The Stan Kenton Mellophoniums
by Scooter Pirtle
Originally published May 1993.
Possibly the most interesting chapter in the history of the mellophone occurred with the Stan Kenton Orchestra during the early 1960s. From September 1960 through November 1963, the orchestra prominently featured a four man section of mellophoniums and forever changed the use of the instrument.
Stan Kenton started his band in 1941. Through the late 1970s, the Kenton band witnessed a lot of changes in music and in the world that listened to it. Driven by Kenton's eagerness to push the musical envelope, the band continually changed to meet, and often surpass the demands of his loyal, but often fickle audience.
From 1941 through the 1950s, audiences had seen Kenton's group develop from a small dance band to a full-blown orchestra. Except for a few occasions, such as featuring the electric upright bass in 1941, Kenton used the same mainstream instrumentation that was used by almost every other big band. The Kenton Orchestra's uniqueness, instead, was manifested in its music arrangements. However, in the summer of 1960, Kenton found himself "restless with the sound the band was making,"1 and he was ready for "a change of format."2
Kenton solicited the help of his longtime arranger Johnny Richards to "work over" the instruments in the band. Kenton explained the situation to author Dr. William F. Lee this way:
We wanted colors that, somehow the moment you hear them on record or hear them in person, you could identify, something that didn't sound like a low trumpet or a high trombone. We experimented with some German horns, we worked with alto trumpets, we worked with fluegelhorns.3
Gene Roland soon became involved with the search for a new instrument for the band. Roland was a noted performer who, during his long tenure with the band played trumpet, trombone, and solo saxophone. His first suggestion to Kenton was for a section of E-flat trumpets, and he even got a section of them together for Kenton to hear. However, the big trumpets sounded too much like trombones to be used in the band. The band needed something completely different.
C.G. Conn, Ltd. was an American firm of instrument manufacturers named after Charles Gerard Conn. Conn was a cornet player whose success in the development of a "rubber-rimmed" mouthpiece in 1875 propelled him into the instrument making industry.4 The Conn Company primarily produced band instruments and introduced a new version of its mellophone in 1957. This instrument, the mellophonium, was a standard mellophone except it utilized a "bell-front" design as opposed to the traditional "wrapped" configuration of the French horn. This was a radical, but not a new concept in the design of the mellophone. Other companies and individuals had already produced instruments of this type prior to Conn's attempt.5
Conn had devised the mellophonium as an alternative for the French horn and mellophone in marching bands. Its ability to project sound effectively and its design for outdoor playing made it quite useful for marching bands.
An exhaustive publicity campaign was undertaken by C.G. Conn, Ltd. to introduce the mellophonium to the public. Its first national appearance occurred on the Lawrence Welk Show.6 Mellophonist Don Elliott also performed with the Conn Mellophonium on the nationally-broadcast Steve Allen Show during the summer of 1957.7 The instrument even spent a week on the Captain Kangaroo Show, along with other instruments from Conn's antique instrument museum that was housed at the Elkhart, Indiana facility.8
Needless to say, when C.G. Conn, Ltd. heard of Kenton's plight in 1960, they were quick to suggest their mellophonium. Stan Kenton remembered receiving mellophoniums to test: "Johnny Richards and I had them send some instruments to us. We started getting fellows to play them, and both of us became terribly excited with the sound of the mellophonium. It had an identity of its own.9
Richards was familiar with the mellophone and had even used mellophonist Don Elliott on recording sessions for the Johnny Richards Orchestra on January 23, 1953 and a year later on February 9, 1954.10
Kenton was perplexed about finding musicians to play such a unique instrument "...to have someone say, 'You know, you could, make a good mellophonium player if you tried.' They couldn't care less. Only a very few have enough vision to see the future or are interested in the development of a new sound."11
During experimentation sessions involving the entire orchestra (and Gene Roland on the lone mellophonium), the trombone section became very displeased with the addition of the instrument. Once they learned that they could probably expect three more of them very soon, several members of the band decided to end their relationship with the Kenton organization.
