez, Buddy Childers, and Maynard Ferguson. Now delving into the avant garde, Kenton began performing works by composer Bob Graetinger, whose music was known for its dissonance. Many critics labeled the band as no more than a big band trying to do modern classical music. They largely panned the band’s performance of Graetinger’s City of Glass in 1948, which in a 1993 review by Yanow was referred to as “avant-garde music that still sounds futuristic 45 years later.”
In the early 1950s Kenton made an about face by focusing on swing music. He also put together smaller bands and toured with singers like Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn. He was a big hit on his European tour in 1953, and later returned there in 1956. In 1952 he formed the first of his new series of more traditional big-band groups called the New Concepts in Artistry and Rhythm Orchestra. “Performing dance tunes, driving modern jazz, and Afro-Cuban-influenced pieces, these groups represent Kenton’s most important style and repertory of big-band music,” according to Jazz Portraits. Among Kenton’s most noteworthy recordings during the 1950s were 1954’s The Kenton Era and 1956’s Cuban Fire. Kenton “creates a warm ambiance that contrasts his lush, Ellingtonian orchestral charts with his spare, evocative piano lines,” noted Billboard in its review of a reissue of the 1958 album The Ballad Style of Stan Kenton.
By 1957 Kenton was fed up with touring, which prompted him to buy the Rendezvous Ballroom as a permanent home base for his band. Then he found himself on the road again within a few months, after discovering he could not attract big enough crowds in the same location to make it pay. The versatile Kenton broadened his career once again in 1959 when he founded the first of his university “jazz clinics,” at Indiana University and Michigan State University. These clinics, which he later set up in other schools as well, proved to be highly fertile training grounds, and Kenton proved to have a sharp eye for hot new talent.
As rock ‘n’ roll eroded the popularity of his band in the early 1960s, Kenton branched out again with his New Era in Modern Music Orchestra. This 23-piece ensemble included a mellophonium, a cross between a trumpet and trombone that produced a sound similar to a French horn. Unlike his bands of the past, this Kenton group relied mostly on young performers rather than highly paid established stars. The band recorded eleven albums during its two-year history and received much acclaim for its recordings of the sound track for West Side Story and another album called Adventures in Jazz.
Kenton’s next band was the highly experimental Neo-phonic Orchestra, which featured 14 brass instrumentalists among its 28 players. The bandleader’s high visibility and popularity at this time attracted some top Hollywood musicians and jazz-oriented composers, as well instrumentalists who played with his previous bands. Many critics considered this band to be Kenton’s creative peak. As was pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor in 1966, “One gets the feeling that this is what Stan Kenton has been working up to all his musical life… music that has integrity, individuality, and modernity, without bogging down in atonality, electronic gimmicks, and self-conscious abstractions.” In an ironic shift from his past history of popular acceptance and critical derision, the Neophonic Orchestra was championed by the critics but lost money. Financial setbacks forced Kenton to bolster his income by performing with a pickup band, recording albums, and making guest spots on television during the late 1960s.
In the 1970s Kenton devoted more attention to the educational and business ends of his music. By 1975 he was conducting over 100 music clinics a year, as well as four week-long summer clinics on college campuses. At this time he was also distributing various educational materials and stage-band charts, as well as his own albums, with his Creative World company. Still active on the performance circuit with a new band formed in 1970, Kenton toured Europe and Japan during the early and mid 1970s. Various illnesses and hospitalizations slowed him down somewhat, including an aneurysm in 1972, and a cerebral hemorrhage in 1977, before he passed away in 1979. To his dying day he remained highly critical of country music, as well as rock ’n’ roll, and had little respect for the musical tastes of people in general. “Sophistication only exists in one or two percent of the masses,” he told Thomas Lyles in an interview for the Washington Star in 1975. “And that two percent is the two percent that has to support jazz, classical music and the arts. The masses can’t communicate with art.”
City of Glass, Capitol, 1947.
Innovations in Modern Music, Capitol, 1950.
New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, Capitol, 1952.
The Ballad Style of Stan Kenton, Capitol, 1958.
Mellophonium Moods, Status, 1962.
