Starting from the very beginning, with some footage of Kenton as a young boy and young man, his introduction to music came at a time when the world was embroiled in WWII. The wartime recording ban was an obvious challenge, but Portrait of a Jazz Legend offers up some biographers and students of Kenton's life who suggest that the time and place happened to be right. As recording companies were eager to recover from the hardship imposed during wartime, Kenton and his early band rode a wave that opened many doors. By the time Kenton's first hit "Eager Beaver" landed in '43, he was surrounded by incredible talent in the form of Art Pepper, Anita O'Day, and others. Touring and making money would have been a reasonable path, but Kenton veered early on and showed his true colors.
Artistry in Rhythm was a concept among many that Kenton presented, around the idea of transforming jazz. Maybe it was his California upbringing and his desire to do something different, but he genuinely seemed to have a unique concept. Rather than imitate classic bands of the pre-war years and play blues-derived music, Kenton explored orchestral textures, marching-band cadences and timbres, and Afro-Cuban influences. The ultimate expression of Kenton's commitment to being different was his decision to form a huge ensemble plus strings that toured to some critical buzz, but as Kenton expresses during the film, "a financial failure." Kenton fell back on a smaller, more traditional ensemble but continued to explore musical forms that were more like chamber music played with jazz instrumentation. Stretching the ears at times, and falling back on popular forms in other cases, Kenton went on to inspire almost four generations of musicians.
Portrait of a Jazz Legend would have benefitted from some editing, but the latter part of Kenton's career is still interesting to watch. Building reputation as a jazz educator, and bringing young artists like drummer Peter Erskine into the fold, Kenton passed on his enthusiasm for the music in clinics and camps. When he went out to play with bands, the groups were mostly formed from graduates of these programs. The legacy left by Kenton won't always suit traditional jazz ears, but like most radical experiments, it sounds rather tame at a distance of a few decades. That said, spin a few songs from "City of Glass" and try to imagine how they sounded to audiences in the late '40s. Portrait of a Jazz Legend is exhaustive, true to its title, and a boon for collectors or serious fans.