News of the mutiny traveled quickly and unsigned anonymous letters were sent from Kenton's office informing nine of the players that their services "would not be needed on the upcoming tour." However, Stan soon learned of the correspondence and immediately followed up with a letter of his own expressing his desire to keep each of the members in the band.12
Confident with his decision to adopt the mellophonium, Kenton had Richards and Roland score a completely new concert and dance book. It was a very wise decision considering Richards' previous experience arranging for the instrument and Roland's ability to arrange for, as well as performing with, the mellophonium. It was agreed that a four-man mellophonium section would be used in an alto register, acoustically nestled between the trumpets and trombones, bridging the "brasses and the saxes," as often quipped by alto sax player Gabe Baltazar.13
The first section of mellophoniums featured four trumpet players: Gene Roland, Joe Burnett, Bill Horan and Tom Wirtel. Joe Burnett was moved from the Kenton trumpet section. This section was formed primarily for the first recording session to feature the charts of Richards and Roland. This session occurred on September 19-21, 1960 at the Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California. Eight charts were recorded during the three day session. Several weeks later the band went on the road with only one mellophonium player, Gene Roland. It was a joint tour with the Count Basie Band.14
After the tour, and for the next three years, the band featured a four-person mellophonium section. The "Mellophonium Band," as it became known, featured the mellophoniums as Kenton's shining centerpiece for his New Era in Modern American Music. However, the New Era probably sounded like the "same old song" for the well-traveled ensemble. Between October 1960 and December 1963, the band was on the road for nine months, traveling up to one hundred thousand miles, each year.15
No less than sixteen people were part of the four-person section during this period. Of these players, all but two were trumpet players (Dwight Carver and David Horton were French horn players).
Dwight Carver was involved with each phase of the mellophonium section's development and was regarded as one of the few people that actually liked playing the instrument. Carver used a French horn mouthpiece with his horn and his dark sound was effectively utilized on the lead parts.16
Although Carver was treated as an outcast in the band, he gained the respect of Kenton while on tour in New York when members of the Kenton Orchestra met orchestra members of an ensemble from the Soviet Union. When the Soviets realized they were meeting the Stan Kenton Orchestra, they began asking, in broken English, to meet Maynard Ferguson-who was no longer with the band. Undaunted, Carver began explaining this fact to the Soviets in their native tongue. Carver also began translating conversations between Kenton and the Soviet orchestra members. Apparently, Carver had been using "flash cards" to teach himself Russian during the long bus trips between performances.17
While Carver may have enjoyed playing the mellophonium, it was no secret that many of the mellophonium players wielded their instruments reluctantly. Instead, these players were waiting for an opening in the infamous Kenton trumpet section. Many of these players were encouraged to "pay their dues" in the mellophonium section in order to "move up" to the trumpet section. However, only Keith LaMotte was able to make this coveted transition, partly because it wasn't easy finding people willing to play the mellophoniums.
Ray Starling was probably the most well-known of the mellophoniums, besides Gene Roland. Starling, a native of England, was a pianist and trumpet player who had played the mellophonium in Sal Salvador’s band before being invited to join Kenton. He even owned his own mellophonium.18
While in Chicago on tour with Kenton, Starling and baritone saxophonist Joel Kaye visited the Olds factory to test some new equipment. After testing some saxophones, Kaye looked around for Starling and found him in one of the laboratories, surrounded by technicians. Starling was playing one of their bell front mellophones with his back to a "state of the art" strobe tuner, demonstrating some of the design flaws of their instrument. The technicians couldn't believe it when he would play the horn's open tone series "without corrections" to show the instrument's intonation problems, then play it "with corrections" and center each note perfectly on the tuner-without looking! Starling gained his accurate pitch center from his days as a piano tuner.19
Starling continued to play mellophonium with the Johnny Richards Orchestra after leaving Kenton. In fact, Starling played solo mellophonium with the Manhattan Brass Ensemble at Johnny Richards' funeral in 1968.20
Dalton Smith probably summed up the band's opinion of the mellophoniums when he jokingly gave the newly arriving mellophonium player Jim Knight some advice in the summer of 1962:
There are great guys on the band, but If they treat you badly, it's not because of you personally, it's because you play the damn mellophonium! 21
As new players entered the mellophonium section, they were usually shocked by the mellophoniums large bore (.501”) and "sluggish" response compared to the trumpet. Often helpful advice provided to them by the veteran members included tips like: "Keep the bell straight ahead and do your best on the intonation.22 A task wrought with considerable difficulty considering the size of the bell and the great distance of the bell from the player. Especially when the player is mere feet in front of the percussionist.
