Sweet and Low
Up the scale from one-night stands to a top rating in the national dance-band field is the story of Mart Kenney and his Westerners
ON THIS January night in Vancouver, Robert (Mac) McInnis reached for the telephone on his desk and got Mart (for Martin) Kenney on the other end of the wire.
“Look,” he said, sounding like Ned Sparks. “I’m taking over the Alexandra Ballroom. The decorators are here now. It will be better than that dime-a-dance dump you’re playing in now. How would you like to have your own band?”
“Gee!” said Mart Kenney, who would be twenty on his next birthday. “Gee! Mr. Mclnnis, gee!”
“Take it or leave it,” was Mclnnis’ weary response, “but make up your mind. Get a band together and be here for an audition Wednesday noon at two.”
He hung up, and seventy-two hours later the members of the newly created orchestra were taking their places on the platform of the Alexandra Ballroom. They were supremely confident and already on the road to unparalleled success. Kenney’s name was lettered on the bass drum and it looked swell.
Mclnnis came in, settled himself in a chair, and said, “Play!”
Kenney gave the “ready” signal and the boys swung briskly into “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” then into “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” to show off their waltz tempo, and then topped off with “Just Give Me Something to Remember You By,” those being the song hits of that year. On the final cymbal crash, they looked at Mclnnis with
the expectation of young puppies waiting to be tossed a bone. Mr. Mclnnis slowly got off his chair and said: “Lousy!”
While the stunned youngsters sat in shocked amazement, Mdnnis started off. “See me in my office,” he told Mart Kenney.
There was a scene later on in which Kenney vigorously upheld the band’s qualifications and Mclnnis leaned back, made a little arch with his fingers, and simply listened to the Kenney tirade.
Then he said, “You’re hired. We open in two weeks. In the meantime, will you get a hall somewhere and please, please, rehearse?” When Kenney had excitedly left with the good news for his colleagues, the Mac treated himself to one of his rare smiles.
That was an even ten years ago and, since the episode, the musical career of Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen has been eventful and moving steadily forward—from second-rate dance halls to the finest hotels in the land; from barnstorming one-night stands to broadcasting over the national networks of the United States, Canada, and Britain’s BBC.
It is the first band to come out of the West and find fame in the East. It is the first band in Canada to be signed up by the makers of phonograph records. Since the “Melodies for You” series went on the air some weeks ago, the applause and hefty fan mail bear witness to the fact that Mart Kenney is now enjoying the delicious fruits of
success, and is currently the top-ranking dance-band maestro in this country.
The realm of music is manifestly full of exhibitionists, but Kenney has kept his feet on the ground. He is a quiet young man who dresses and talks conservatively, looks more like an up-and-coming junior executive than an orchestra leader. This quality of restraint and dignity is reflected in his well-mannered music which falls into the “sweet and low” classification—but not style—of Wayne King, Lombardo and Horace Heidt. He avoids the raucous, and the listener need don no ear muffs, whether in a ballroom or sitting before a radio.
Early he began to strive for a smooth and easy rhythmical style divorced from that distortion of melody which features the performance of many a name band in today’s orchestral hierarchy. There is apparently a field for both the caterwauling and the sweet and low techniques, but it is notable that Kenney’s audience, both visual and on the air, is not confined to jitterbugs but is composed of satisfied young and old alike, judging from his fan mail.
Early Interest In Music—Radio
KENNEY was born in Toronto thirty-one years ago.
When he was tw'o, the family moved to Vancouver. There is no reason for biographical embroidery; he had the upbringing of the average boy in any Canadian town or city. There was school and games with the neighborhood kids; under maternal pressure, he studied the violin, practiced under duress, and would exasperate his teacher by playing by ear instead of by note. He hasn’t tucked a violin under his chin since he was thirteen.
At ten, he was delivery boy for a Vancouver drugstore from seven to nine in the evening, earned two dollars a week and the envy of his schoolmates who thought this affluence permitted unfair competition in winning the smiles of little girls in senior second who liked ice cream and chocolates.
At twelve, Kenney got a paper route delivering the Daily Province, and found his earnings soaring to an average twenty dollars a month. It was an exciting year. Radio was coming in, with mahjong its only rival; hairdressers said the bobbed-hair vogue was here to stay King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Lord Carnarvon.
Young Kenney began to dabble with radio, and then it became an obsession. Those were the days of earphones and peanut tubes. Up in his room the youngster built sets, spent all his available cash on radio parts, studiously pored over manuals. At night when he was supposed to be in bed, he would be tinkering with a set, would hear his mother coming down the hall and then quickly turn out the light and be lying in bed feigning sleep when she looked in. Before her footsteps died away, he would be out of bed and back at his gadgets.
