by Mike Corrigan
Both Woody Herman and Stan Kenton spent the better part of half a century as bandleaders, shepherding a staggering number of musicians through the evolutionary path jazz would take through swing, be-bop and beyond. This Saturday night at the Met, THE SPOKANE JAZZ ORCHESTRA continues its 27th consecutive season with what will doubtlessly be a lively and swinging musical tribute to these remarkable leaders. Led by the incomparable Gunther Schuller, the orchestra's principal guest conductor for the 2002 season, the SJO's "Concert Swing of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton" will expose modern audiences to the enduring works of these men with the added dimension of Schuller's unique insights and keen ear for bringing authenticity to performance.
To classify Herman as conservative and Kenton as radical is an oversimplification that nevertheless serves to draw a distinction between the two bandleaders and the approach they took with their music. Both were highly progressive and sought through various means to bring new and exciting voices, depth and character to jazz. But there were profound differences as well, which may help explain why -- in the popular consciousness at least -- Herman is perceived as more accessible while Kenton's legacy is more controversial.
"Woody Herman had a broader appeal," agrees the SJO's Craig Volosing. "He pushed the envelope in different and, it seemed, more palatable ways. Certainly, in more generally accepted ways. Each wanted to grow all the time, but to my ears, Herman grew with [his band, while] Kenton at times was pushing and creating some of the growth and some of the tangents that bands would later go out on."
Herman got his start in show business as a child singing and playing saxophone in vaudeville. He founded his first band in 1936 out of the remains of the Isham Jones Orchestra, with which he had performed and recorded. Calling themselves "The Band That Plays the Blues," Herman's first outfit lived up to their name, specializing in full-bodied blues despite a mixed response from audiences. Herman pressed on, finally hitting it big in 1939 with "Woodchopper's Ball," which became an instant standard for the band. In 1944, Herman unveiled a completely new band -- what is now known as the First Herd. Herman would have many subsequent "herds" throughout the remainder of his long career, but none would match the success, exuberance and sheer ferocity of the initial incarnation. Herman's Herd was a hard-swinging 19-piece crew with a thunderous rhythm section and a wealth of brilliant, fluid soloists. Fine original songs poured out of the band like the sweet, clear notes of Herman's clarinet: "Apple Honey," "Caldonia," "Northwest Passage" and the wacky "Your Father's Mustache." In very short order, it became the most exciting band in jazz.
Pianist and arranger Stan Kenton formed his first orchestra in 1941 after cutting his teeth in the dance bands of Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim. Early on, Kenton established himself as something of a renegade by seeking to emphasize emotion, power and complex harmonies over swing. Though not as popular as the Herd during '40s, Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm" (along with subsequent projects) actively expanded the boundaries of jazz through the use of young, creative soloists, inventive arrangers and the introduction of Latin rhythms. Furthermore, at a time when many big bands were breaking up, Kenton sought to expand his into a full concert orchestra. By 1950, Kenton had realized this dream with the wildly ambitious Innovations in Modern Music, a 39-piece orchestra that included 16 strings, a woodwind section and two French horns.
"Kenton was more of a pushing, unyeilding personality," Volosing explains. "But each of them were at the forefront of the big bands that were pacing themselves along with the growth of the music, pushing the envelope in terms of improvisation and chord voicings and all those little musical nuances that made it more challenging, more intellectual, fresh and fun. Those two bands were not the only ones, but they were the most enduring and the most visible."
Both bandleaders experienced numerous creative highs and lows during the '50s, '60s and '70s. Kenton's band dissolved (according to his wishes) after his death in 1979. Herman, on the other hand, chose a successor before his own death in 1987. To this day, the Woody Herman Orchestra (under the direction of Frank Tiberi) continues Herman's tradition of introducing young, fresh talent to the world.
Volosing says the SJO concert will most likely concentrate (in the case of Herman) on the transitional period of the late '40s, the period of the First Herd.
"I think Gunther is going to span a little more time with the things he's selected from Kenton, in part because of the lack of availability of Kenton material. Kenton donated his library to North Texas State University's jazz department, and they are unwilling to make a photocopy of any of that stuff without specific permission from the copyright holder of that particular arrangement or tune and that is extremely difficult to track down. And then Mrs. Kenton has not been very cooperative."
Any music lover in Spokane with a head free and clear of the sandbox should know what having Maestro Schuller at the helm of the SJO means in terms of performance passion and technical excellence. But what does it mean to the guy behind the trumpet? What does it mean to Volosing and the individual members of the SJO?
"As just one of the guys in the band? First of all, I like Gunther's push for excellence, which you would want in any director, and he certainly has us strive for it. Plus, he knows how to get it out of you, one way or another, through cajoling or through demands. He wants the best, and you appreciate that. What he brings over and above that is an incredible amount of credibility. It's not just that he heard it on the record. He knows what went into the making of this music and a lot of the things that surrounded it. And he's got such incredible ears, he can hear these nuances that go right by a lot of us. We aren't that steeped in it and don't have those incredibly honed skills and gifts that he has. He's really quite a remarkable entity."
And whatever the specifics of the program, rest assured that what you will most definitely hear on Saturday night is a world-class ensemble performing the original arrangements of Herman and Kenton as they were made famous. Under Schuller's direction, the repertory spirit and attention to replication reign supreme.
"It's rare," says Volosing, "that this music gets played and gets played authentically."
Acerbic wit, on-target social commentary, folk guitar and sheep snogging? What the hell is this all about? It's ROBERT HOYT, naturally, a wandering minstrel with lovely stories to tell and societal evils to rail against in these troubled times. This Saturday evening at the Mother Goose Progressive Coffeehouse, Hoyt will perform a benefit concert for the Kettle Range Conservation Group, a local grassroots organization working to provide wilderness status for Eastern Washington's unprotected roadless forests.
Hoyt is a singer/songwriter, activist, satirist and what-have-you with Southern roots and an uncanny knack for getting to the heart of the matter in song. His sharp-edged lyrics go down easy, thanks to his creamy guitar playing and sweet vocals. His guitar style is multi-faceted, careening from rhythmic strumming to dazzling finger-picked virtuosity. His songs are thematically all over the map as well, touching on labor, environmental and women's issues, life on the road, nature, money, murder and reminiscences of his formative years, all rich with Southern imagery.
He has three albums to his credit (As American As You, Dumpster Diving Across America and Mind's Eye) and was recently the subject -- along with his travelling companion, a paraplegic cat -- of a documentary by filmmaker Paul Bonesteel called Travels with Claude.
The sheep? Well, she's just a friend.