Kenton ‘76, Creative World, 1975.
Case, Brian, and Stann Britt, revised and updated by Chrissie Murray, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, Third Edition, Harmony Books, p. 106.
Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP, and Cassette, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 610-614.
Easton, Carole, Straight Ahead: The Story of Stan Kenton, Morrow, 1973.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Scott Yanow, All Music Guide to Jazz, Second Edition, Miller Freeman Books, 1996, pp. 424-430.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon Press, 1976, pp. 211-212.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Volume One, Macmillan, 1988, p. 648.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 3, Guinness Publishing, 1995, pp. 2281-2282.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, William Morrow, 1989, pp. 322-324.
Billboard, August 16, 1997, p. 61.
Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1966.
Stereo Review, December 1, 1996, p. 104.
Washington Star, July 5, 1975.
Many critics and musicians have called Carl Fontana "the world's greatest trombonist." Bandleaders and fellow trombonists have stated that Fontana "raised the bar and set the standard." Fontana is one of the most well-known and treasured jazz trombonists in music history. When the legendary musician died on October 9, 2003, he left a legacy of musicianship and ingenuity. His life and personality were full of genuine modesty, coupled with a desire to give back by teaching and sharing his gifts with young students and other musicians.
Fontana's biggest contribution to music was perhaps the playing technique he created, known as "doodle tonguing." According to the Monroe, Louisiana, News-Star, "It allowed trombonists to play faster and with more precision." Fontana called the technique "a self-defense against saxophone players." This groundbreaking method of playing influenced countless numbers of musicians. According to Jazzmasters, by using this technique Fontana "combine[d] a plump tone with the fast-tonguing of notes that caused a re-thinking of techniques the world over." Fontana was also well known for mixing mainstream jazz with bebop, creating his own signature swing-meets-bop style.
Born on July 18, 1928, in Monroe, Louisiana, Carl Fontana's first trombone was a gift from his father. According to the News-Star, Fontana's brother Mickey said Carl "always knew he wanted to be a jazz musician." As a teenager, Fontana played in the local big band that was led by his father, Charles "Collie" Fontana, who also worked as a plumber, saxophonist, and violinist. While in the band, Fontana worked and played school sports. After graduating from Neville High School, he enrolled at Louisiana State University (LSU). He graduated in 1950 and soon returned to LSU to pursue a master's degree in music. In between his studies, Fontana performed with the Lee Fortier Band. His first big break came when, in 1951, he filled in for Woody Herman's current saxophonist, Urbie Green. Green's wife had gone into labor at the same time the band was due to play New York's Blue Room. After Fontana filled in for him on stage the crowd went wild, and Herman asked him to join the band permanently. After just two years at graduate school, an eager Fontana left his studies to go on tour with Woody Herman's Third Herd Band. Other trombonists in the group included brothers Urbie and Jack Green.
It didn't take long for Fontana's music career to take off. In 1954 he played in a band led by Lionel Hampton, and from 1954-55 he played with Hal McIntyre. In 1955 Stan Kenton hired Fontana. Kenton, who liked to feature Fontana as a soloist, invited Fontana to record with him, and together they recorded eleven albums. Perhaps the best-known track was Fontana's trombone playing on Fuego Cubano in 1956. Soon after, Fontana departed for a European tour in Kai Winding's four-trombone band; the tour, which lasted from 1956 to 1957, garnered international attention for Fontana.
In 1957 Fontana re-teamed with Woody Herman for the International State Department Tour. He also performed for many years with Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Kai Winding on television shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight Show, and also performed at Carnegie Hall. Later in 1957, Fontana decided to settle in Las Vegas, where he had been performing with greats such as Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. Every year in Las Vegas, Fontana performed in the annual trombone concerts at the University of Las Vegas, as well as at an array of festivals, tours, and all-star jazz parties.
In 1958, Fontana played his most renowned and well-known solo on Woody Herman's song "Intermission Riff." Although the tune contained only three chords, Fontana played it so skillfully that people called his performance a masterpiece. Fontana earned the nickname "Captain Kut-Cha," and he became known as a master of timing.
