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The Gig: The Big Band Theory

Darcy James Argue

“This is an orchestra,” proclaims Stan Kenton, “a group of musicians gathered together because of a belief in a particular music. Like all orchestras,” he continues, barely pausing for punctuation, “this organization is unique in that the artistic ideal is far more important than personal differences.” What follows is more than a self-consciously declarative “Prologue” to Kenton’s 1953 Capitol album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm-it’s a real-time taxonomy of his big band at the time, with personal introductions delivered in a voice at once confiding and stagy.

Hearing it now, you can’t help but picture the Old Man, as he identifies himself, leaning in toward a studio microphone: tie loosened, script in hand, drawing on a cigarette. There’s an antiquated charm to the exchange, as in an Edward R. Murrow broadcast, and it’s tempting to view the message itself in equally distant terms. But the basic definition of a big band, as Kenton outlines it, hasn’t really changed in all the years since.

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Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).