With the earphones, he could get WEAK, New York; KDKA, Pittsburgh; WGY, Schenectady. A new and changing entertainment medium was in its experimental stages, and young Kenney was an ardent devotee. What he liked best were the dance bands, and particularly those which featured saxophone sections. Henry Halstead made a deep impression on him; so did the Kansas City Nighthawks and the Six Brown Brothers, the latter, incidentally, hailing from Ottawa and then a headline act in American vaudeville’s heyday.
His people gave in to his tearful pleadings and Kenney bought a saxophone on the installment plan, at five dollars a month. At the end of seventeen months the instrument would be legally his. With it came a book of instructions. When he had absorbed this pamphlet, he coaxed a few lessons out of the trumpet player in the Capitol Theatre orchestra. As the tootling sessions increased, the members of the Kenney menage, and the neighbors in immediate earshot, began to wear harried expressions. Kenney admits today that he was practically self-taught, an observation with which his early listeners are in full accord.
There was some surcease that first summer when the school term ended and he went pea-threshing in the Fraser River delta. The following school vacation, he took the harvesters’ special to Webb, Saskatchewan, where, at sixteen, he found himself working from six in the morning till eight at night for the fabulous sum of six dollars a day. He took his saxophone with him, but was always too tired at night to lift it out of its case, this act of nonaggression possibly preventing mayhem on the prairies at the hands of fellowharvesters.
Most musical youngsters want to be band leaders and six dollars a day in the wheat fields was getting him nowhere, Kenney thought. He was definitely in a rut, so he went back to Vancouver. There he decided that he had had enough of school, got an apprentice job repairing typewriters at ten dollars a week and, to the further horror of his people, bought a clarinet.
Now he was fixing typewriters by day and playing in small bands by night, the latter for five dollars a session. The fact that Vancouver civic regulations called for the midnight closing of all dance halls enabled him to get some sleep.
Kenney, in all sincerity, says there is a lot in getting the breaks—but you have to be ready when the emergency arises. In this instance, the American immigration authorities tossed out all Canadian bands playing in the United States, and the Canadian authorities promptly, retaliated by sending home all American bands playing in Canada. The Hotel Vancouver found itself without an orchestra, and Len Chamberlain, a local musician, was hurriedly summoned to assemble one. Kenney was accepted for the saxophone section and found himself wearing a dinner jacket for the first time in his life. Between this work and giving lessons, he found himself averaging seventy-five dollars a week. He was eighteen !
It was about this period that a kindly gentleman took Kenney aside and gave him some solemn advice. “Look, son,” he said, “get out of the band business and into something more substantial. We have a music store here that is doing so well that we have decided to open a branch in Regina, and how would you like to be sales manager?”
They discussed salary and commissions,
and Kenney was carried away by the glowing picture of potential prosperity and solid citizenship, complete with regular hours. His chief duty, he later discovered, was to go out on the road and hustle business while someone else was left in charge of what was grandiloquently defined as a new branch. Bluntly, the lad had to go from small town to small town and practically peddle the firm’s new and shiny instruments from door to door. He stuck it out for three months, and some of his sales are presumably still being tootled throughout the prairie provinces.
KENNEY was in Carlyle, Saskatchewan, when he got word from the proprietor of a lake resort nine miles away that the University of Minnesota band had been booked for the summer season but couldn’t cross the border; could anything be done—but fast! Kenney tossed the job of sales manager, took a good sniff of prairie air, instantly wired a group of his pals, and the boys came swarming east. Kenney was a band leader !
There was a small hotel at Carlyle Lake and a dime-a-dance pavilion. The boys got twenty-five a week and room and board at the hotel, and it was a very pleasant existence. At the end of the season Kenney and his crew went back to Vancouver, and it was at this time that Mac Mclnnis offered Kenney the Alexandra Ballroom job and, at the audition, cast the aspersions earlier recounted.
After following the Mac’s advice to go and rehearse for a fortnight and then come back, the grand opening (Admission, 35 cents) took place. The band was a hit, and played there three winter seasons. In between, they went on a theatre tour throughout the Capitol circuit, barnstormed, and played for an Americanpromoted walkathon staged in the Vancouver Auditorium.
