Tower of song
While re-reading the first volume of James Kaplan’s Frank Sinatra biography in preparation for reviewing the second and final instalment, due later this year, I was reminded of Sunset Tower, the West Hollywood art deco apartment block whose penthouse Sinatra occupied for several years. It was from the balcony that he fatefully hollered down one evening in 1948 to Ava Gardner, his lover-to-be, who was living in a little house right across the street. (“A curtain was drawn, a window opened,” Kaplan writes. “Ava stuck her head out of the window and looked up: she knew exactly who it was. She grinned, and waved back.”)
This further reminded me of one of the first jazz 78s I ever owned: a Stan Kenton disc recorded 60 years ago this summer, coupling “Opus in Chartreuse”, a Gene Roland composition and arrangement, with a piece from Kenton’s own pen, titled “Sunset Tower”.
The two tracks were recorded at the same sessions as the celebrated Contemporary Concepts album, on July 20 and 22, 1955. When they were added as bonus inclusions on the CD reissue a few years ago, the annotator suggested that Kenton’s title alluded to the famous Capitol Records tower at Hollywood and Vine. I think not. Sunset Tower has been a famous landmark since its opening in 1931 — even during the years when it was turned into an hotel, known first as the St James’s Club and then as the Argyle, before having its original identity restored by new owners.
Designed by the architect Leland A. Bryant, it was home at one time or another to Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, Bugsy Siegel and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Truman Capote, who also stayed there, wrote: “I am living in a very posh establishment, the Sunset Tower, which, or so the local gentry tell me, is where every scandal that ever happened happened.”
Kenton’s “Sunset Tower” is actually a revision of a piece he had written in 1950, originally called “Something New”. It’s pleasant enough, with a brassy opening and a smooth theme statement by the close-voiced saxophone section, and a trombone solo by Carl Fontana, all beautifully kicked along by Mel Lewis, a great big-band drummer. When I bought the second-hand 78 from a market stall in 1960 or thereabouts, I preferred the leaner swing of “Opus in Chartreuse” (one of Gene Roland’s series of “colour” compositions, which also included evocations of turquoise and beige), not least for the beautifully Lestorian tenor solo by the underrated Bill Perkins.
Neither is a masterpiece, but together they make a good case for the virtues of West Coast jazz in the 1950s, as well as adding a footnote to the architectural history of Los Angeles.
* The photograph of Sunset Tower was taken (from the north side of Sunset Boulevard) in 1955, the year the Kenton piece was recorded. James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman, the successor to Frank: The Voice, will be published by Doubleday in October.