The addition of the mellophoniums to the Orchestra made the loudest of the big bands even louder. The new section also triggered a "colossal battle of egos in the band."23 The trumpets were obviously distracted by the presence of four players waiting for an opening in the trumpet section. Combined with the ferocious volume levels dealt by the early mellophonium sections, the hardest working trumpet section in music was forced to work a little harder.24
The mellophoniums were no more loved by the trombone section, who took the inclusion of the "bastard instrument” in the band as an intrusion on the trombone section's trademark sound.25
The mellophonium players retaliated by practicing. While the rest of the band would sleep in on the morning following a performance, the mellophonium section would rehearse. Eventually, the work paid off and, according to Kenton bassist John Worster, the section began "playing the hell out of those things."26
Consequently, the intense, often obscene volume levels achieved by the mellophoniums forced the band to physically reconfigure its setup to isolate the section. "Nobody wanted us near them," commented Keith LaMotte at a panel discussion in 1991, "We were twelve feet away from the band and they were back in the traditional three row setup,"27
Trumpet player Marvin Stamm was invited to join the Kenton Orchestra while still a student at North Texas State University. After a brief stint with the band, he completed his degree and rejoined the mellophonium band and served as a jazz soloist in the trumpet section.28
Although he played trumpet with the band, Stamm could occasionally be seen playing a mellophonium during band breaks. After playing a mellophonium during a break at one of the summer "band camps" conducted by the orchestra, Stamm received curious notice from Doug Hughes (one of the young attendees who, to this day, still plays a mellophonium he bought after one the camps), "...whenever Marvin Stamm played around with a mellophonium, the sounds coming out of it were awesome!"29
While Stamm's opinion of the mellophonium itself is not known, his opinion of its use has been documented in the pages of Jazz Journal International:
I didn't like that orchestra, because the mellophoniums were never played as the Instruments they were. I felt they were just played as loud trumpets, bombastic and bellowing, and whatever characteristics they had of charm and musicality were lost. Occasionally on a ballad they would achieve this but on the up-tunes It was just four guys blowing their brains out on an instrument that was terrible...Had it [the mellophonium] been developed and Improved upon and players came along who actually wanted to play the instrument because they liked it, things might have been different. But for the most part they were trumpet players who doubled rather than mellophonium players.30
Trombonist Jiggs Whigam's contempt for the mellophoniums also made the pages of Jazz Journal International:
I was in the '63 band, the mellophone band, and the most difficult thing I had to do playing first trombones in that band was to try to estimate where the pitch was going to be with the mellophones. It varied within roughly an octave on any given day!
Of all the documented causes of dislike generated by the mellophoniums, one particularly important issue have been virtually overlooked--the issue of "space."
Adding four players to a one "bus" band required additional sacrifice from the band members. Seats were made available to the mellophonium players, but there was no room for their instruments in the vehicle's storage area. As a result, the mellophonium cases became a fixture in the bus aisle, symbolically in everyone's way. However, these cases provided convenient seating for the marathon poker games that became one of the most publicized aspects of the Kenton Band.
This immediate "accessibility" also made the instruments prime targets for terrorism from the trombone section. Jiggs Whigam:
One time we played an NCO club at some air base in Georgia, and we got there early about four in the afternoon, and they had a happy hour. So the band hit the happy hour and a few of us got kinda happy. They had a swimming pool there, so we went to the band bus and got the mellophones out of their cases and throw all four of them in the swimming pool. It was great to see these things burble down to the bottom. Stan came by and he wasn't pleased. We had to drain them all out trying to get all the water out of all the plumbing took a long time twisting the things around.
