Last December, the late composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist Stan Kenton would have turned 100. Centennial celebrations have been happening since then; Jazz at Lincoln Center plans a two-night retrospective of his music starting tonight.
Kenton's brassy big band was enormously popular during his lifetime. He left behind an astonishing body of work as bountiful as it is strange, influencing even such groundbreaking artists as Cecil Taylor. And many of jazz's greatest improvisers passed through the band — baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, singer Anita O'Day, trumpeter Shorty Rogers and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, among others.
But Kenton never lacked for controversy, and was often criticized for bombast. In 1948, Barry Ulanov wrote about the "sheer noise" of the Kenton orchestra in Metronome magazine: "There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same phenomenon." Accusations of racism also plagued the bandleader. Annoyed by the exclusion of what he felt were worthy players in the 1956 Down Beat critics poll, he sent a telegram to the magazine protesting on behalf of "a new minority, white jazz musicians." Though Kenton regularly employed African-American musicians and professed friendship and admiration for black jazz pioneers, he never fully shook the stigma.
Kenton has also been in the news after his daughter, Leslie Kenton, published a 2010 book that stated alcoholism drove him to sexually abuse her repeatedly from when she was 11 until she was 13. The book is called Love Affair, and according to Wall Street Journal reviewer Will Friedwald, it takes a tone of "forgiveness rather than accusation." The Kenton estate offered no public comment when reached.
Despite the offstage drama, Kenton tirelessly promoted his "artistry in rhythm" and sought original directions for jazz. How did Kenton hit the pop charts while remaining uncompromisingly experimental? Here are five notable selections from the man who called his music "progressive jazz."