Around the Clock Battle: North Texas Celebrates 60 Years as an Elite Jazz Program

Appeared in the October 2007 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine; photo by Craig Marshall.

Students at the University of North Texas don't exactly walk around campus wearing 60 years of jazz studies tradition on their sleeves.

But with the largest degree program in the nation, a faculty packed with Stan Kenton Orchestra alums and an impressive list of North Texas graduates—including Lyle Mays, Lou Marini and Bob Belden—the world's first jazz degree program remains one of the standard-bearers for excellence in jazz education.

Denton, Texas' reign as the unlikely jazz capital of the South sprouted from enthusiastic but frustrating beginnings. Its early champion was Gene Hall. The young pianist wanted to develop his big band chops during the '30s, but found no college degree program in which to do so. Conventional wisdom at the time said that the professional bandstand, rather than the classroom, was the place to hone his skills.

"He considered it a deficiency in the American educational system," said Bill Collins Jr., who played with the late Hall in several dance bands. When Hall entered graduate school in 1942 at what was then called North Texas State College, he began a thesis: "The Development of a Curriculum for the Teaching of Dance Music at a College Level." In 1947, after a bit of wrangling with the administration, that thesis turned into a full-fledged dance-band degree program.

He built the curriculum around arranging courses for students, with lab bands in which they would play their arrangements and sharpen their technique. (At that time, the Two O'Clock Lab Band, named for its daily meeting time, was the top ensemble.) North Texas music faculty carped that jazz wasn't worthy of academic study, and that it would bring dope-smoking hoodlums to the campus. They stuck Hall and his band in the basement of a run-down building.

By 1959, despite winning awards and garnering widespread attention for his program, Hall had grown weary of the negative vibes from the faculty and administration. "He always made the comment that, 'You're not a hero in your own hometown,'" Collins said.

After Hall announced he was leaving North Texas, he tried to dissuade his friend Leon Breeden—whom he had recommended as his successor—from taking the job, listing the numerous obstacles Breeden would face.

Unfazed, Breeden took over, and immediately catapulted the program into national prominence with victories at the 1960 and 1961 Notre Dame College Jazz Festivals. North Texas' premier big band (renamed as the One O'Clock Lab Band) soon became a breeding ground for Kenton and Woody Herman's bands. The One O'Clock even played alongside Stan Getz and Duke Ellington at the White House in 1967.

Breeden's former students credit a two-pronged formula for the program's success: a respected leader who demanded the best, and dedicated students who brought out the best in each other.

"All through the years [Breeden] was there, due to his building on the program, better and more students came who had that talent," said trumpeter Marvin Stamm, who graduated from North Texas in 1961 and played with Kenton. "It was a cycle that fed on itself."

Despite continued battles with uncooperative administrators throughout the '60s and '70s, the experiment in "dance band" education at North Texas had proven indomitable. And the movement spread. "Other educational institutions would look at this and say, 'Wow, maybe we can do that,'" said Neil Slater, the current chairman of the jazz studies division. By 1970, 10 colleges offered jazz degrees.

Slater, after taking over the program in 1982, has maintained its elite status in part by letting his talented faculty members carve their own paths. "Neil gives us free reign to do with our students what we think is going to be the best thing for them," said Jay Saunders, a jazz studies instructor who also attended North Texas. This results in a diverse department with a reputation for solid bands, versatile alums and highly motivated students.

"You get there as a freshman, and you're just surrounded by badasses," said senior Andy Rogers, a bassist. Such high expectations can make studying there intimidating—Slater likens the rigorous biannual auditions and high-pressure juries to "jazz boot camp." Students who are in over their heads are often encouraged to consider a new major.

Most North Texas students, though, see the intense environment as a good thing, emphasizing the sense of friendly competition among students. "You let that competitive attitude drive you," said Dave Richards, a third-year master's student who played trumpet in the One O'Clock last semester. "If you slip, there's somebody right behind you who will take your spot."

That's the idea, say faculty—give young musicians a sense of the environment they'll face as professionals. If students can't make their lab band rehearsals, for example, they're required to find subs.

Preparing players for the uncertain world of jazz also means instilling in them the flexibility to play the Village Vanguard one night and a Broadway show the next, Saunders said. "If you want to optimize your position as a professional musician, you should be able to do both," he said. "And then go out and play in a rock band the next night."

Faculty don't see that philosophy at odds with the school's emphasis on lab bands, a subject on which North Texas is sometimes criticized. Although opportunities to make a living playing big band music aren't nearly as ubiquitous as they once were, professors say the lab band system trains players to work well with other musicians, to have patience and discipline, and to develop big ears.

Saunders calls these essential skills for young players, especially when they're just starting out. "You've got to be able to be adaptable, and you want the leader to like and want to hire you again, whatever the gig is," he said.

But make no mistake about it—North Texas isn't a factory that churns out uncreative session players, said John Murphy, a professor in the jazz studies division. With dozens of small groups inside and outsideof the curriculum, the program's students have plenty of opportunity to collaborate and pursue their own musical voices.

And though they're not New York, Denton and nearby Dallas give students the chance to showcase their groups to the public. With a steady flow of guest artists visiting from out of town, the jazz studies division is "large enough to kind of constitute its own scene," Murphy said.

Combine that with the world music, orchestral and other offerings from one of the largest music schools in the country, and students enjoy a diversity of opportunities that smaller schools can't offer. "If they want to get involved in 19th-century Romantic piano music, trying to see where Brad Mehldau is coming from somewhat by studying that music, they can do that on a high level if they're prepared to," Murphy said. "If they want to play in the gamelan, if they want to play African ensemble, Indian ensemble, Afro-Cuban ensemble—we have all those resources."

