Cabrillo College jazz icon Ray Brown celebrates Stan Kenton’s centennial with a rare concert of Kenton arrangements
It was in the early 1970s that Cabrillo College music instructor Ray Brown—fresh off a stint in the U.S. Army’s touring jazz band during the Vietnam War—wound up playing fifth trumpet in the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra, the last remnant of the so-called Big Band Era that forged a uniquely American sound in the years bookending the Second World War.
Brown, who was raised in a musical family on Long Island, had come of age during Kenton’s heyday, and the opportunity to play with one of his idols was a dream come true.
Kenton was known for his big blaring horn sections—his was the original “wall of sound” long before Phil Spector developed a similar concept in pop and rock—and the then 25-year-old Brown was a more tempered trumpeter than those high, strong players usually favored by Kenton. “I was more in the Art Farmer mode,” says Brown. He wasn’t sure if he was going to stick.
“Honestly, I don’t think Stan much liked my playing at first,” Brown recalls, “but I grew on him, and we eventually became good friends—so much so that he had me rehearse the band for him numerous times.”
Brown spent 15 months with Kenton, performing around the world. “I spent those months continuously on the road with Stan,” Brown recalls. “At one point, we played 81 nights—and sometimes days—in a row. I think we had 18 days off the entire year-plus. A tour like that can never be repeated ever again.”
Now, four decades later—and during the centennial of Kenton’s birth—Brown is paying a final homage to his mentor’s legacy with a one-of-a-kind concert, entitled “My Man Stan,” which will take place on Nov. 19 at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater. The concert will feature Brown’s 19-piece Great Big Band (the same size as Kenton’s) playing a number of songs written and arranged by Kenton, along with a selection by Brown, a highly regarded performer, composer and arranger in his own right.
Although Kenton was an innovative—and controversial—jazz figure in his lifetime, Brown acknowledges that his moment has come and gone. “Most of my students have never heard of him,” he says. “He’s had a little bit of a rebirth during his centennial, but I believe he will pretty much disappear after this year. I wanted to program some of his songs in an authentic ensemble to bring back some recognition and understanding of the man and his music. Both were unique.”
Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1912, Kenton moved to Colorado and eventually to California in his youth, graduating from Bell High School, just outside Los Angeles, during the Depression. Influenced by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Kenton began performing—and composing—as a jazz pianist in his teens.
On the eve of World War II, Kenton formed his first orchestra, serving as the house band at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach. During the ensuing decades, Kenton signed with Capitol Records and forged a “progressive” jazz movement that linked big-band jazz with more classical elements. He was also one of the first big-band leaders in the U.S. to incorporate Afro-Cuban rhythmic coloration in his compositions. By the time of his death in the late 1970s, he was something of a musical anachronism. Yet his influence remained pervasive.
“Stan was clear he never wanted a ghost band after he died,” says Brown. “This is the only time I would do this—just for his centennial recognition. I know how his music was played, and I believe I have the guys to play it. I want it to be a special night for the audience. It certainly will be special for me.”
“My Man Stan” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 19 at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets are $20. Call 479-6218, or visit brownpapertickets.com. Photo: Paul Schraub