Kenney still shudders at this latter recollection. The walkathon was one of those gruesome exhibitions in which some hundred and fifty persons started to shuffle around the arena for some cash prize until exhaustion caused them to collapse and drop out one by one while the band, in shifts, played night and day for weeks as audiences continued to show up.
Meanwhile, financial gloom was spreading in the early ’thirties and night clubs were hit hard. Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen were getting summer work, but the winter one-night stands were heartbreaking and tough. At one B.C. town only three couples turned up, and the orchestra drearily played for the sextet all night. A lot of other Western spots were about as bad.
Avalanches came down the mountains and swept out the roadbeds. In weather that was forty below zero outside, the boys would thaw their instruments at the heater in the centre of the dance flopr and play in their overcoats on-stage. They carried shovels in their three cars, and digging paths through the high drifts was just another part of the routine. Cold often brought motor trouble, or a thaw would come and then a sudden freeze, and the three-car cavalcade would skid in circles on the icy surfaces.
That all ended, of course, when the word got about that Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen had something other bands didn’t have. At Waterton Lakes, where Dave and Pat McLean conduct a summer resort in the Alberta Rockies, Kenney and his men got a job and later put on a special broadcast carried by CJOR, Vancouver. Dials were twirled that night, and the next day Kenney was notified that he could move into the Hotel Saskatchewan, Regina, for the forthcoming winter season. To make this stage of a success story a little less monotonous, this was only the first of the swank hotels that Kenney was to play in.
In alternate winter and summer sessions he has played five seasons at the Hotel Vancouver, two seasons at Banff Springs i Hotel, a season at Chateau Lake Louise, three seasons at the Royal York Hotel in 1 Toronto. Meanwhile the orchestra has i been heard on the NBC, Columbia, and Mutual networks in the United States, 1 the BBC in Great Britain, and. of course, 1 on the CBC national network in Canada. I This season, the band is stationed in the East for its commercial radio commit1 ments which emanate from CBL, Toronto. 1 In between these engagements, Mart i Kenney and His Western Gentlemen are 1 playing at the swank Brant Inn on the ( Toronto-Hamilton highway. All of this, s the philosophers would have it, proves that virtue has its own reward and hard s work never killed anyone !
Kenney and his men are now riding the 1 crest. On their mid-season trans-Canada peregrinations, they play only the key1 spots, and the boys travel in a special Pullman to make up for their earlier
privations. In Winnipeg last season they s played to seven thousand people in two i nights. They turned people away in s
Calgary. More than a thousand enthus1 iasts crammed the dance space of the c Lethbridge Arena. At Brandon, more than nine hundred Royal Canadian Air Force t men alone—and their fair guests—turned up for the Kenney appearance. The same conditions prevailed at Saskatoon, Vici tocia and Vancouver. In Montreal, more J than two thousand persons jammed the 1 Forum. In the Hotel Vancouver, it has s now been definitely determined, for í instance, that it is impossible to reserve a 1 table after five o’clock in the afternoon 1 for that evening if Mart Kenney and His 1 Western Gentlemen are booked in.
Now when he travels to Hollywood, 1 Chicago or New York to confer with his i baton-wielding peers, he takes a plane.
He is hailed as a brilliant musician by 1 these gentlemen, an important tribute s when one considers the cut-throat business 1 of the orchestral industry. 1
KENNEY’S job, however, is no sine: cure; it is a terrific grind. Despite the 1 turning point to that big money which is nobody’s business but the Income Tax Department’s, he works strenuously and 1 is seldom in bed before four in the morning.
The standing order at his home is that 1 he must not be called before two in the 1 afternoon. Lest anyone brand him a sluggard, he may have been up until dawn i completing some musical arrangement.
While the responsibility for any per1 formance’s artistic merit rests solely on the conductor, Kenney modestly admits that his musical interpretations—only— should be judged, and that his personality ( and background are of no concern to the : public. That is debatable. He is still the 1
target for fan mail from all parts of i
Canada and the United States, from the I young and elderly. It also comes from Britain. He is probably the only band leader receiving fan mail from Japan—
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written in Japanese ! How he is heard over there remains a mystery to him.
He attributes much of the applause to the compositions of modern dance-tune composers and thinks that some splendid writing is being done today. He himself has submitted only one song for the market. This is “We’re Proud of Canada,” which has gone into three editions in its first month of publication and has brought a swarm of commendatory letters from all parts of the Dominion.
