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Kenton Declares Jazz is Finished

SOURCE: Published: 2010-12-09
Stan Kenton Six months before Stan Kenton recorded Kenton Plays Wagner, the bandleader let jazz have it in an April 1964 Down Beat article. Like the January 1964 Granz interview that I posted yesterday, Kenton blamed jazz's woes on folk—a rather quaint scapegoat of choice among one-time jazz powers.

Folk surged in popularity in the 1950s but never quite caught on with teens. Closely associated with the struggles of labor movements of the '30s, groups like The Weavers, the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters in the '50s revived stories of worker injustice and exploitation accompanied by passionate singing, tight harmony and acoustic guitar-playing. Not until July 1963, with the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, did folk finally connect with the youth market and reach a critical mass. Led by the hit Blowin' in the Wind, Dylan's album repositioned folk as poetic and personal—not overtly political or aged.

By the date of Kenton's comments in the spring of 1964, the Beatles had arrived—though one could argue that Kenton and other uninitiated listeners dismissed them initially as folk or worse. Or, despite the mobs of screaming teenage girls and wild record sales, they considered the Beatles to be just a momentary fad.

As noted yesterday, the “jazz is dead" thing has been around since the early '60s. What's new here is its assassin—folk, which for a brief moment was a stand-in for “thinking kids." Without further ado, here is the Down Beat article in full from April 1964, with the headline: “Kenton Declares Jazz Is Finished":

“Stan Kenton, whose colorful career in jazz has been marked by many a controversy, proved recently he has lost none of his flair for the dramatic.

“ 'Jazz is finished,' the 52-year-old orchestra leader and  composer declared at the concluding session of a special series of panel discussions titled the Recording Arts, held at the University of California at Los Angeles under the auspices of the university and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

“On a panel that consisted of composer-jazzman Benny Carter, [folk] singer Salli Terri, and Lou Gottlieb of the Limeliters,  Kenton was not alone in noting 'the enormous amount of bigotry' existing between factions within jazz and folk music. Each panel member concurred.

“In a black mood, Kenton stated he finds it 'impossible' to  discuss jazz generally without offending some 'cult.' In any case, he added, he feels that jazz has lost much of its audience to folk music.

“Jazz is, at present, he went on, a highly speculative art for a [small] audience, while folk music can hit a broader audience because of its relatively less sophisticated musical content.

“In a flurry of opinion-tossing back and forth across the panel, Gottlieb [pictured], a jazz afficionado, addressed himself to Kenton, declaring that today one must think, not dance, while listening to modern jazz. It was his feeling, he went on, that the extensive listening experience required by today's jazz fan means that the musically unsophisticated audiences are lost, left out, and therefore have little attraction to jazz.

“Kenton agreed. He averred, though, that the reason for the audience-alienating music of many contemporary jazz musicians is a personal search for an individual identity in their music.

“Gottlieb was ready for that one. He complained that this search for identity often took place on the performance platform.

“ 'I'd much rather,' he snapped, 'have this searching happen offstage—and then hear the fruits of it onstage.'

“At this point Kenton tossed his jazz-is-finished grenade into the collective lap of panel and audience.

“Amid a stunned silence, Kenton went on to reveal he had come to this conclusion some three years ago. He was now publicly expressing it for the first time, he added.

“The jazz we have known, explained Kenton, from 1890 to the late 1950s, has spent itself and has become absorbed by American music in general.

“ 'Jazz stars,' he predicted, 'will simply not rise as they have in the past. We've seen our last Ellington. There are no more contributions to make.'

“But Carter was of a different turn of mind. Jazz, Carter told Kenton, is much too small a word for everything that is happening in music today. Kenton remained unconvinced.

“Today's audience, responded Kenton to a question from the floor, 'are hung up between what they really like in music and what they think they should like.' He attempted to illustrate his point: the album in which the Kenton band backed Tex Ritter, the cowboy singer, was a commercial failure, he said, mostly because people felt both performers suffered from the combination.

“In a last hurrah, Kenton threw in the often-heard quote on what jazz is: 'If you have to ask, don't mess with it.'

I find this entire folk-as-jazz-killer thing a hoot. Who knew?

Kenton, of course, seems to use it merely as a foil to blast alternative forms of jazz, which by 1964 was reflecting the struggles of the civil rights movement. And then there is Lou Gottlieb's odd remark about not being able to dance to jazz—what exactly were folk fans doing while the Limeliters played? 

The months between the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Beatles Second Album were interesting ones indeed.

JazzWax note: So who was Salli Terri? She was a folk singer of some repute in the '50s and '60s who recorded with Laurindo Almeida among others [both pictured]. She died in 1996. Go here.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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