Interview: Lennie Niehaus (Part 3)
Up until now, I've focused this interview series on Lennie Niehaus' biography. Today, I want to turn to the alto saxophonist's work with Stan Kenton's band between 1954 and 1961. Lennie's contribution to Kenton's uptempo and ballad output during this period both as a player and writer cannot be overestimated. In Lennie's hands, you hear the birth of a new orchestral sound that combined swing with sectional coloration and spirited risk-taking. Like automotive design in the late 1950s, Lennie's arrangements for Kenton had power, daring and flair.
Lennie arranged three must-own albums for Kenton: The Stage Door Swings (1958), Sophisticated Approach (1961) and Adventures in Standards (1961). He also was featured on alto sax between 1954 and 1959, turning in one of the most dynamic Kenton solos on his own arrangement of End of a Love Affair from Stan Kenton at the Tropicana (1959).
In Part 3 of my interview series with Lennie, the alto saxophonist, arranger and composer talks about West Coast jazz, fellow arranger and saxophonist Bill Holman, life on the road with the Kenton band, two big turning points in the orchestra's development, and how he arranged three Kenton albums:
JazzWax: In 1954, when you were discharged from the army, did you reconnect with Stan Kenton?
Lennie Niehaus: As soon as I got out Stan called me and said, You're just in time. Lee Konitz [pictured] just left the band." So I rejoined Stan's band and recorded as leader of small groups. Soon after I rejoined Stan, we went out on tour with Art Tatum, Slam Stewart, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, guitarist Johnny Smith and Charlie Ventura with Mary Ann McCall.
JW: What do you remember about the West Coast scene back then?
LN: I remember the argument over which was better, West Coast or East Coast jazz. It was all ridiculous, since you had West Coast guys like Zoot Sims living back East and Shorty Rogers, an Easterner, on the West Coast. But hey, record companies were recording West Coast musicians, so who was to argue [laughs].
JW: Was there truly a difference in sound?
LN: Not much. West Coast music was perhaps a little more cerebral. I don't say that in a judgmental way. It's just that many of the guys who played it came out of music school. For me, the sound came naturally after studying counterpoint in college. Similarly, many of the guys on the West Coast were studying counterpoint with Wesley LaViolette [pictured] and other classical theorists. All of us were experimenting with different types of linear writing.
JW: Yet the sound was unified.
LN: We would let a guy blow in an arrangement, but we'd always supply a linear background for it. We'd add interludes, but the backgrounds and endings had to make sense. We'd always tie it up at the end. That's the way it came out.
JW: Did you enjoy recording Kenton's Contemporary Concepts in 1955?
LN: It was great. On our tour, Stan had left Bill Holman in New York to arrange the whole thing. It took Bill about three weeks to complete the six charts, and the result was fantastic. Bill had a way of taking a tune and making it his own. The band loved Bill's Stompin' at the Savoy. We would aways eagerly wait for Stan to call that one.
JW: On that album, different members of the band were featured soloists on different songs.
LN: Yes, that was the concept. Bill wrote each song with a different soloist in mind. For example, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano was the soloist on Stella by Starlight. He played it beautifully. Tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins had Yesterdays. Bill wrote Cherokee for me. There are versions of that song that I recorded at different places during our tour that year. Each time we played the song, it got faster and faster [laughs]. I was playing it every night. Bill's arrangement sent chills down my spine.
JW: Was traveling with Kenton rough?
LN: The pace was grueling. We would travel, play a one-nighter and travel again for weeks at a time. The dances we played usually lasted from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. If we played a concert, it would last from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. Then when a concert or dance was over, we'd get on the bus and travel up to 400 miles to our next gig. Many times there was no time to check into a hotel when we arrived because we had traveled so far. I don't think the gigs were particularly well planned [laughs]. [Pictured: Stan Kenton at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1952]
JW: What do you mean?
LN: I doubt whoever was back at the booking office was thinking out the best route for the band or taking into account the distances we had to travel. The guys used to joke that someone must have been throwing darts at a map. Sometimes we'd pass through towns that we had raced through two days earlier.
