I just took a journey through time. For all of you Southern Californians who remember going to the Balboa Ballroom near Newport Beach or Pacific Square In San Diego, or even better, dancing the summer of 1945 away at Mission Beach Ballroom, when Stan Kenton and his Orchestra played week after week. (I spent night after night there). For all those who have thrilled to the sounds of "Intermission Riff" and "Eager Beaver" .... I must tell you about my afternoon one memorable Sunday recently.
I went to the Kenton Clan Party held in a hotel in Monrovia. This was the 10th version of this annual event and it gets better and better. Arriving about 11:00 A.M. to check out the CDs and books for sale, evesdrop on the conversation among a bunch of old dudes like we all are now, we entered the ballroom set with tables of ten opened at noon. Once we all found our reserved seatings, the buffet opened for a well-prepared feast. Then the fun began. The gathering is a labor of love for Steven Harris, a long time fan and now the author of "The Kenton Kronicles" a complete history of the band from its inception and which is full of interviews with various members of the different editions of the band.
Kenton fans will remember trombonist Milt Bernhart. He joined the band in 1946. His first giant solos were on the 1947 recording of "Peanut Vendor". If you need to remember his sound I can best recommend, however, Nelson's Riddle's arrangement for Frank Sinatra of "I've got You Under My Skin" where Milt just flat-out blows the song away on the bridge. Milt did a stand up monologue dealing with the evolution of the "Kenton Trombones"... playing snippets of tape from original live performances of the different musicians and sounds who brought us all that music. Starting with only two trombones, used for background in the original 1941 band until it grew into the "Wall of Sound" that was the '45 and on bands that we knew so well.
Then the band began to play. Frankly, I had tears in my eyes when those first magic blasting chords thundered across the room. "Artistry in Rhythm" of course. Drums, Congas, Latin percussion, bass, six saxophones, five trumpets and five trombones. The whole magilla! It was like time travel for me and the other 350 people in the room. With a couple of exceptions, I doubt that there was anyone under 60 in the room ...and that includes the musicians. Hard to believe those guys can still blow their guts out like that!
During intermission, I had a chance to renew acquaintance with lead trumpeter Buddy Childers who I double dated with back in that halcyon summer of '45. Buddy is 72 now and blowing as hard and high as he ever did ... but he has to wear a hernia belt. He was joined by Mike Vax, lead trumpet for the Kenton aggregation during the '70s.
The day after the event I received the following e mail from Mike Vax: "It was truly lots of fun at the Kenton Clan. You are right. Buddy and I were having a great time. However, it is never a 'contest' when we are together, because as I have said many times at these affairs, Buddy Childers is part of the reason I grew up wanting to be a lead trumpet player. It is an honor and a privilege to sit in the same section with someone who I first heard on records when I was thirteen years old, and who helped to define the 'Kenton Sound.' It was interesting to again be the youngest alum in the band."
Pete Rugulo came and actually directed a couple of the tunes. Bassist Howard Rumsey was there. He owned the Light House in Hermosa Beach for years (home of the Light House All-Stars) and now has a club in West Los Angeles that features jazz music.
Ross Barbour of the absolutely original Four Freshman was there! He was the spark-plug cute guy that played the drums, announced their tunes and got the laughs. Ken Albers, who joined the Freshman as 2nd tenor, after replacing one of the original members was there too. Bob Flannigan, the trombonest and lead of the Four Freshmen, was supposed to be there but couldn't make it over from Las Vegas where he now lives.
Joanne Kenton, Stan's daughter, was there to represent the family. Len King, director of the Chicago Jazz Symphony flew in for the affair. Vax flew down from his home in Oakland. The whole thing ended at about 5:30 P..M. with a bunch of weary citizens who had just had their ears pinned back by some of the greatest music that was ever played .... played all over again. It was really "Deja Vu all over again" and just a wonderful experience. If any of you were ever Kenton fans ....you'll know what I mean.
For a few hours that afternoon I was seventeen again ... and it was nice.
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