Even a tone-deaf hermit would have instantly realized that the event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Redondo Beach last weekend had something to do with a piano player. The merchandise booths were overflowing with piano neckties, piano socks, piano caps, piano pins and earrings, and images of the programs’ honoree--pianist-bandleader-composer Stan Kenton--were everywhere.
Nor was it surprising that “The Kenton Era,” four days of concerts and panel discussions, should draw overflow audiences. Kenton’s fans may be among the most dedicated devotees in the entire jazz community. Nearly two decades after the adventurous innovator passed away, a Kenton event can still attract crowds of enthusiasts, eager to hear the music, buy the CDs, adorn themselves with piano-imaged neckties and caps and reminisce with similarly inclined companions.
The 11 individual concerts--to the delight of the audiences, most of whom clearly arrived with firsthand memories of the music--surveyed much of Kenton’s lengthy career. Virtually every stop in his constantly changing creative quest was touched upon, from the Artistry in Rhythm and Progressive Jazz of the ‘40s through the swinging bands of the ‘50s and into the mellophonium and the Neophonic orchestras of the ‘60s. And, since Kenton was West Coast-based, with dozens of his former players eventually settling in the Southland and moving into the recording studios, plenty of Kenton veterans were on hand to perform and offer juicy tales of life on the road in panel discussions and informal conversations.
Trumpeter Buddy Childers and saxophonist Bill Holman, for example, led their own big bands, with individual concerts dedicated to Kenton arrangers Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo and Holman, with each present. And the performances and panels were peppered with Kenton veterans from every era, among them, saxophonists Gabe Baltazar, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, Kim Richmond and Jack Nimitz, trumpeters Childers, Pete and Conte Candoli, Steve Huffstetter and Clay Jenkins, trombonists Eddie Bert, Milt Bernhart, Slyde Hyde, Carl Fontana and Bob Enevoldso.
Among the individual events, it was particularly fascinating to hear the massive sounds of the Neophonic orchestra, the hard swinging arrangements of Holman and, especially, an unusual program of Gerry Mulligan tunes written for the Kenton band, including his classic originals “Young Blood” and “Limelight.”
For the ever-enthralled listeners, however, every note was a highlight, with the opportunity to graze the various record stands in search of obscure Kenton albums an added bonus.
As one die-hard fan, piano cap perched on his head, album acquisitions under his arm, put it, “To me, Stan was the greatest bandleader of all, and I’d take a plane to Afghanistan, if that’s what it took, to hear his band play one more time.”