The University of North Texas is home to a highly regarded jazz program. Norah Jones and members of the band Snarky Puppy once attended the school, and the program continues to attract major talent to the Dallas area. Yet, like the history of jazz itself, the university’s past is riddled with gross men. A petition launched by jazz artist and recent UNT graduate Lizzi Trumbore calls out one man in particular: Stan Kenton.
Kenton, who died in 1979, had a successful career as a pianist and band leader. He earned particular renown for leading a jazz orchestra from the 1940s through the 1970s. While he did not attend what was then called North Texas State University, when Kenton died, he donated his entire music library to the university. Then, the university named a recital hall after him.
Ten years ago, a disturbing revelation came to light. Kenton’s daughter Leslie wrote a memoir, Love Affair, which details the many times she says her father raped and molested her. In a passage highlighted by Trumbore’s petition, Leslie Kenton writes, “I don’t know if I ever went to sleep or not. The next thing I knew his massive body was on top of mine. In a rough voice he started to repeat my name: ‘Leslie. Leslie. Oh, Leslie.’ His hands stroked my body in ways that frightened me. It felt like he was trying to take me into a strange universe — a place where I didn’t know the rules. What was he doing? What did he want? What did he expect of me? I reassured myself that it must be OK. After all, he was my father. He was my pal . . . . Then came the pain. . . . Out of here. I’m out of here. From the ceiling I look down at the bed, at the bodies of the two people beneath me, twisted on each other.”
Trumbore’s petition argues many times that Stan Kenton should not have a recital hall named after him. In a conversation on June 23, Trumbore, who graduated from the jazz program in 2018, said the goal of the petition is to honor a black artist instead of a man accused of committing horrendous crimes. She also says purported racist comments made by Kenton have recently resurfaced online. Nevertheless, Trumbore has received some backlash from critics who claim that she is trying to erase Kenton’s name. To her, erasure is far from the point.
“Having a hall named after a racist and sexual predator normalizes this behavior,” she says. “It shows that even if you are a rapist or a bigot, you can still potentially be honored. That is the main point of the change.”
On Tuesday, the petition had 2,248 signatures. According to a university representative, “University officials are currently discussing changing the room’s name.”
To Trumbore, that would be a vital step to creating a campus where survivors do not feel silenced.
“People have also expressed how they don’t understand how sitting in a building named after anyone can make people feel unsafe,” she says. “That leads back to the fact that these halls that honor names like Kenton essentially allow other people to feel as if they can get away with racist and predatorial behavior.
"The point of the name change is to pivot the amount of honor and tribute that we pay to [Kenton's] name," Trumbore says. "We need to have these difficult stories and names in our history books and lessons so that we can learn from these mistakes. Erasure does not help anyone in this particular context."