The jazz singer on appearing in her first Prom and why there should be a Big Band in every jazz club in the country
Jazz singer Claire Martin grew up listening to great vocalists like Anita O’Day, June Christy and Chris Connor. And it was through these singers that Martin got to know the music of American Big Band leader and arranger Stan Kenton. In a Late Night Prom on 7 September she’s singing in a tribute concert to this jazz legend, along with the BBC Big Band, conducted by Jiggs Whigham. So what is Kenton’s legacy and why is the Proms marking his centenary?
Tell us a bit about Stan Kenton and why he was an important figure in jazz.
When Rock ‘n Roll became popular lots of the Big Bands disintegrated, and jazz really suffered. But Stan Kenton was very smart and used terrific singers like Anita O’Day and June Christy who helped propel him into the mainstream. He was a very driven West Coast guy who started his band very young and gradually built a Big Band, full of young guns and suddenly everyone wanted to be associated with him. He had a terrific style of arranging and created this ‘wall of sound’ that everyone talks about: like a juggernaut coming at you.
What made his sound different from the other Big Band leaders?
It’s sassy, it’s dynamic, it’s off-beat, it’s foot-tapping. He used a harmonic structure that hadn’t been heard before – and he used mellophoniums, these weird straight trumpets, so that his band stood out from the other Big Bands. And coming at this from a vocalist’s point of view, I love the way that he frames the singer: he created this fantastic platform for vocalists.
The programme has so far been kept under wraps. Can you tell us what music you will be performing at the Prom?
We’re going to be doing a song called ‘Black Coffee’ and a song that made Chris Connor extremely famous called ‘All About Ronnie’. We’re also doing ‘Jeepers Creepers’, which has been in my head for the last few days and has been driving me crazy! And we’re doing ‘That Old Black Magic’, ‘My Old Flame’. And then the band are also doing lots of instrumental pieces – one’s called ‘Cuban Fire’ – which Jiggs hand-picked, and he was actually in the Stan Kenton band as a trombonist when he was a young man.
What about the Big Band today? Where does it fit into the modern jazz world?
I think it’s a terrific art form but it’s really hard to get work – not because people don’t love the sound of it, but because it’s simply so expensive. Big Bands that are run by Big Band fanatics really struggle and people do gigs for almost nothing. So it’s fantastic that the BBC Big Band are playing at the Royal Albert Hall and that the art form should be revived and celebrated because there’s nothing like it, there really isn’t. I’d like to see a Big Band in every jazz club a couple of times a month – why not?
Interview by Elizabeth Davis