The mellophonium players, however, did eventually enjoy revenge during a performance following a visit by the section to a local music store. During this visit, the players discovered that standard cornet mouthpieces fit the mellophoniums. Carl Saunders:
Unlike the mellophonium mouthpieces, the cornet mouthpiece had some shallowness to it so you could play high notes. So we bought cornet mouthpieces for all four mellophoniums. Now when we stood up to play solos, we could shriek like elephants!...Stan looked at us as if to ask “Where did those guys get those chops all of the sudden?" We're all trumpet players anyway, so now we got to lay some high notes on the trumpets players. Finally, after a couple of days, Stan came over and looked at the hams and saw the mouthpieces. He was hip" to us and he busted us." He said "put those 'stock' mouthpieces back in, I want that 'French horn' sound!"
To say the range of music recorded by the mellophonium band was diverse would be a woeful understatement. The recordings making up over 11 albums from October 1960 through December 1963 ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.
The most publicly acclaimed recordings were in the form of two albums: music from the Broadway show West Side Story arranged by Johnny Richards, and his original compositions for an album entitled Adventures in Time which featured unusual time signatures seldom attempted by large ensembles prior to 1963.31
Adventures in Time received a Grammy award and deserved critical acclaim. The album featured prominent solo work from Ray Starling and was the mellophonium band's most daring achievement.
Other projects were not as successful. On March 26, 29 and 30,1962, a down-sized Kenton Band recorded an album with cowboy singer Tex Ritter.
Stan saw it as an opportunity to end the "bigotry" in music by merging country and jazz. The ensemble, which prominently featured the four mellophoniums, recorded numerous country and western, standards including: Home on the Range, Red River Valley, Cool Water, Empty Saddles and High Noon.
"We made the album," commented Kenton, "it came out a few weeks later--a dog!”32
Curiously, following the miserable public reaction to the "Tex" album, Stan followed up with another album one month later featuring another singer. However, this time the singer was songstress Jean Turner and the music was primarily ballads.
The mellophoniums had matured into an extremely "tight' section after many miles on the road and many hours in the studio. Mouthpiece adjustments also darkened the horns and solved numerous intonation problems. Combined with some carefully scored arrangements (by Kenton, Lennie Niehaus, Bill Holman), the mellophoniums completely synthesized with one of Kenton's greatest ensembles.
Combined with Turner's lyrical vocal abilities (sometimes eerily similar to Billie Holiday), the album was the most flawless of the entire mellophonium band period. Unfortunately, it was also the last studio recording to feature the mellophoniums.
Many of the mellophonium band's last concerts were recorded and are still circulating among Kenton fanatics to this day. These recordings include special scorings of the Kenton "standards" that existed prior to the mellophoniums. Works like Johnny Richard's Cuban Fire Suite, as well as crowd favorites such as Eager Beaver, Peanut Vendor and Intermission Riff also "weathered" the addition of the mellophoniums quite well.
The Final Tour
The Kenton Orchestra embarked on a sixteen day tour to England in November 1963. Contrary to previous published accounts of this tour, it was considered to be quite successful by the participants. "Sure it was unorganized, there were double bookings and the accommodations were bad, but that was a normal tour," stated Tony Scodwell, ''The England tour was a resounding success." Mellophonium player Robert S. Crull remembers the tour this way: "The band was received thunderously-the British were Bananas about Stan and the Band.”33
Bootleg recordings of some of the concerts including performances in Manchester and a "live" album recorded in Birmingham seem to attest to this fact.
The crowds were very receptive to the diverse collection of music presented to them.