In the late 1970s Fontana toured Japan with bandleader Georgie Auld, and worked with the group Supersax. The group, which was signed to Blue Note Records, recreated Charlie Parker's solos, and featured Fontana and saxophonists Med Flory and Buddy Clark. He also played with the all-star group the World's Greatest Jazz Band. In 1975 Fontana took center stage again, co-leading a group with Swing drummer Jake Hanna. He made a name for himself in 1985, leading a quintet that included his longtime friend and fellow musician Al Cohn. By the 1990s, Fontana had regular gigs playing Las Vegas and touring as a soloist.
In 1985 Fontana's first major label release, The Great Fontana, featured the artist as quartet leader. Subsequently he released The Carl Fontana-Arno Marsh Quintet: Live at Capozzoli's in 1997 and The Carl Fontana Quartet: Live at Capozzoli's in 1998. On Nice and Easy in 1997, Fontana shared the lead, playing side by side with trombonist Jiggs Whigham. Later he released First Time Together in 2002, Quintet, Vol. 3 in 2002, and Conte Candoli Quintet (live) in 2003.
Although he toured extensively, Fontana always maintained close relationships with his family. He married and had three children, who currently reside in Las Vegas. Toward the end of his life, Fontana suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Carl Fontana passed away on October 9, 2003, in Las Vegas. In his later years, Fontana regularly taught clinics and master classes at the University of Nevada and other universities across the United States, including Harvard and Mississippi State College; he was also a featured soloist with the Army Blues Jazz Band. Ken Hanlon, a music professor at the University of Nevada, told the Los Angeles Times that Fontana was a phenomenon.
For the Record . . .
Born Charles Fontana on July 18, 1928, in Monroe, LA; died on October 9, 2003, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Charles "Collie" (a plumber, saxophonist, violinist and big band leader) and Mary Fontana; married; children: Felicia, Mark, Scott. Education: Graduated from Louisiana State University, 1950.
Trombonist for various bands, including Charles "Collie" Fontana and his big band, 1941-45; Lee Fortier, 1951; Third Herd, 1952-53; Lionel Hampton, 1954; Hal McIntyre, 1954-55; Stan Kenton, 1955-56; Mel Torme, 1956; Kai Winding's four-trombone band, 1956-57; Bill Holman, 1958; toured intermittently as trombonist with Woody Herman band, 1966; trombonist, World's Greatest Jazz Band, 1968; trombonist, Supersax, 1973; trombonist and band leader (with Jake Hanna), 1975; appeared with Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Party, 1971; recorded albums with Louis Belson (1984), Al Cohn (1984), vocalist Joni Janak (1993), Arno Marsh (1997), and Jiggs Whigham (1999); released debut album, The Great Fontana, Uptown Records, 1985; appeared at Royal Inn Hotel in Phoenix, 1993; soloist on albums featuring Bobby Shew (1995), Andy Martin (1998), Paul McKee (1999), Bill Trujillo (1999), and Bill Watrous (2001).
Awards: International Trombone Association Award, 1998.
Addresses: Record company— Woofy Productions, P.O. Box 272, Phoenix, AZ 85001, website: http://www.woofyproductions.com. Website— Carl Fontana Official Website: http://www.jazzmasters.nl/fontana.htm.
The Great Fontana, Uptown, 1985.
The Carl Fontana-Arno Marsh Quintet: Live at Capozzoli's, Woofy, 1997.
The Carl Fontana Quartet: Live at Capozzoli's, Woofy, 1998.
Nice 'n' Easy, TNC Jazz, 1999.
First Time Together, Budapest Music, 2002.
Keepin' up With the Boneses, TNC Jazz, 2002.
Quintet, Vol. 3, Woofy, 2002.
Conte Candoli Quintet (live), Woofy, 2003.
(With Stan Kenton) Retrospective, Capitol, 1943.
(With Woody Herman) Early Autumn, Discovery, 1952.
(With Stan Kenton) Sketches on Standards, Capitol, 1953.
