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Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! [Hardcover]

Michael Sparke
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 20 2010 North Texas Lives of Musicians (Book 5)
Stan Kenton (1911-1979) formed his first full orchestra in 1940 and soon drew record-breaking crowds to hear and dance to his exciting sound. He continued to tour and record unrelentingly for the next four decades. "Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra!" sums up the mesmerizing bandleader at the height of his powers, arms waving energetically, his face a study of concentration as he cajoled, coaxed, strained, and obtained the last ounce of energy from every musician under his control. Michael Sparke's narrative captures that enthusiasm in words: a lucid account of the evolution of the Kenton Sound, and the first book to offer a critical evaluation of the role that Stan played in its creation. Insightful and thought-provoking throughout, and supported by liberal quotes from the musicians who made the magic, even at his most contentious the author's high regard and admiration for his subject shines through. The most knowledgeable of Stan's fans will learn new facts from this far-reaching biography of a man and his music. Stan Kenton will be essential reading for every Kenton devotee and jazz historian.

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About the Author

Michael Sparke was born in Greater London, England, and continues to live there after retiring from teaching. He was first switched on to good music after hearing Woody Herman's First Herd in 1945, and with Stan Kenton soon afterwards via Capitol shellac 78s from America sent by a pen-pal. Collaboration with the Dutch discographer Pete Venudor resulted in the discographies "Kenton on Capitol "and "The Studio Sessions." Sparke has written liner notes for Kenton CDs on several labels, but this is his first full historical narrative about his favorite subject.

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Kenton Review Aug. 3 2010
By Lou
Format:Hardcover
Highly recommended. Generally well done. A caring writer, although he suffers a little from the "British Disease" brought about by being 3000 miles away from North America.
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5.0 out of 5 stars At Last! July 18 2010
Format:Hardcover
For many years fans of Stan Kenton, one of the true icons of Big Band Jazz, have been waiting for the "ultimate" book about their idol.

Well the wait is over! "This Is An Orchestra!" by Kenton historian Michael Sparke is it! Full of facts from beginning to end, it covers every aspect of Kenton and his various Eras from 1941 until his final chord in 1979.

Even if you aren't a Kenton buff, the portrait that this book paints makes it an important historical biography of one of America's true giants of Big Band Jazz!

Thank You, Mr.Sparke for such a wonderful effort! Bravo!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars ONLY FOR THOSE WHO WANT "ILLUMINATING" KENTON ANECDOTES" Dec 20 2010
By W. BUTLER - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I can't help wondering if any of the 5-star reviewers really like Stan Kenton's music? If they do what then is to be gained by reading endless mean-spirited "Kenton gossip" when surely the main purpose of any biography about a musician is to increase one's pleasure in listening to their music? In this instance extremely easy because thankfully Stan Kenton's entire output is safely preserved to be discovered (and demanded) by an entirely new generation who are beginning to realize he was a monumental American original (still ostracized by the jazz establishment. I.e. only 3 unflattering pages in Ken "Burns's Jazz TV/book).

Clearly Mr. Sparke is catering for another kind of "fan" who want Stan Kenton's musical career spiced up with quotes from contemporaneous lesser lights - who more often than not contribute something derogatory to fill Mr. Sparke's filing cabinet. Thus one learns Stan wasn't such a great composer, eventually lost his touch as an arranger and had a very limited piano style. With so many of his ex-comrades chiming-in with their irrelevant "opinions" I suggest if you want to continue to enjoy Stan Kenton's music without any literary interference this book is definitely not for you.

As the prescient 3-star reviewer points out the other big problem is that although Mr. Sparke appears to have "cornered the Kenton market" a huge question mark hangs over his musical tastes. What he thinks is good or bad about Kenton's music and albums seems to be constantly out of sinc with the views of the Kenton faithful. A typical example being Amazon reviewers' reverence for the wonderful mellophonium album "Adventures in Jazz" and Mr. Sparke, who concludes it is "Not an album I can return to with unreserved enthusiasm" (truly pompous?). For him it's "a mixed bag" with "Waltz of the Prophets running far too long for its limited inspiration". Inevitably he adds a quote from another nonentity who says "It was kind of trite repetitive stuff". Stan's next great album "Adventures in Blues" only gets a half-page - with no accolades about its thermatic unity and the unique sonorities provided by 4 bass instruments. But of course we get another nasty quote about Roland writing a few good arrangements but "a lot of duds". Why does he think we need to read this stuff?

Later on Mr. Sparke says the only recording truly showcasing the mellophonium period "as it really sounded" is to be found on "Concert in England". Yet on Amazon this CD has only one tepid 3-star review saying "the sound is poor and the brass sound as if they were playing in the next room". Were they listening to the same CD?

