Like its immediate predecessor, volume five in the Classics Stan Kenton chronology contains a substantial amount of material composed and/or arranged by Sicilian-American Pete Rugolo, a student of Darius Milhaud and Kenton's right-hand man during the mid- to late '40s. It was Rugolo who assisted Kenton during his experiments with modernized, "progressive" big band jazz. (Speaking of modern jazz, note the return of alto saxophonist Art Pepper on the session of October 22, 1947, which opened with Rugolo's "Unison Riff.") Following the example of Dizzy Gillespie, Kenton was now incorporating more Latin percussion and Caribbean rhythms than ever into his music, and even hired Cuban bandleader Machito to play maracas on the sessions which took place during the latter part of December 1947. Smug, contentious and successful, Kenton attracted controversy like a lightning rod. Part of the reason for this was the unusual and at times startling nature of his brand of musical futurism.
A more unsavory aspect of Kenton's reputation was his annoying habit of making what appeared to be arrogantly racist statements. The most famous example of this regrettable tendency was remembered by several eyewitnesses who claimed that Kenton, after participating in a "battle of the bands" at the Savoy Ballroom, got drunk and staggered up to Dizzy Gillespie saying "We can play your music better than you can." Diz -- to his credit -- simply shrugged, said "yeah" and walked away. Walter Gilbert Fuller adds: "He was juiced. But he was saying while he was juiced what he really meant." Here's how Gillespie assessed the overall situation: "Stan Kenton was the copyist. Stan Kenton went out and got a conga drummer after he saw me with one. He hired Carlos Vidal, lured him away from Machito, and put him along with another Latin drummer, Jack Costanzo, in his band. But Stan didn't know what to do with it. He just left it there and they made up their own minds what to play. All this happened after he came up to the Savoy and heard us while Chano Pozo was in the band. Now, I don't just take what they do and leave it there. I don't pass myself off as an expert on Latin music, but the guys who play it respect me for knowing how to take what they do, put it in with my music, and make it right. I never take nothing from nobody without delivering something in return. I think when people figured we might make a lot of money -- that started the controversy about who would get credit for creating modern jazz. My viewpoint was always that the credit should go to the ones who developed and played it best."
Interestingly, Dizzy Gillespie is heard on this disc alongside Buddy DeFranco, Bill Harris and Flip Phillips as members of the Metronome All Stars in combination with Stan Kenton & His Orchestra (a total of 28 players!) on Pete Rugolo's "Metronome Riff," which was recorded on December 21, 1947. Gillespie even toured with Kenton, sometimes leading the band. Later in life, Gillespie bluntly asserted that Kenton "left out the fundamentals," unlike Miles Davis whose music, said Diz, "is based on rhythm and also the blues." Whether or not you agree with that assessment, and while many of Kenton's recordings, including some of the examples heard on this compilation, had plenty of artistic merit, music does not exist in a social vacuum. As a member of the dominant social group, Kenton could and should have shown more respect and gratitude to the African-American artists from whom he borrowed (or swiped) ideas, textures, rhythms and inspiration. That would have been honorable.