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The Road to Stan, 1961

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The North Texas State University Lab Band
Stan Kenton had a long and benefitical relationship with North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). His connection to the university's music program dated back to the 1940s. Worried about turnover in his orchestra and the need for a solid pipeline of young, gifted musicians eager to tour, Kenton understood early the benefit of colleges with a crack orchestral curriculum.

Kenton sensed that even without the drain of the draft and shifting music trends, the stress and strain of the road eventually sent older musicians packing to join their families while band standouts inevitably became stars and gave notice. Such attrition meant that a campus farm team could ably fill the gap.

The risk of a shortage of great band players wasn't high in the late '40s, of course. There were so many regional bands across the country that empty seats in A-list bands could be filled pretty quickly by top regional musicians eager to move up. What's more, many musicians who were veterans were in college studying music for free on the GI Bill. When they graduated, they often returned to the bands.

But by the late late 1950s, the risk curve steepened. Kenton grew concerned about the depletion of exceptional band musicians as rock, pop and small-group jazz flourished. In addition, hundreds of big bands folded as they became economically unfeasible, leaving bands such as Kenton's with fewer places to draw reserves in a pinch.

Kenton became an ardent supporter of music education and encouraged musicians who were thinking of giving up music to to take their skills into universities such as North Texas rather than deliver mail, sell insurance or seek other safe-haven jobs. Without Kenton, North Texas might not have become such an vital force for big-band training. When Kenton died, he donated his entire library to the school.

The quality of the North Texas band in 1961 can be heard on a CD from 90th Floor Records. In '61, a deal was struck between 90th Floor Records in Dallas and North Texas State College in Denton, Texas. The collaboration was a result of Kenton's involvement with the college. The label used the band's rehearsal hall for a studio.

The resulting album, The Road to Stan, offers great sound and showcases enormously hungry talent under the direction of Leon Breeden. Several of the musicians in the band went on to play with Kenton (hence the album's title), including trumpeter Marvin Stamm and trombonist and drummer Dee Barton.

Today this powerhouse LP is available on CD along with two dynamic concert performances from 1961—Bill Holman's arrangement of Stompin' at the Savoy (happy birthday, Bill!!) and Johnny Richards's La Suerte de los Tontos. In addition to these two songs, the CD tracks are Dee Day, Gold Rush, La Procesion de los Esclavos, Moon Bag, Old Devil Moon, Reflections, Spring Sketch and Vino for Doris.

The album is like listening to a lion's den at feeding time. The musicians' ambition and playing is hair-raising, and the musicianship is nearly on par with Kenton's band at the time. I dare say that the North Texas recording of Stompin' at the Savoy is as good as if not better than the original Kenton recording on Contemporary Concepts. For the composer, arranger and soloist credits, go here.

This album is like discovering another Kenton recording.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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