Sick at the latest war news, Kenney was listlessly golfing and brooding at Banff last summer one afternoon when he suddenly realized the scenic grandeur of a homeland whose peace must be defended. On the back of an envelope he scribbled some lyrics dealing with the Dominion’s deep-green forests, the golden prairies, the sunset glows on the Rockies and this country’s myriad lakes. That night he went to bed and found he couldn’t sleep. He got up and composed the score, whipped the metre of the lyrics into shape.
Later, a little ashamed of possible charges of sentimentalism, he self-consciously showed the composition to a music publisher who immediately set the song-sheet presses rolling, and “We’re Proud of Canada” sold over five thousand copies in its first month. Kenney is now debating to what patriotic body he will turn over his royalties.
On stage he is impeccable in formal dress; in rehearsal this dapper young man is in shirt-sleeves, the knot of his tie ripped away from his unbuttoned collar, his hair soon unruly. He demands almost superhuman efforts from his henchmen and often leaves them and himself exhausted. He still holds the admiration, however, of his sixteen-man personnel and his vocal groups. When the rehearsal is over, he relaxes and is one of the boys. He is abstemious and doesn’t smoke but is a hospitable host.
The ladies adore him and the men think he is a swell guy, this judgment being something of a paradox in band circles, things in that restricted area being what they are. One illustration is apt. Knowing human frailties, Kenney early instituted a joint savings plan and sick benefit fund when the money started to roll in. This comes in handy if one of the boys takes ill, decides to get married, or quits to go into business.
Kenney’s arrangements and the handpicked personnel of his orchestra, plus the Kenney direction, comprise the secret of the band’s success. Featuring “sweet” instead of “swing,” the lullaby style of the Western Gentlemen seems to be the factor which makes this aggregation Canada’s top-ranking band. Part of his success can be traced to his knowledge of how to handle experts, this coupled with an evident sincerity that precludes personal temperament for which there is no place in the Kenney line-up; nor is there any of the stigma of the maestro attached to this profoundly serious young man.
His reputation is based on his ability to create unique effects without distorting old songs or new; and he lures out sounds of astonishing beauty, which is why audiences of all ages like him. All his men are experts in their varied lines, and each can handle three or four instruments, whether this be for effects in show, specialty, straight dance playing, or symphonic treatments. Kenney’s manoeuvring of effects to make a small band sound like a much larger one continues to amaze the initiates who know that he is using only sixteen men.
He has secured a voluminous trombonesection effect by using only one trombone and a couple of melophones. Once he bought an organ-harmonica to increase tone volume and then discovered that, on tour, the variations of tuning in the pianos supplied en route created musical discord because the tuning of the expensive instrument they were carrying was fixed. This spectacular instrument had to be discarded and was purchased for his own amusement by a member of the orchestra who paid out an even thousand dollars for it and now wishes that he hadn't. Incidentally. the musical instruments of Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen are insured for $8,020.65.
THE LATE Dr. Lawrence Mason. music critic of the Toronto Globe and Mail, and famous throughout the West for his adjudicating duties in connection with the Dominion Drama Festival, turned up to hear one dance band in his life; that was Mart Kenney’s, then playing at the Royal York Hotel, Toronto. The
young Canadian didn’t even know that the stern old gentleman, internationally known for his academic standards, was present; otherwise he might have developed the jitters, admirer and close student as he was of anything this inexorable pundit published.
In his pontifical style. Dr. Mason paid tribute to Kenney’s technical skill and artistic performance. (“He seems to aim at smoothness of blend and balance, with perfectly homogeneous tone throughout. He seldom allows his players to go beyond a moderate forte. The eardrums of the listeners are not overtaxed or wounded by mere noise. The rhythm is absolutely
steady even where time, tone and pitch are severely tested. With continual shifting of the instrumentation, seemingly less than half a dozen bars are played without changing some of the instruments to secure new color values, but without losing a note or breaking a phrase.”) Other reviews have been as eulogistic; Mason’s is the only one that Kenney keeps and treasures.
There have been over-the-border offers; Kenney prefers to stay in Canada. He has made more than a score of phonograph records and is proud of the fact that, on the first Trans-Canada Air Lines run from Montreal to Vancouver, the proofs
of his “When the Moon Bids the Night Good-by” were aboard. That particular platter has sold more than 15,000 in the United States alone.
Tops in the Canadian dance-band field, Kenney continues to dress up the old and the new songs in modern arrangements that have proved universally pleasing and downright popular. He is steeped in knowledge and respect for the music of the masters and is now at work on a symphony with a Canadian theme. He doesn’t want to talk about that yet, however, and feels that he has a lot to learn. But time marches on; after all, the man is thirtyone!