It’s the 87th birthday of the superb arranger, Bill Holman, who made his name generating charts for Stan Kenton during the early ’50s, and made some of the more phantasmagoric big band recordings of the ’80s and ’90s. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Holman at the end of 2011 when Jazz at Lincoln Center assigned me to write program notes for a Kenton tribute concert. The unedited transcript follows.
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Bill Holman on Stan Kenton (December 28, 2011):
TP: Let me ask you a general question. It’s been written about, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask it, but: what do you feel that you brought to the Kenton band, and what do you think Kenton was looking for from you?
BH: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this before. I think I brought a little more of a jazz element into the band. Stan kept saying that he didn’t want a swing band, he didn’t want a Tommy Dorsey band or a Count Basie band. He was talking about rhythm, I think, mainly. He didn’t want that dancey, kind of jazz rhythm. He wanted straight eighth notes and everything very serious and solemn. I lightened up the band quite a bit, I think. The contrapuntal approach that everybody talks to was just a feature of the way I wrote. But I actually tried to write more jazz music for the band, and…
It’s funny. I was talking to somebody yesterday about the predicament that Buddy Childress was in. He was the lead trumpet player, he was the concert master of the band, and he was kind of responsible for the way the band phrased and the way the band played their eighth notes. Stan was still insisting that he wanted the straight eighth notes, and I was writing more of a swing feel eighth-note—and the two were different. So Buddy had to figure out a way to kind of get it in the middle, and he came up with a very strange conception that people have since called holding eighth notes. They weren’t mine, really; they were Buddy’s. I think after the first two successful charts that I wrote for the band, Stan probably realized that he was faced with a different kind of conception. He didn’t try to talk me out of it, and kept on with it, and finally, in 1955, a couple of years after I left, he had Al Porcino and Mel Lewis, and it was a swing band. Not one of the swingingest bands, but it was a swing band, and Stan went along with it for a while. Then finally, he had some kind of epiphany or something, and he let Porcino go and he told me to stop writing. It slipped back a little bit, but he was still doing more rhythmic things than he had in the past.
TP: It seems that what you were doing in ‘52 and ‘53 and ‘54 was very suited to the band’s personnel—a lot of individualistic soloists, influenced very much by Lester Young and Bird and swing music, as you were. So your conception seems to have been a nice for the band.
BH: I think probably the best arrangements for any band are written by people who are playing in the band, because night after night you get the feeling of what the band does well, and when it takes off, and you hear the soloists and hear what they can do… It’s a big advantage to be a member of a band.
TP: In the charts you wrote for Lee Konitz, were you taking any particular factors into account?
BH: No, I just wrote for Lee as a very capable soloist. I didn’t think too much about his…well, what I found out later, that he tries to do things that are completely original. He leaves out most of the jazz vocabulary that we know and love, but he prefers to just start at zero and do his own thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I was pretty young and inexperienced. So I just wrote the best chart that I could, hearing him. It’s funny. When we first rehearsed “In A Lighter Vein,” which was the up-tempo feature for him, he said, “I can’t get any feeling from this melody at all.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Jesus!—it bombed.” Then he turned around and played the shit out of it.
TP: You and he are the same age, from different parts of the country, but both deeply influenced by the big bands and soloists you heard in your formative years. I know music became your avocation a little late. But were you a fan of the Kenton band in the ‘40s?
BH: Oh, yeah. I thought they were terrific. I grew up close to the Balboa Rendezvous, where they got their start. We used to hear the band when it still had Lunceford influences. So I was aware of the band from the very start, and I really liked the things that they were doing in the ‘40s, which was before I became a jazz player and found out what real jazz was like, and realized that what they were doing wasn’t jazz.
TP: Was there any sort of ambivalence for you when you joined the band? I’ve read 4-5 fairly thorough interviews on the Internet, and it seems as though and Kenton had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. Not that this needs to be part of the note… Was there any sense for you, joining the band, that the way you were thinking about things didn’t necessarily sync up with Kenton’s?
BH: If I had been a functioning writer at the time, more than a player, I think there probably would have been. But I joined the band as a player, and I was just happy to join such a good band with such a great record. I was just happy to be there. I didn’t write for the band for quite some time. I’d written a couple of charts before I joined the band, but they were just total flops. I was trying to do things that I wasn’t hearing. So when I joined the band, I was just happy to be there, and Stan remembered that I was a writer, and pretty soon he started encouraging me to write. He paid me for everything I did. I did several charts before I really connected with the band, and he paid for those, and had them copied, and we rehearsed them and even played them a couple of times. I wrote one chart on “Star Eyes,” and it was just counterpoint from beginning to end. We played it one night, and Stan said, “You know, Holman, that sounds like a merry-go-round.” That’s a pretty good line.
TP: Was his input helpful to you in developing your style?
BH: [SIGHS] I’m trying to think, now… He didn’t talk to me much about writing, aside from egging me on to write. He gave me one assignment, which was a thing for Maynard Ferguson and Sal Salvador. It was “Invention For Guitar and Trumpet.” He kind of laid that out, what he was looking for. It turns out to have been a very successful piece, although I don’t like it at all. But it always seems to get put in the reissues and so forth. But mainly, he didn’t talk to me about what he was expecting or needing.
TP: if I may ask you this for the 8-millionth time, what are some of your favorites of the charts that you wrote for the Kenton band?
BH: Well, I always liked, “What’s New” and, of course, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which is a lot of people’s favorite. I like “Stella By Starlight” for Charlie Mariano, and “Yesterdays,’ and some of the early things—“Fearless Finlay” and I can’t think of the other name. Does that give you enough?
TP: Yes, I think that gives me enough. May I ask a more general question. What do you think were the qualities of Kenton as a personality and bandleader, and the band itself, that made the Kenton band so popular? It was a huge operation. What do you think people were responding to?
BH: It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. In the ‘40s, he was doing his progressive jazz and the Rugolo thing. It’s hard to say. Maybe the precision and the brassy sound. I don’t really know. It’s a large band. I think large bands tend to be more impressive than small bands to certain people. Kenton’s personality. He was a very striking figure in front of a band. You got me on that one.
TP: He’s one of these people, like Woody Herman or Ellington, who kept the organization going for years and years and years, building a body of music… If nothing else, it’s a real act of will, I guess. It strikes me in the course of thinking about him for these last few days.
BH: I think that a lot of people had an affection for Stan, the person. He was always very gracious to the public, and took time-out to talk to people and kids… I meet these people now who come to the Kenton reunion concerts out here that Ken Poston puts on occasionally, and they seem to love the idea of Stan Kenton. He got to these people somehow.
TP: Apart from the NEA Jazz Masters thing a couple of years ago, when the JALCO played one of your charts, is this your first collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?
BH: Yes, aside from that one shot.
TP: Have you followed their history over the last 20 years?
BH: Pretty much.
TP: Do you any remarks about the orchestra, and the way they might or might not match up with the way Kenton thought about music?
BH: Hah. Well, I don’t know. I’m kind of curious about that myself. Their emphasis has been on Duke and mostly black music, and this is the whitest of the white bands, I think.
TP: Did you say ‘the whitest of the white bands’?
TP: Perhaps that phrase might apply a little less to the stuff you put out 55 years ago, and the way the band treated it.
BH: Yeah, but I think still, Kenton encompasses all of that. Stan Kenton stands for a certain kind of music that is kind of unemotional. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Clean. Well, you know how some musicians use the term “greasy” when they’re talking about funky jazz? Stan’s band was never greasy, regardless of who wrote for it. There, I’ve finally figured it out.
TP: I guess it will be fascinating to see how the concert goes, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from them after the new year. You’re not presenting anything new for the band…
TP: All older stuff.
[END OF CONVERSATION]