(With Stan Kenton) Cuban Fire!, Capitol, 1956. (With Stan Kenton) Kenton in Hi-Fi, Capitol, 1956. (With Bill Perkins) Bill Perkins Octet on Stage, Blue Note, 1956.
(With Mel Tormé) Round Midnight: A Retrospective (1956-1962), Stash, 1956.
(With Bill Holman) Big Band in a Jazz Orbit, Andex, 1958.
(With Bill Holman) In a Jazz Orbit, Andex, 1958.
(With Woody Herman) Concerto for Herd, Verve, 1967.
(With The Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Vol. 1) World's Greatest Jazz Band, Vol. 1, Project 3, 1968.
(With Supersax) Supersax Plays Bird, Vol. 2: Salt Peanuts, Pausa, 1973.
(With Hanna-Fontana Band) Live at the Concord, Concord Jazz, 1975.
(With Jake Hanna) Live at Concord, Concord Jazz, 1975.
(With Louis Bellson) Don't Stop Now!, Capri, 1984.
(With Paul Cacia) Alumni Tribute to Stan Kenton, Happy Hour, 1987.
(With Tommy Vig Orchestra) Space Race, Discovery, 1992.
(With Woody Herman) Scene & Herd in 1952, Jazz Band, 1995.
(With Bobby Shew) Heavyweights, MAMA Foundation, 1995.
(With Don Sickler) Nightwatch, Uptown, 1995.
(With Stan Kenton) Plays Holman Live!, Artistry, 1996.
(With Bobby Knight/Great American Trombone Co.) Cream of the Crop, Jazz Mark, 1996.
(With Stan Kenton) Jazz Profile, Blue Note, 1997.
(With Scott Whitfield) To Be There, Amosaya, 1997.
(With Woody Herman) Cool One, Hindsight, 1998.
(With Louise Baranger) Trumpeter's Prayer, Summit, 1998.
(With Stan Kenton) 1950's Birdland Broadcasts, Jazz Band, 1998.
(With Stan Kenton) Intermission Riff 1952-1956, Giants of Jazz, 1999.
(With Paul McKee) Gallery, Corridor, 1999.
(With Stan Kenton) Revelations, Tantara, 2000.
(With Bill Watrous) Bill Watrous & Carl Fontana, Atlas, 2001.
(With Dusko Goykovich) Belgrade Blues, Cosmic Sounds, 2001.
(With Woody Herman) Jazz Swinger/Music for Tired Lovers, Collectables, 2001.
(With Woody Herman) Woody Herman's Finest Hour, Uptown/Universal, 2001.
(With Woody Herman) Presenting Woody Herman & The Band, Jazz Band, 2001.
(With Conte Candoli and Carl Fontana) Complete Phoenix Recordings, Vol. 1, Woofy, 2002.
(With The Bill Perkins Octet) Bill Perkins Octet on Stage, Japanese Import, 2002.
(With Flip Phillips) Celebrates His 80th Birthday at the March of Jazz 1995, Arbors, 2003.
(With Woody Herman) Standard Times—The Third Herd (1951-1952), Ocium, 2003.
(With Stan Kenton & His Orchestra) At the Ernst-Merck-Halle, Hamburg, Sounds of Yesteryear, 2003.
(With Stan Kenton) Contemporary Concepts, Capitol Jazz, 2003.
(With Stan Kenton) Concepts Era Live!, Artistry, 2003.
Hollywood Reporter, October 15, 2003.
Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 10, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1992; October 11, 2003.
News-Star (Monroe, LA), January 18, 2003; October 16, 2003.
New York Times, October 15, 2003. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 13, 1999.
"Carl Fontana," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 18, 2004).
"Carl Fontana Profile," Jazzmasters, http://www.jazzmasters.nl/fontana.htm (October 9, 2003).
"Carl Fontana Profile," Vegas Jazz, http://www.vegasjazz.org/fontanaprofile.html (February 11, 2004).
"Guest Artist—Carl Fontana," Whitworth College, http://www.whitworth.edu/Academic/Department/Music/PerformanceOpportunities/JazzEnsemble/GuestArtists/CarlFontana.htm (February 18, 2004).
—Kerry L. Smith