Jazz Professional               

The Interviews



Talking to Les Tomkins in 1972

The Stan Kenton Story
The interviews 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Stan, the band sounds marvellous. Would you say that this is as good as the best of your bands in the past?

Yes, every bit as good; in some ways better. You know, each band has its own personality. It's because of the musicians that make it up. The overall direction, purpose and sound are the same. But some people think this is the best band that I've ever had.

Well, I heard it at Croydon, and I gather from members of the band that it wasn't necessarily the best night it's had. All I can say is: it sounded quite superb to me.

They got involved with the record they were making, and recording, as you well know, is quite an emotional experience. Sometimes the guys are not quite objective about themselves. People that have recorded for a long time know: with a particular kind of music like ours, it sometimes takes an engineer and the technicians a while to get acquainted with how they're going to handle it.

And the fellows heard the first playback or so, and it was all mixed up and wrong; the engineers hadn't found themselves yet. So they formed rather a false impression. That's one of the advantages of some of the older guys, I guess: they know what is happening. But the younger guys, as well as they play, sometimes say: "Oh, it's gonna be terrible here." It affects them psychologically.

How did it go at Ronnie's?

Very good. We played the first two sets down there in the dark, you know, due to the power cuts. I've never played the club before; I was in there once in 1969. But I think they were happy.

Generally speaking, you play more concerts than clubs, don't you? You'd call it a concert band, would you?

Oh yes, definitely. Occasionally we'll play a dance, but mostly we play music for listening, either in a concert situation or in a club situation. I like to think that ours is music for music's sake. Whenever you play dance music, it serves a function, it becomes a utility; you have to worry about the tempos and what you're going to play for people. But when you're playing for listening, you're free; you can create the music you feel that you want, and don't have to adhere to any standards.

After all these years in the business, it's obvious, from seeing you in front of the band, that you're just as enthusiastic and as concerned about your music today as you ever were. The years haven't made you blasé at all?

No-not at all. I'm glad that you say that. It's a compliment, and I don't really know why it is. It's just the way I am.

You just feel that you have a standard, and you must always uphold it?

Well, I feel that I must approve of what we're doing first, before I can ask anybody else to approve of it. And I have never tried to study surveys or go into any kind of research to find out what people want, what they like, and try to give it to them. I don't think that's our purpose- or mine, anyway. It's any artist's purpose to create the finest thing they know how to create, then present it to the public and hope for acceptance.

Well, over the years you've had a mixture of reactions. Some of your most progressive things have possibly not gone as well as you would have hoped. I suppose you'd say that, along the line, you'd had to make some concessions.

What you say is true. It's a case of making compromises to gain an end. But if you start compromising and you forget about what the end is supposed to be, then that's bad. You've got to know where you're going.

In recent years, since you were in this country in 1963 with the mellophonium band, we've heard some reports of your activities but, until recently, very little on records. We heard you were involved with the Neophonic band; was that a regular organisation or strictly devoted to students?

Let me explain it to you like this: I had two small children at home, and there was no mother.
I tried to maintain as normal a home as possible for them when they were little. So my tours had to be limited to six or eight weeks in the Spring, and about the same amount in the Fall.

And it was during this period that the Neophonic was started in Los Angeles, in order for me to be at home. Now, of course, the children are older, and they're in school; it gives me a chance now to get back to music fulltime.

Which we've been doing for the last year and a half or two years. But to answer the question about the Neophonic; it was started mainly because of a particular need. The modern composers today, that are writing the art music-as we might call it-are writing because they have evolved in jazz, and they're thinking in terms of jazz.

But they can't get proper performances on their music by symphony orchestras-because it has to be interpreted and played by jazz musicians. And there was no outlet for them.

So we created the Neophonic as a showcase for modern composers that are writing in the jazz idiom, that are trying to write, not dance music, film music or TV music, but the finest music they know how.

It gained quite a bit of artistic recognition, but again, as with things like that, we had financial problems. Possibly one day, when I dissolve this band and go home, I'll get the Neophonic going again.

But what came out of that? Did you get some composers off the ground?

Yes. The important thing that came out of it is: the thing was picked up by some of the colleges and universities in lieu of their concert bands. That is to say, the concert bands based on the traditional approach to concert music; whereas the Neophonic is based upon jazz.

