It Seems We’ve Heard This Song Before: David Hajdu and the Familiar Stan Kenton

Music critic, arts journalist and Columbia professor David Hajdu rightly inspires pause and even protest when it comes to celebration.  His rebuke of Stan Kenton, spurred by what would have been Kenton’s hundredth birthday and the ensuing centennial tributes to the bandleader and “progressive jazz” impresario, remind us that anniversaries and events are only as valuable as the person or cause behind them.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

Unfortunately Hajdu’s scathing critique of the man, his music and his ego (as well as the connection between the three shared by plenty of other musicians) is all too familiar.  Kenton’s bombastic big bands, seeming love of complexity for complexity’s sake and dominating personality made him a welcome whipping post for critics throughout his career (and beyond, apparently).

As Marc Myers points out, Leonard Feather nicknamed Kenton “Can’t Stand Him,” and the monumental accompanying text for Ken Burns’ Jazz miniseries includes an informative but ultimately troubling portrait of Kenton courtesy of Gerald Early’s essay White Noise and White Knights.  Kenton not only had the audacity to (try to) play bigger, louder and more intricately than everyone else, he had the sheer chutzpah to tirelessly promote work that he believed in.  In light of current events, his christening that work “jazz” while simultaneously questioning or denying jazz’s African-American roots adds a whole other layer of discussion (best left to other platforms).

Besides borrowing some boilerplate Kenton invective (“…ostentation, gimmickry, and bloat…pretentiousness”), Hajdu takes a page from Gunther Schuller when he criticizes Kenton for increasing his instrumentation and playing “overwrought emulations of the early postwar avant-garde.”  Kenton wasn’t the first musician to try different instruments or new pieces; surprisingly it’s a fairly common practice in music.  That Kenton’s experiments were deemed null by some critics while being praised by some musicians is another song heard before.

Yet Hajdu’s most familiar criticism comes when he mentions Kenton’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter.  Not every artist gets accused of incest, but there’s always enough criticism of creative work based upon personal attack to go around.  Reading this type of criticism can even feel comfortable, like a story we know so well or an old chair that we can’t help flopping down on, even though there’s a spring sticking out.

Richard Wagner, aka One "Behind the Music" You Can Put Off

The point of what this disgusting aspect of Stan Kenton the man has to do with the music of Stan Kenton is unclear, as most musicologists are still unable tell the difference between incestuous music and non-incestuous music.  For that matter, the elusive “arrogant, domineering braggart” school of music theory that informed the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum is still under review.  Scholars still hope that Wagner‘s controversial libretti can offer insight about which of his instrumental passages are anti-Semitic.

The effect of Hajdu’s criticism is less mysterious and all too familiar.  His article will no doubt save a lot of potential concertgoers the time, money and (most importantly) the thought of having to hear this music themselves at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Manhattan School of Music, the University of North Texas or anywhere else.

It’s probably for the better.  After all, what do they know?  They’re just playing music.

Speaking of music, here’s the Kenton band in all its stentorian glory with “Malaguena.”  Dig those mellophoniums, man…

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8 thoughts on “It Seems We’ve Heard This Song Before: David Hajdu and the Familiar Stan Kenton

  1. jazzlives says:

    My Kenton story is I hope oddly relevant. If you had asked me yesterday, I would have told you that Kenton’s music was unpleasant, unreasonably overblown (no pun) and responsible for the downfall of Western civilization as we knew it. But I was listening to the Columbia University radio station’s jazz program yesterday in the car, and I heard what I thought was a large mid-Fifties ensemble, perhaps with Zoot Sims and a good bassist, then with two vocals by a woman who reminded me of Chris Connor. It was not exactly what I would choose to listen to if I were home with my wall of CDs, but I was favorably impressed. Imagine my shock when the announcer came on and explained that it was a Capitol Kenton session, circa 1955, vocals by Ann Richards, no Zoot in sight. Not for the first time, I sighed and thanked my stars there was no jazz version of JEOPARDY for me to fail at . . . and not for the first time, I wondered at the concrete-rigid preconceptions of “jazz critics” and “jazz scholars.” And — as a postscript: David Hadju has written much that I admire, and I think I will continue to do so. But to add the story of Kenton’s incestuous relationship with his daughter as the close of that piece seems to be an unpleasant exercise. Someone should remind Mr. Hadju that if you kill a dead man with an atom bomb, the fallout remains, and some readers — sensitive to injustice — might feel sorry for the vilified subject, no matter what his crimes.

    • M. Figg says:

      Your stories and insights are always relevant, thanks as always for reading and commenting. And it’s funny how a little radiation illuminates even the worst subjects.

  2. […] the details is this, which I can’t bring myself to talk about on the Internet.) Here’s a response from Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic, a blog which I should read […]

  3. mark says:

    As a musician for whom jazz has been a primary style for more than forty years, I’ve read my share of music journalism, although very little over the past decade. It’s fascinating to find, after my long sabbatical from the jazz wars, the same old manufactured conflict. Some writers apparently love the music and feel a need to share their passion. And others approach the music as a kind of identity politics. Music, like all endeavors, can’t easily be separated from the broader historical context and culture from which it emerges. On the other hand, it can quickly become a way of segregating players according to race, gender, culture and style, electric vs. acoustic and just about any other way of defining who is authentic and who isn’t. This is where things get ugly—and more often than not, stupid! Distance, hasn’t made my heart grow fonder, only weary.

    • M. Figg says:

      Thank you for reading, and thank you very much for commenting. Your insights are a helpful reminder to all of us to avoid making a “war” out of music, words, personalities, etc. and to simply listen: to music, words and people.

      I am sorry to hear distance has only confirmed some of the unpleasant aspects of music writing. This microscopic corner of the internet does try (TRY) to avoid polemics, so hopefully continued reading may provide a pleasant surprise…or at the least you can always skip my words and go straight to the clips =)

      • mark says:

        I wasn’t responding to your writing, it was more a response to the article that you were quoting. I apologize for not clearly stating my intent. I enjoyed your review; it was well written and thoughtful. I will definitely check back.

  4. Stan’s band paved the way for big bands in the late 60s-early 70s, like Maynard’s various bands, Woody Herman’s later groups, Don Ellis. Kenton was about change, and adapting the elements of popular music of the day, but bringing them to the big band setting. Bombastic, loud, and proud.

    Not always my choice for things to listen to, but it’s fun sometimes to enjoy the spectacle, and the obvious passion that Stan had for bringing it to the public. (I much prefer the Bill Holman and Lenny Niehaus arrangements that Stan did, not so crazy about the Hank Levy stuff.)

    • M. Figg says:

      I’m also a big fan of Bill Holman’s charts, as well as Bill Russo’s arrangements (which apparently turned into something very different along the way from Russo’s pages to Kenton’s conducting), though I must admit that Levy’s “Passacaglia and Fugue” for Ellis’ band is one of my favorite big band charts of all time!

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your insights, Walter!

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