Downbeat for a jazz legacy at Monument Mountain High School

GREAT BARRINGTON — The Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra is an old school sound for a new school audience.

The 19-piece touring band performs original Kenton classics, some with a modern twist, as well as new works in the style of the famed jazz pianist and composer. Comprising Kenton alums and fine younger players, the orchestra often travels to college and high school campuses holding pre-concert clinics for student musicians in an ongoing effort to keep the jazz genre alive.

"Playing-wise, the music is in good hands, promotion-wise, not enough people are listening to it," said trumpeter/band leader Mike Vax in an Eagle phone interview. "I don't think jazz will die, but the general audience is shrinking."

Vax looks to boost the number of jazz followers on Sunday evening when the Kenton sound resonates throughout the auditorium at Monument Mountain High School. Sponsored by Berkshires Jazz Inc. and the school, the legacy orchestra's first-ever Western Massachusetts concert at 7 p.m opens with the Monument Mountain Jazz Ensemble, led by the school's music director, Mike Gillespie. The show finale features both bands playing, as one, a Vax composition, "Frank Granata's Blues."

Prior to both bands hitting the stage, the Kenton orchestra will hold one of its customary workshops, 3 p.m., open to all students free of charge.

Vax seems to enjoy coming east from his home base in northern Arizona.

"East Coast is one of the easiest areas to book as there's more schools interested in jazz," he said.

For the second consecutive year, Monument is hosting a big band, opening for and playing with the Glen Miller Orchestra last July. The added thrill on Sunday is the student musicians learning from and socializing with Kenton professionals during the workshop.

"I look forward to learning how they live, gain some knowledge and get tips on how to play better," said junior Wilson Sprague, a tenor saxophonist.

Trumpet player, Elsie Dilisio, is interested in how the Kenton players became professionals.

"When you talk to the pros, they never seem to take the same path," said the Monument sophomore. "I would ask who inspired them when they were young."

Dilisio's inspiration comes from the late American jazz trumpet player Freddie Hubbard,

"He had great tone and great phrases," she noted.

After Stan Kenton died in 1979, Vax was inspired to form the legacy orchestra, with the blessing of Kenton's family, making its debut May, 1991.

The band isn't about living in the past, but making what was once chart-topping music in the 1940s and early 50s relevant in the 21st century.

"[Kenton's music] was always ahead of its time," Vax noted. "He hated nostalgia. He always wanted the music to be forward thinking."

Kenton's style evolved throughout his 37-year-career, ranging from the romantic to the raucous, the beautiful to the bold.

Vax is one of the nine legacy orchestra musicians who played for Kenton from the mid-1950s until 1978, a year before his death. Kenton led a band that was a rarity, a jazz orchestra that would play concert halls.

"The sound is a lot more involved with Stan's music," Vax noted. "It has to do with the feel and the proper way to play the music."

Locally, Berkshires Jazz Inc. President Ed Bride has as much insight into Kenton as anyone. In 1965, Bride was student chairman of the Villanova Intercollegiate Jazz Festival with Kenton the festival's chief advisor.

" From my perspective, Kenton's music is visceral and addicting," he said. "Only a few bands have such avid followers as those of Kenton ... and Duke Ellington who were probably the most distinctive voices of the big band era.."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at and (413) 496-6233


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