Kenton was born in Wichita, Kansas on December 11, 1911, although he spent most of his youth in the Los Angeles area. He began studying piano and composition early with his mother and eventually with bandleader and pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. Kenton was influenced by many different kinds of music other than jazz, including twentieth century composers Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Bela Bartok. Once he was a little older, Kenton began playing around in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, and formed his first band in 1941, beginning his career as a bandleader. Although Kenton's music went through different 'eras,' each had different elements which made it unique while still maintaining the inimitable Kenton sound. Kenton also separated his music by type into three categories: dance (more popular jazz standards), concert (modern jazz compositions), and experimental (used to explore new musical ideas).
The standard big band sound of the late 1940s and 1950s was very laid back. Rhythmically, it was normal to play just behind the beat to create this relaxed feel, with a definite emphasis on the 'swing' style. Swing music was usually composed of one melody played by one section of the band, and other sections, if playing at all, would play chord hits in different places. The function of the rhythm section is mostly to comp and stay out of the way. These bands usually stayed within either 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, or 2/4 time signatures. Kenton altered this system in many ways to create something fresh and progressive.
Kenton's sound was more aggressive and even occasionally more abrasive than that of other bands. The saxophones played strongly, with screaming trumpets, and a lush, rich trombone sound. One aspect that made the Kenton charts different from others was the layering techniques used within the band. This would involve one section of the band playing a melody. Then another section would play a different melody over top of the first one. Both would compliment each other rhythmically and harmonically. This process could then continue, adding more lines. When extracted, each line is still interesting by itself. The best example of layering in the Kenton library is "Artistry in Rhythm." This tune begins with the rhythm section playing a riff over which the sax section plays the main melody. The trombones then come in with another melody over top of the saxes. The sound achieved is very complex and really requires the audience to listen. "Intermission Riff" is another example of this arranging technique, beginning with the rhythm section playing a pattern which the trombones join. Next, the trumpet section enters, followed by the saxophones who are playing the main melody.
Kenton often altered the instrumentation of his jazz orchestras to add different voices or additional depth to the sound. The standard big band instrumentation consisted of five saxophones (two alto, two tenor, and one baritone), four trombones (three tenor and one bass), four trumpets, and a standard rhythm section (bass, drums, piano, and sometimes guitar). Kenton began with such a setup in his formative years. Later on he added a fifth trumpet and trombone. This occurred mainly because of people leaving and returning to the band, and rather than cutting someone out, Kenton simply wrote in an additional part. The fifth trombone ended being a second bass trombone, adding more to the bottom end of the music. Also, Kenton would sometimes either cut out an alto saxophone, and add a baritone, or just add a baritone sax and have six sax players, again adding to the bottom of the sound. These were the most conservative instrumentation changes Kenton made.
Kenton drastically altered the big band sound by adding strings on two occasions. During his most innovative era, Kenton used music penned by Bob Graettinger for the City of Glass album. This album added a string section, in addition to double reeds (bassoon, oboe, and English horn), French horns, and tuba. This instrumentation, combined with very progressive music, gives the listener a real challenge. Some pieces are hardly recognizable as jazz, and sound very much like atonal chamber music. This music comes under the 'experimental' category of Kenton music. He used strings on the Lush Interlude album, in addition to five trombones and a rhythm section, to create a rich, smooth sound.
Many members of Kenton's orchestras became famous either through Kenton's groups, or through success in a solo career. These players pioneered styles that differed from their big band predecessors, and even from those who pioneered the 'bop' style at the same time. Lennie Niehaus was one of Kenton's alto saxophonists in the 1950's. His style of playing was different from older sax players in that he used vibrato sparingly, as an expressive tool, but had a sweeter, less harsh and edgy than the new bop players. Art Pepper also started out as an alto player for Kenton, and later launched a successful solo career. A tenor sax player of the Kenton band, Don Menza, is better known for his playing and composing for the Buddy Rich band, and has contributed much to the big band repertoire. Gerry Mulligan, a baritone saxophonist in Kenton's band, got his fame from his solo career as a member of the 'cool jazz' movement.
Having unique and progressive music did not come without problems; Kenton and his music were constantly under controversy. Although he practically had a cult following of fans, there were times when he had almost universal condemnation from the jazz critical establishment. Kenton's music has also been frequently called undanceable, and he has been accused by many different people of not being able to swing. Record sales were also problematic at times. City of Glass in particular did not sell very well. Kenton even comments in the beginning of the Live at the San Francisco Tropicana album that this recording was an endeavor to make an album that would sell.
The music of Kenton has had a great impact on the music know as jazz. By introducing progressive arranging techniques, harmonies, and rhythms, as well as concepts on how a band should sound, and integrating jazz and classical genres, Kenton forever changed the jazz world. Today, when listening to big bands, one can surely hear some of Kenton's ideas present and at work.