Between sessions at the performance at Royal Albert Hall in London, band members were alerted to the fact that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Although the details available to the British press were sketchy, the band members were left with the impression that the American government was being overthrown.34
The band performed the second set after Kenton assured the audience that "He [Kennedy] would have wanted it that way." However, the next day's performance was canceled in respect for the slain president.35
The assassination cast a somber mood over the orchestra that lasted through the final strains of Artistry in Rhythm at the close of the mellophonium band's last public performance on the evening of November 30 at the Bournemouth Wintergardens in London.36
The tour concluded with a pre-Christmas dinner for the orchestra members in London. Some of the members made a vacation out of it by bringing their families along.37 The members knew that no future tours were scheduled for the orchestra for at least one year. For all practical purposes, it appeared to be the end of the touring Kenton Orchestra.38
Although the large ensemble was a definite financial burden on Kenton, it wasn't money that led to the demise of the mellophonium band. It was a judge! Following his divorce from Ann Richards, Kenton was informed that he would lose custody of their two children if he didn't stay off the road for at least one year.
Following the tour, the band returned to the U.S. The four Conn Mellophoniums, still the property of C.G. Conn, Ltd., were returned to their rightful owner in Elkhart, Indiana, and immediately tucked away in one of the numerous storage rooms in the large facility.
The whereabouts of the instruments are still unknown and there are many myths about their location. More than likely, they became victims of the closing of the C.G. Conn facility in Elkhart. In order to quickly facilitate the move to Texas, many "one-of-a-kind" prototype instruments and priceless instruments (including the Kenton mellophoniums) housed in the brass instrument museum were whisked to local dumps and buried.39
The Kenton Band did tour again, but without the mellophoniums. Attempts continued to revive the mellophoniums in the Kenton organization even into the 1970s. Hank Levy and former Kenton trombonist Bob Curnow repeatedly encouraged Stan to once again include the mellophoniums in the ensemble. However, the tired Kenton was, understandably, unwilling to incur further financial burdens.40
The band remained a very active ensemble until Kenton's death on August 25, 1979 at the age of 67.41
Today, there are occasional performances by "tribute" ensembles featuring the music of the mellophonium period. Often, these ensembles will include French horn players on the mellophonium parts. Most notable of these "tribute" bands is a yearly concert given by the Jazz Arts Group in Columbus, Ohio. This ensemble, directed by Ray Eubanks, has featured some spirited performances of popular and rare music of the mellophonium period. Thankfully, this ensemble often features four marching mellophones.
The original Kenton mellophonium players are dispersed across the United States with the highest concentration still located around Hollywood. Most are still playing trumpet, some managed to "get religion" and have enjoyed successes outside music.
Although the mellophone was virtually eliminated from the jazz world by the late 1960s, replaced by the less temperamental flugelhorn, legions of mellophone players began to appear in marching bands and competitive drum and bugle corps across the world.
The mellophonium is still being manufactured today in the U.S. and throughout Europe. However, the mellophonium and mellophone have still not been accepted as legitimate instruments in the music world.
I would like to thank the following people for all of their unselfishness and help in the creation of this issue during the last six months:
Micah Ewing, what a good idea!; Ted Daryll of Ted Daryll Productions, how about another mellophonium re-release?; Lillian Arganian; Tony “The Provider" Agostlnelli, overlord of the greatest "Network" of people on the planet,. Joe and Babe Urso, we made the deadline!; Margaret Downey-Banks, my idol, Robert Crull, see you at the Bloomington show!; Tony ScodweII, a legend; Jo Lea Starling, good luck in Europe!; Bill Lichtenauer, I'm ordering two tickets for JAG '94 next week!; JoeI Kaye, keeping the dream alive with his own section of mellophones; Bob Curnow, "Remember the Mellophoniums!;" Sherm Wilkinson and Robert Fitzner, thanks for the quick response!; Douglas Hughes, this one's for you!!!; The Murray State University gang and Dr. Jack Dressler, one of the few French horn people that actually reads this rag; Rush Limbaugh, thanks for the encouragement, and, lastly, the Kenton Mellophoniums, you took a chance and created something beautiful You guys will never know how many lives you have changed with your "horns of scorn." Please know that as long as drum corps mid-voice sections roam the earth, your story will be shared with each new generation.