There are now some college and university Neophonic bands going around the country. The most active has been the band at Cerritos College-a twoyear college in the suburban part of Los Angeles, in s town called Norwalk-the Collegiate Neophonic; that keeps going all the time. Some of the guys in the band that I have right now came out of the Collegiate Neophonic.

You reached a certain point, apparently, where you felt that your musical output was in danger of being heard no longer; you discovered that some of your original masters were being deleted. You took positive action about that, didn't you?

Well, it's because of marketing conditions in the States. Capitol were the ones that started it, really. They decided that they would close up their branches; they used to have branches in every major city, with promotion men and their own samen. They conceived the idea of making a bigger profit if they would give the records to independent distributors who later became known as `the rackjobbers'. These are the fellows that put the records in the supermarkets and drug stores and made them available that way. They're at cut prices; also they wanted to sell to most of the people most of the time so what they did: they started marketing only kids' music, you know. I guess it's because a lot of adults have kids' minds also.

Jazz was just disappearing everywhere; so was classical music. There was really no place for people who had sophisticated tastes to find the music that they wanted. So I could see us going down a one way street with a dead end. And when there are so many important jazz artists walking around in the States with no record contracts at all, it's not as it should be.

When Capitol as a company fell apart and these practices were the reason for it falling apart then all of our stuff was deleted. Whereupon I made a deal with Capitol Records to lease back to me the important masters that we had recorded, and we formed The Creative World out of that.

So now you have complete control of all your recorded repertoire, do you?

Yes, and we're now in the process of opening up manufacturing and distribution in Europe, and also in Great Britain. We have to do that.

As well as reissuing older material, you've made some new albums for this label with the present band? We've got about three so far, but we're going to make more.

One was the Redlands session; another, released recently, was made at Brigham Young University, which is out West; in the state of Utah. Both of them are double album packages, recorded live.

Since taking your affairs into your own hands in this way, have you found a reawakening of interest?

Oh, certainly. I can even see it over here, and The Creative World doesn't mean anything yet. But I believe we're better off this time than we were in '63, when we were here. I don't know whether it's a new interest in big band jazz or what, but I do feel there's some reason for it.

We're kinda lucky over in the States, in that we have our constant activity in the schools. Be cause all you get on the air is what we call `format radio' which is the top twenty or the top forty over and over again, all day long. You don't hear jazz. So, when we go into the schools the young musicians get to hear this music, and they never heard it before. It's quite a different experience for them.

And the exciting thing is, most of the schools all have jazz bands even the junior high schools. Some of the universities have as many as two and three bands. In Denton, Texas, at North Texas State University, there are eleven bands going there every day twenty two musicians in each band, and no one man plays in two bands. So it gives you an idea of the activity in big band jazz. If all this is any indication as to the future, I look for a most exciting future for the big band jazz. There's new blood coming all the time.

Would you say this was some kind of reaction against the predominance of rock type groups, or has it any thing to do with some of the rock groups seeing the light and adding horns?

I do think that the rock groups that have added horns have helped. Especially when Blood, Sweat And Tears came along as well as Chicago. A lot of the young people thought that jazz was old fashioned, you know because of the way their parents talked about it and they want their own music. But when they heard these groups playing this music, these long, extended improvisations and everything, they thought they were listening to rock music. It wasn't it was jazz.

Like, there was a cute thing when we played a date up in Toronto, Canada. We did an afternoon three hour session at this high school, and they in vited young musicians and teachers from all over the To ronto area to be there. We had, I guess, about eight or nine hun dred young players there. And we always start the clinics with a demonstration concert that lasts about forty five minutes; so that the people can hear the band play and watch the fel lows; because the fellows work with them the rest of the after noon. It's a kind of a `getting acquainted' period.

So that night where we were playing, in the hotel there, a woman came up to me and she said. "My son was at your clinic this afternoon." I said: "Was he? What does he play?" and I think she said trombone or something.