JW: What was life like on the bus?
LN: We'd eat and sleep there, wake up in the morning and stop for breakfast. For lunch, we'd go into a store for bread and peanut butter, and make sandwiches. We'd arrive at a job with just enough time to change into our uniforms and get on the bandstand. We were always tired. But as soon as the band began to play, that old feeling would come back and you were energized. [Pictured: Stan Kenton and bandmembers on the road]
JW: Was Stan a tough boss?
LN: Things were said about Stan, that he was stiff or a taskmaster. But he was really a sincere guy. He always encouraged the players and gave everone solo spots. He urged arrangers in the band to write, and he played their charts. Charts he didn't like he'd leave in the band's book and just didn't call them. Stan never created a mean-spirited climate of competition among his players or arrangers.
JW: The Kenton band's sound changed a couple of times while you were there.
LN: Yes. The first turning point was probably in 1952 when he commissioned Gerry Mulligan to write arrangements. Stan didn't know what Gerry would do, but he was confident it would be interesting. When I joined the band in 1952, Gerry came in with 10 arrangements, including Walkin' Shoes, Limelight, Young Blood, Swing House and some ballads.
JW: What impact did Mulligan's arrangements have on the band?
LN: They lightened up the sound. Gerry wrote unison, contrapuntal lines, and he didn't have the band play triple forte all the time. Those charts had a big influence on me. They taught me that when someone's playing a solo, the background needs to be supportive and engaging, not deafening. After Gerry, the key was not to mow down the soloist but echo and support the sound. [Photo of Lennie Niehaus, left, and Lee Elliott with Stan Kenton in 1952 courtesy of David Levy]
JW: Did you ever tell Mulligan how much he influenced you?
LN: No. Gerry sort of came and went. He was aloof. But he still left his mark. As the years went by, Stan remained attached to Gerry's sensibility. The second big turning point came in 1954 when Bill Holman and I began writing charts that took Gerry's sound to a new level. Stan always favored highs and lows in the band--the trumpets on top and the bass trombone and baritone saxophone on the bottom. But after Gerry's arrangements, Stan liked a lot more interchange with the band's different sections.
JW: Your arrangements for The Stage Door Swings in 1958 placed a new emphasis on the reed section.
LN: Stan wanted an album based on Broadway show tunes. He locked me in a room in a Chicago hotel. With my work ethic, if I had an idea at 3 a.m., I'd get up and start writing. They brought an electric piano into my room, and I had headphones so I wouldn't disturb other guests. After 2 1/2 weeks, I had produced 12 songs, about one a day. I was on a mission. I get like that still. Even if it's 2 a.m., I have to finish.
JW: Did Kenton give you any instructions before locking you away?
LN: He asked me to base the different tunes on riffs--you know, musical patterns that repeat. So with Lullaby of Broadway, I thought, hey, I'll base it on Intermission Riff. So I changed the standard's chords, and that became the hook.
JW: And Baubles, Bangles and Beads opens like Johnny Richards' arrangement of I Concentrate on You from the Back to Balboa album recorded earlier that year.
LN: That's right. I didn't consciously decide, I'm going to pick up Johnny's thing." I think it was more of me using it as a way to tell Johnny, You know that great line you had? I'm going to use it as a springboard." The listener who knew the earlier album thinks it's going to be I Concentrate on You but instead it becomes Baubles, Bangles and Beads. So there's recognition by the listener and then surprise and finally delight when the song becomes something else.
JW: What did Kenton think of your charts?
LN: Stan loved the album. Producer Lee Gillette said it was one of the best albums the band had released. Those were the days when stereo was coming in and guys in the engineer's booth were thinking about which instruments should come out of the left and right speakers. Lee said, You did a great job putting it in stereo." I wasn't thinking along those lines, but it came out that way [laughs].
JW: Your arrangement of and solo on End of a Love Affair from Stan Kenton at the Tropicana remain stunning 50 years later.