One of the main reasons for me to buy a new Kenton book is to discover which non-Capitol recordings the author recommends. Especially of concerts where Stan's more spontaneous performances are to be found but which often come up short because they're poorly recorded. Again Mr. Sparke lets us down by failing to identify those with BOTH valuable content AND good sound. But when he does pass judgment again his tastes seem to be diametrically opposite to those expressed by Kenton fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Just compare the ecstatic Amazon reviews for his 1972 English concert "Stan Kenton Today" and then read Mr. Spark - who considers the entire enterprise something of a disaster. In his opinion "The end results were listenable but far from spectacular". When in actuality this is a crystal clear recording with the English audiences' rapt appreciation for his slow classics and wild enthusiastic applause after (and during) the fast numbers explaining exactly how and why Stan Kenton's appeal transcended all the limitations of "authentic jazz". (In this same hall I never heard anything but respectful ripples of applause for Duke Ellington's big-name band - who usually looked even more bored than the audience while "going through their paces" playing the same basic program - for about 10 years)

Regarding the legacy of the 2 great men Duke's tunes may live on but his arrangements can't because they were entirely dependant on the talents of unique band members. But for proof Stan Kenton's unique sound palette is still alive and well try visiting YouTube and clicking on "Malaguena" played by the Michigan Marching Band. No amplifiers or synthesizers, just incredible waves of pulsating sound produced by real instruments played with maximum force by over 400 instrumentalists. The same pulse-raising martial music one suspects was once used to inspire Roman Legions before they proceded to demolish opposing naked hordes. I venture to say these magic modern BRASS SOUNDS are the true legacy of one charismatic obstinate Californian - who followed his own star to the very end.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but biased Oct. 4 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First let me say that I am thrilled that a new book has been written on Stan! Really
While there are some often poetical poetic passages contained within I cant help but cringe at the unfaltering bias the author has towards the end of Stans career. As a 42 year old who first heard Kenton live with my father at the at of 6, I can say that the 70's bands were Thrilling and Fantastic! The comments in regards to comparing solos from the early years to the 70's is completely wrong. Ill give you one example of Hey Jude - I heard the Kenton version before I even knew who the Beatles were and I still prefer Kentons. The solos in this piece are breakthrough and highly engaging. Also the authors criticism of Levy's chart smake me wonder if his sentimentalty overrides his enthusiam for music. Kenton was a god. Period. Not only was he the warmest individual I ever met but the most inspiring! So for Kentons fans do read this latest bio but overlook the authors attempt to be a music critic and listen to Kentons library yourself to make your own judegment.
p.s. The entire Lush Interlude album still brings tears to my eyes!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The band's four-decade history, warts and all April 3 2011
By James A. Vedda - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For long-time Kenton followers, this is an excellent read that will bring back great memories and illuminate the ups and downs of the band's history. Sparke is not shy about expressing his opinions on the musical and business decisions made over the years, and not all readers will agree with his assessments. But it's clear that this book is a labor of love by a lifelong fan, who fortunately doesn't try to sugar-coat this tribute to his jazz idol.
This is not a traditional biography. The book's treatment of Kenton the man is mostly found at the beginning and end, while the bulk of the text is about Kenton in the context of the organization he led (which was, admittedly, the overwhelmingly dominant aspect of his life). Still, there's plenty to be learned about his devotion to his music, his generosity as a leader, and the sad decline of his health in the 1970s.
Sparke has compiled research spanning decades, including interviews and correspondence with many of the key players, including Kenton. The result is a thorough treatment that will warm the hearts of those of us who have been steeped in Kenton lore for most of our lives. However, readers may quickly get bogged down if they are only marginally familiar with the man and his music. This book is aimed at Kenton aficionados, not at winning over new fans. The cast of characters is large, encompassing musicians, singers, arrangers, managers, and others over the band's four-decade history. Specific recordings and arrangements are discussed at length. The author makes some assumptions about the reader's familiarity with all of this, and doesn't always adequately explain the identity or importance of certain people, events, or pieces of music.
Overall, I found this to be a satisfying portrayal of one of the most memorable leaders in jazz. As Sparke and others have noted, the orchestra was Kenton's instrument. On a good day, there was no one who played it better. This book chronicles how hard he worked, and what he sacrificed, to make that happen.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At Last! July 15 2010
By Fred Augerman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
For many years fans of Stan Kenton, one of the true icons of Big Band Jazz, have been waiting for the "ultimate" book about their idol.

Well the wait is over! "This Is An Orchestra!" by Kenton historian Michael Sparke is it! Full of facts from beginning to end, it covers every aspect of Kenton and his various Eras from 1941 until his final chord in 1979.

Even if you aren't a Kenton buff, the portrait that this book paints makes it an important historical biography of one of America's true giants of Big Band Jazz!

Thank You, Mr.Sparke for such a wonderful effort! Bravo!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent in many ways but biased July 8 2011
By Gregory R. Cagle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was a high schooler in the 70s when I attended several Kenton Jazz Orchestra in Residence sessions, and have been a lifelong Kenton fan. There is a lot of meat in this book for someone like me - the details on band personnel and arrangements were fascinating, although I'm sure some would find that boring or trivial. It's very interesting to read how Kenton led his orchestra, through good and bad, toward his goals, however misguided they may have been. Sparke is also very good at outlining the context within which this all took place, which changed over time dramatically. His description of Kenton's vision (and rejection of swing) is illuminating.

That being said, Sparke's biases are clear. He shows undisguised contempt for anything to do with rock music and any attempt to intermingle rock and jazz. It's obvious he thinks Kenton should have, after moving in so many new directions, not chosen to move in that particular direction, no matter how popular and lucrative.

I wonder if Sparke is actually a musician, or a fan. I wonder if he has ever played this music. He seems to be musically literate, and yet his musical judgments seem arbitrary, ill informed, or lack context in many cases (as others have noted).

The writing is not as bad as I expected. The Anglo-isms are kept to a minimum. I did find some errors here and there (confusion between a bass sax and a string bass the most obvious one). He is fond of ending a paragraph with an exclamation point!

Overall, it's well worth reading for any Kenton fan.
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