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8.120703 - KENTON, Stan: MacGregor Transcriptions, Vol. 4 (1944)

STAN KENTON “Eager Beaver”

STAN KENTON  “Eager Beaver”

The Complete McGregor Transcriptions Vol.4

Original 1944 Recordings


When one thinks of Stan Kenton, it is of his Progressive Jazz Band of 1945-48, his very ambitious Innovations Orchestra (1950-51), his swinging all-star bands of the 1950s and the Mellophonium Orchestra of the early 1960s.  However the ensembles that are featured on his MacGregor Transcriptions are of an earlier vintage, allowing listeners to hear the Stan Kenton Orchestra as it was developing its own sound and musical philosophy.


Actually Stan Kenton formed his musical philosophy early on.  He was born 15 December 1911 in Wichita, Kansas.  Inspired by Earl Hines’ piano playing, Kenton was a percussive and expressive player but never was on the level of his idol. His innovations would be in his ideas and vision rather than his musicianship.  Kenton spent the 1930s in Los Angeles, working with a variety of dance bands including Everett Hoagland in 1934, Russ Plummer and Gus Arnheim, recording with the latter in 1937.  After doing some studio work and appearing in a pit orchestra at Earl Carroll’s Theatre, in 1940 Kenton started leading a rehearsal band of his own.


Kenton wrote most of the arrangements for the original orchestra.  During the summer of 1941, his big band played five nights a week at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa near Los Angeles.  It was during this historic engagement that Kenton built up a large and enthusiastic local following, and began recording radio transcriptions for the MacGregor company.  The band also recorded nine titles for Decca during 1941-42.


However once the stint at the Rendezvous Ballroom ended, the orchestra was not an instant success, struggling for over two years.  Kenton and his men toured the East Coast for eighteen months during 1942-43 without much success.  Back in Los Angeles in June 1943, Kenton signed to have his orchestra become the house band for Bob Hope’s radio series.  It looked like a big break initially but ended up being an unhappy association with Kenton stuck playing a straight man to Hope and his orchestra not getting to play all that much.  In the spring of 1944 Kenton gave his notice and his orchestra left the show in June.  Les Brown, whose temperament and less ambitious goals were better suited to playing second fiddle, would eventually be Kenton’s permanent replacement.


On 18 November 1943, Stan Kenton made his first recordings for the Capitol label and the four songs recorded that day include his theme “Artistry In Rhythm” and “Eager Beaver” which became his first hit.  Although it would take until 1945 before Kenton’s orchestra finally became a moneymaker, the Capitol association (which lasted until 1968) gave him hope for the future.


This is the fourth of five CDs that reissue all of Kenton’s MacGregor radio transcriptions, performances recorded in the studio and available to be played on the radio but not for sale to the general public during the era.  The first sixteen selections date from 15 May 1944, a time when Kenton was finishing up his stint with the Bob Hope show.  The personnel of the big band includes a few notables, particularly the still-active trumpeter Buddy Childers, Dave Matthews (equally skilled on tenor and as an arranger), drummer Jesse Price (only with Kenton a brief time), a seventeen-year-old tenor-saxophonist named Stan Getz (who like Childers unfortunately gets no solo space) and singers Gene Howard and Anita O’Day.  O’Day, who had been with Gene Krupa’s big band until it broke up, had one hit with Kenton (“And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”) and was generally featured on swinging numbers while Howard sang ballads.  They added commercial elements that made some of Kenton’s musical dreams possible and permitted him to keep his orchestra together even as he pursued his eventual goal of leading a concert jazz orchestra rather than a dance band.


This CD begins with a spirited version of Kenton’s initial hit, Eager Beaver.  Gene Howard sings pretty straight on I’ll Remember April before Anita O’Day is featured on the novelty rhythm piece Ride On; Karl George has the brief trumpet solo on the latter.  Russian Lullaby, one of several arrangements contributed by Joe Rizzo (an important if rarely acknowledged force in the early Kenton band), has spots for trumpeter John Carroll and Dave Matthews on tenor.  Rizzo’s reworking of Debussy’s Clair de lune is haunting and retains the character of the classical piece.  The unique Kenton ensemble sound is well featured on Build It Up And Tear It Down before O’Day’s takes her vocal.  Gene Howard’s warm and heavy voice is showcased on Moon Song.  I Know That You Know is a rarity in Kenton’s discography, a brief swing “killer diller” that cooks.  Matthews’ thick-toned tenor and trumpeter George get their chances to be heard.


Pete Rugolo would be Kenton’s main arranger during the second half of the 1940s, taking his ideas and extending them into more esoteric areas.  Opus A Dollar Three Eighty is one of his earlier efforts for Kenton.  More conventional is Gene Howard’s feature on the standard Under A Blanket Of Blue.  One of O’Day’s better showcases with the band, I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City originally featured her predecessor, Dolly Mitchell.  Rizzo’s chart turns Tchaikovsky’s None But The Lonely Heart into progressive dance music.  O’Day sings the wartime swing piece You Betcha.  While trumpeter John Carroll is heard on that piece, Karl George is featured (along with altoist Eddie Meyers) on The Hour Of Parting.  A year before June Christy had a hit with “Tampico” and three before Kenton was a pioneer in Afro-Cuban jazz, his orchestra hinted at sounds from south of the border on In A Little Spanish Town (with Anita O’Day) and Begin The Beguine.


The last four selections on this fourth volume are from December 1944.  By then the orchestra had left the Bob Hope show and returned to Los Angeles where they appeared in the film short Artistry In Rhythm.  The band’s personnel had changed a bit with the number of musicians growing from seventeen to eighteen with the addition of a fifth trumpeter and only nine of the players from the May orchestra still present plus the two singers.  Anita O’Day on Blues uses lyrics from some of her favorite blues songs including “St. Louis Blues” and “Fine And Mellow.”  Carroll and tenor-saxophonist Emmett Carls are featured on a swinging version of Tico Tico, O’Day returns for Special Delivery and altoist Boots Mussulli’s Conversin’ With The Brain concludes the program with a jumping original.


Stan Kenton celebrated his 33rd birthday on 15 December 1944 and his career as an innovator was still just getting started.  The MacGregor transcriptions fill an important gap in his early years.


Scott Yanow

– author of eight jazz books including Jazz On Record 1917-76, Trumpet Kings, Bebop and Afro-Cuban Jazz

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