"Did he like it?" I asked her; she said: "Oh yes, you know what he said? He said the band sounded like three Blood, Sweat And Tears and three Chicagos going all at the same time ! " If they can just get exposed to it that's the thing. I think, too, that in the watering down of music, trying to appeal to the kids, they haven't had a chance to even have any choice in sophisticated things. They've just listened to their music all the time.

Do you: think the word jazz itself has become a kind of stigma?

Well, it seems to have put young people off. But I think we'll probably always use the word, although there have been some times when all of us thought we should call it some thing else but it's still jazz. Duke one time said : "I think we need a new word."

You've worked with young musicians at all times in your bands. How would you compare today's musician ship with past eras?

There are more musicians today than ever before; it just seems like they're everywhere. And they play much better than the older fellows.

Why is that, do you think?

They're better educated; I think they're more dedicated, and I think their values are different. And maybe the element of competition, too, because they know that if they don't practise and study there's another guy who's studying and practising who is going to get ahead of him. So it's really a delight.

The thing that concerns me a lot, is: where are the leaders? There are plenty of musicians; but it seems like the young guys that should organise and get things together are not showing themselves. It takes a young leader to come along, and he has to say to himself: "I want to lead a band, and I'm' sure that I'm right and everybody else is wrong and I'm gonna prove it." That's what makes a leader.

Well, that's what you did back in the 'forties, after all.

I think so-yes.

They seem to be looking to other people to take the lead, do they?

I don't know, but they're not coming forward. Well, there are two or three young guys in the States, that I think something might happen with. Maybe there's just the feeling of not wanting to sacrifice what you have to sacrifice to get something going. There's been Don Ellis; and we have Tommy Vig in Los Angeles, too-he's a very capable personality and musician, but so far he hasn't been able to get anything off the ground. He came from Hungary to the States-a brilliant drummer and arranger in the big band idiom.

Speaking of musicianship hearing this band of yours play an old score like "Opus In Pastels", although they were playing the same notes, they phrased them their own way, and it became like a new composition based on the old one.

Yes. Well, I feel this way about the band: I want the band to sound different every day we play. Not completely different, but I think it's very important that the band has a sound of spontaneity about it. If you take a piece of music and rehearse it to such a fine degree, and insist that the band plays it the same way all the time, it becomes static, and there's really no emotional content in it.

I tell the Soloists that they should take chances; they must, because out of taking chances they forge ahead. And the rhythm players especially I'd like them in a constant state of creativity. Don't play the same thing every time, you know.

That's why I'm so fond of Von Ohlen and Worster, too-they are creators. And when Von Ohlen is playing drums, he's thinking every second; he's not remembering how he played it yesterday. That's what I think makes a band exciting. When I'm conducting things, I conduct it different every time.

The one very obvious thing which also strikes me is the rapport between you and the band.
This has always been your attitude to band leading, has it? You've never felt that it was necessary to be the kind of remote tyrant that some leaders have been.

No; it's an organised thing. There has to be some kind of subconscious communication that goes on, and it's my jab to draw energy from them, to know when there should be restraint and when I should let it go free. We don't have the feeling, like a lot of bands do, that I am the leader and I'm supposed to be called Mr. Kenton and that sort of thing. They know I'm the leader.

A cute thing on the subject: there was a man that came to Zurich from Holland to do a newspaper story; and I was sitting in a coffee shop with him. The musicians kept coming in and going out, and they'd say: "Hi, Stan" and I'd say "Hi" to them. All of a sudden this Dutch fellow said: "I notice they don't call you Mr. Kenton." And I didn't know what to say to him.

I finally teased him, and said : "No, they don't. I try to get them to, but they won't."

Well, I suppose that kind of a relaxed out look is something that some people might find hard to understand.

People can't understand why I stay in the same hotel with the band; they think I should be at another hotel. Other times, people will offer to drive me to different places in a car; but the band goes on a bus, and I have to be with them.

But for four months recently you weren't with the band. And yet it held together.

Yeah, it was a phenomenal thing. I never thought they'd make it, but they did. I think everybody in the trade looks on it as such an unusual thing, that they were able to do it. No one could have expected them to last for four months without me. Because musicians, to play this kind of music, have to be geared pretty high, you know, and when people are in that high gear, you can sometimes have trouble personality clashes and so forth. But they didn't. No one man was changed.

Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved