The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols
Liner Notes from Boston Brass and the Brass All-Stars Big Band recording
By: Jeff Conner, Boston Brass
The decision to record an album of Christmas music was not easily accepted by Stan Kenton.
Truth be known, it was not his decision to begin with, but Lee Gillette's, his executive producer at Capitol Records. And it took a lot of convincing on Gillette's part before Stan would be amenable to opening up the project for discussion.
Initially, he was extremely resistive and every time Gillette mentioned it, Stan become agitated and quickly shut down any further conversation. It was something he had no intention of doing. He felt people would be most unaccepting of the Kenton Orchestra producing an album of this nature. Especially one which contained semi-religious music.
But Gillette persisted. His reasoning was that every Capitol artist had, at one time or another, produced an album of Christmas music, so why not Stan? Why not, indeed. It certainly was worth exploring.
Stan and Gillette's relationship, both artistically and socially spanned a good 10 years. In that time Gillette had demonstrated time and again his keen desire to render as much assistance as possible when it came to recording and promoting the Kenton Orchestra.
Although he left the selection of what music would be recorded up to Stan, he created an enviable comfort zone for him at Capitol by providing him with the best engineering team available; guys like John Palladino, head of the department, and Carson Taylor, senior engineer. He worked closely with Ed Thrasher, head of Capitol's art department, to assure the cover art would catch a potential buyer's eye and invite him to sample the music. He passed along suggestions to Bill Frost, head of editorial, which enabled him to make the liner notes as accurate as possible. Gillette also followed through on Stan's request that soloists and personnel be listed; something rarely done by other Capitol artists.
Consequently, he had a good track record with Stan and most importantly, Stan trusted him. Well aware that Stan's temperament could be a bit mercurial at times, even obstinate, Gillette patiently bided his time waiting for an opportune time to broach what had quietly begun to be known around the Tower as “Kenton's Christmas project.”
Not wishing to leave anything to chance, Gillette instructed Thrasher to begin working on album cover designs which did not feature Stan's image. He also asked Frost for suggestions as to how to handle the liner notes. He recommended they be simple in nature, but have a flair of elegance. No mean feat, but he knew Frost was up to it.
He also had one large, very large ace yet to be played. He discussed in private the project with Ralph Carmichael, an extremely versatile orchestrator who had worked on a number of projects with him. Not the least of which was the successful pairing of Nat Cole and George Shearing.
He wanted to know from Ralph whether or not the project was a viable one and what orchestrational creative ideas he might have to overcome Stan's initial fear people and the Tower (especially the Tower) would have about the Kenton Orchestra straying into the area of semi-religious, sacred music and reign criticism down upon him.
From the start, Carmichael embraced the project and was quick to convince Gillette it could be done with grace and elan. "Why don't I sketch out an idea or two,” he told Gillette, “which will give Stan a concept of how we might handle the instrumentation to keep it magisterial and avoid of any overt jazz overtones.
Gillette agreed and told Ralph to go ahead. In the meantime, he arranged to have dinner with Stan at his favorite restaurant, Tail of the Cock on La Cienga Boulevard on the pretense of discussing Stan's upcoming tour and laying out the plan he had put in place which would assure him that all the regional guys at CRDC (Capitol Records Distributing Corporation) would render as much in-city assistance as possible. Master planner that he was, Gillette avoided telling Stan they would also be joined by Ralph.
Stan arrived early and decided to wait for Gillette at the bar. Ralph was already there, lost in thought as he jotted down a few last minute ideas on the outside of the score he had brought and wanted to cover at dinner. Ralph was noted for not leaving anything to chance.
Hollywood in those days was a small community, especially for those who worked in the music industry. Although they had never formally met, both were aware of each other and greeted each other warmly. Once drinks had been served, Stan asked Ralph is he was meeting someone, and if not, he was welcome to join him and Gillette for dinner.
It was apparent from Stan's very upbeat, outgoing mood that he was in effusive spirits that evening. The long tour, which would carry the Band throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, was about to commence in a few short weeks and everything as far as he could ascertain was in place.
He was also pleased that for the first time in months he would be once again be out on the road with one of the finest units he and Jim Amlotte, his bass trombonist and road manager, had been able to assemble.
Always curious by nature, Stan couldn't help but ask Ralph if the score sitting in front of him was for a new project he was working on. “Yes,” Ralph said hesitantly, hoping Stan wouldn't ask to look at the score. “Mind if I take a look?” Stan asked him brightly. Those who knew Stan were well aware he enjoyed knowing what others in the industry were doing. At that point Ralph knew there was nothing he could do but push the score toward Stan and tell him to take a look.
"Hmmm. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” Stan said, noting the title before his eyes began traveling down through the opening bars. "Looks like someone is doing another goddamn Christmas album,” he laughed as he began “reading” Ralph's ingeniously-constructed, radiant brass introduction. "Jesus, Ralph, this is great stuff. Scored only for brass. Nice, very nice.”
“Damn, this thing roars!” Stan told him as he got to the part where the percussion kicked in. "Who's it for?” Before Ralph could answer Gillette appeared. "I see you two have met."
“Yes," Stan replied. “I've just been looking at Ralph's score. I absolutely love the way he has scored the brass up and down."
"I thought you might like it," Gillette said as he smiled mischievously, slipping into the seat next to Stan's.
A slow, quizzical look crossed Stan's face before he let out one of those wondrous laughs of his. "You sonafabitch! This is for the Band, isn't it?"
"Yes!" Gillette told him. "I had to find some way of convincing you we can, and will, record a Kenton Christmas album!"
To say Stan was elated is putting it mildly. With a stroke of Ralph's creative pen he had erased any fears Stan might have had about moving ahead with the project. It wasn't as if he couldn't have done it on his own, but it fell more into the realm of another creative person opening up a few doors and pointing the way.
Dinner was soon forgotten and hours passed as the three men sketched out on a cocktail napkin a list of carols and who would orchestrate them. Everyone was also in agreement to “fatten” out the brass, using six trumpets, six trombones, one tuba and four mellophoniums. In addition to Jerry Lestock McKenzie on drums, Art Anton and Larry Bunker were brought in for added percussion.
The arrangements were written over an eight-day period and recorded at Sam Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. Reaction to the project on the 14th floor at the Tower, although adamantly resistive at first, began easing up once the executive committee had an opportunity to see Thrasher's intriguing Christmas ornament cover design and examine Frost's decision to offset the track and personnel listing with excerpts from Psalm 150.
Joy also reigned on the 14th floor the day Gillette played a dubbing tape for the committee. The consensus was that Stan and Ralph had outdone themselves with their artistic efforts to bring to the carols a freshness that had not been heard before. And although the music soared and sometimes moved along at different tempos, it was agreed both men had not altered the character of the carols, nor intruded upon their sacredness.
It would take years, however, before A Merry Christmas! would be universally accepted and criticism would abate over Stan's decision to make this album. With each passing year this holiday album has become more and more a classic. Certainly a wondrous work to be savored and enjoyed by everyone of all ages.
One last note. A telling testimony to how much Stan admired Ralph and the creativity and enthusiasm he brought to the project is the fact Ralph's name is listed first in the writing credits. I know of no other artist who would have offered another colleague such an uncommon amount of respect and largess.