LN: Of everything I recorded with Stan, that's my favorite ballad solo. I don't know why it turned out so well. I arranged it so it would start with just bassist Red Kelly and me playing. Along the way I added brass and reeds and built the instrumentation softly. I wanted that Gerry Mulligan sound with the band. No Kenton arrangement had ever opened like that--with just bass and alto saxophone.
JW: You wrote the ending so it would have a regretful feel, almost a sigh, to play off the song's title.
LN: I wrote the ending so it would close on dissonant notes. That was my training. While it's not a pure 12-tone row, I wanted that atonal feel. That's what I heard in my head when I was writing the chart. Also, there are chords in my arrangement that weren't in the original tune. I had to write them out so that if I left the band, someone else could play the alto solo [laughs].
JW: In mid-1961, Kenton recorded Sophisticated Approach, which also was arranged completely by you.
LN: Yes. By then I had left Stan, but he hired me to arrange a band he had assembled with four mellophoniums. Stan had used French horns in the past but the instrument's bell turned away from the audience, and collectively they weren't a strong enough sound. Stan loved the trombone sound and was one of the first to use five in a section. So Stan went to the folks at C.G. Conn and asked them to make a French horn but with traditional valves and a straight bell. Once he had what he wanted in the mellophonium, he needed arrangements that complemented them. [Pictured: Kenton's mellophoniums]
JW: What did Kenton suggest you do for Sophisticated Approach?
LN: Stan wanted to remove one of the alto saxes, and he wondered what we should put under the one that remained. I said two tenor saxes and two baritone saxes, because one of the baritones could drop out and one of the bass trombones could come in and fill that gap. I told him we could still do all the familiar standards.
JW: How many arrangements did Kenton want?
LN: There was no number. All he said to me was, Keep writing." I said, Write what?" He said, Anything you want." So I went to work. I loved writing for Stan's dance band. After I left, I must have written 100 arrangements for him. And they were all for his dance band, which I loved. Remember, when I had first joined Stan's band in 1952, they had difficulty playing a dance.
LN: Because it was too much of a jazz band. The arrangements were too fast, the arrangements never settled into a groove, and people couldn't dance to what the band was playing.
JW: You also arranged the album, Adventures in Standards, which only had limited distribution on Kenton's Creative World label.
LN: These were arrangements written at about the same time as the Sophisticated Approach charts. Except I arranged Broadway tunes for the mellophonium band. All had that inhale-exhale, ballad feel.
JW: So when you look back over the three Kenton albums you arranged, which one is your favorite?
LN: I liked what I did on Sophisticated Approach. But I'd have to say that The Stage Door Swings is my favorite. It's more dynamic and rushes at the listener.
Tomorrow, Lennie talks about his prolific small-group leadership recordings for Contemporary Records during the 1950s, which featured originals and standards arranged for quartets, quintets, sextets and octets. If you aren't aware of these sessions, you're in for a treat.
JazzWax tracks: All three albums that Lennie Niehaus arranged for Stan Kenton are available as remastered CDs. The Stage Door Swings is a terrific album that doesn't stop punching from the first track onward. Adventures in Standards has been added to the CD release of Sophisticated Approach. Lennie's towering solo on End of a Love Affair is on Stan Kenton at the Tropicana. All are available at iTunes or Amazon.
Lennie can be heard in Kenton's 1952 band on the CD Easy Go. His post-1954 work with the band is on the must-own CD Contemporary Concepts (Bill Holman arranged six of the tracks). Lennie also is featured on Kenton's Sketches on Standards (1956). One Lennie's finest Kenton sideman dates is Kenton in Hi-Fi (1956), which featured arrangements by Kenton and Pete Rugolo that updated earlier Kenton hits. His solos on Concerto to End All Concertos and Unison Riff from the album are classics. Cuban Fire (1956), arranged by Johnny Richards, is another gem that includes superb solos by Lennie. These tracks include Recuerdos, Quien Sabe, El Panzon and, my favorite, Wagon.