Although the jazz studies curriculum features progressive elements—guitar ensembles, electronic music—it remains rooted in the traditions Hall started in 1947. Lab bands still constitute the department's backbone, and students still compose and arrange for the bands in which they play. Top leaders still recruit players from the program's pool of talent. (Before trumpeter Maynard Ferguson died in 2006, he made a point of hiring North Texas grads whenever he had a vacancy in his band.)

Interestingly, the lab band rehearsal space is located in a new building on the site of the same dingy spot where Hall rehearsed his bands in the '40s and '50s. The coincidence makes Professor of Jazz Studies Jim Riggs chuckle. "It's almost like the vibes were just real good at that place," he said.

Ivy League Jazz: Students Pursue Jazz Degrees at Elite Universities

Appeared in the October 2007 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

As a college student, Joshua Redman wasn’t much of a multitasker. The saxophonist rarely practiced when he attended Harvard University from 1987-’91—playing jazz alongside such a rigorous academic schedule just didn’t work. "I was focused on school, and I wasn’t able to carve out time for music during the school year," Redman said. "I barely touched my horn."

For Redman, music and demanding academics didn’t mesh. But a growing number of students balance musical and scholarly pursuits simultaneously, studying jazz at some of the nation’s best colleges.

One such example is Julia Brav, a Princeton senior who won an Outstanding Performance DownBeat Student Music Award in the Jazz Soloist category this year. The pianist said she wanted to combine stellar academics with a formidable jazz education, and she attends a program that’s won several DownBeat awards of its own. As expected, it’s been no cakewalk.

"The rigors of this education can be daunting and overwhelming," said Brav, who sits next to future molecular biologists and lawyers in the New Jersey university’s bands, then jets off to classes in such subjects as modern Japanese culture and number theory.

At New York University, Director of Jazz Studies David Schroeder said the difficult course work challenges jazz studies majors to do more than just develop their talent. It translates to their musicianship, instilling critical thinking skills that can beef up their playing. He beams when students coming out of philosophy classes engage with and challenge the ideas of guest artists and clinicians. He also encourages his 120 jazz students to experience the music of other cultures by studying abroad.

Rigorous academics don’t necessarily lead to better playing. "It’s not like reading Kant made me swing harder," Redman said. But superior liberal arts offerings can enrich the study of music, as when author E.L. Doctorow, who wrote Ragtime and teaches at NYU, worked with students on the musical adaptation of his novel, Schroeder said.

Although Brav has moments when the musician in her longs for a less demanding academic environment, she takes comfort in the fact that her impressive degree can sustain her if a career in music doesn’t work out. "I’ve come to accept the open-endedness that this education offers," she said.

Schroeder remembers a music/economics double major who landed a three-record deal with SteepleChase during his junior year at NYU. Days before graduation, he asked his director for a law school recommendation letter. "He’s not alone here," Schroeder said. "All these guys aspire to much more."

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which offers a jazz minor, mostly graduates students who seek careers in other fields. Some continue to make room in their lives for jazz—a business school graduate a few years ago took a job on Wall Street trading during the day, while continuing to play jazz gigs at night. Director of Jazz Studies David Pellow sees himself not only as a music instructor, but also as a steward of the jazz tradition for tomorrow’s movers and shakers in business and other fields. "Maybe I won’t train the next Brecker, but maybe I’ll train the next guy who’s going to open a club or create an arts center that’s going to present the music," Pellow said.

Admittedly, an austere academic experience isn’t for everyone, and admissions requirements at top universities can be barriers to studying jazz there. At Princeton, though, Conductor of University Jazz Ensembles Anthony Branker has the ability to influence who gets the thick envelope come April. Strong audition tapes can give applicants a boost if their grades aren’t as high as other admitted students.

"Obviously, academically they have to be what the university is looking for," Branker said. "But I can be part of the process."

The New Expo Model

Appeared in the October 2007 edition of Music Inc., the leading trade magazine for the musical products industry.

Guitarists aren’t known for their punctuality, but hundreds showed up early for the inaugural Montreal Guitar Show on July 5. Inside, the first comers—and later, some 3,000 others—encountered a 70-exhibitor event that sought to showcase the best in Canadian and international guitar making.

The exhibition was an offshoot of the massive Montreal Musician and Musical Instrument Show (MMMIS), held the same weekend. Only in its third year, the 2007 MMMIS attracted 90,000 attendees. Both Montreal shows represent an experiment in coupling musical instrument exhibitions with a major concert event, the Montreal Jazz Festival. The strategy has enabled organizers to stage consumer-friendly expos that take advantage of the city’s increased foot traffic.

"You have 2,000-3,000 professional musicians in town during the jazz festival, so that’s a good start for a musical instrument show," said Jacques-Andre Dupont, vice president and business development associate for Spectra, which produces the three festivals. "Then you have all those lawyers, doctors and architects who are into jazz but who are also into music at home. The biggest part of our success comes from this joint venture."

About 60 manufacturers, distributors and retailers set up shop in the exhibition hall for the MMMIS. Like most consumer expos, the showroom was for promotion and exposure, not sales. It also featured a number of activities designed to engage musicians of all stripes. Last year’s show provided how-to sessions that put instruments in the hands of complete tyros, and this year, the sessions took place in an outdoor tent, situated in downtown Montreal. Tourists could wander over and, an hour later, know a basic blues progression.

To target more experienced players, workshops and master classes were held with musicians like Bill Frisell and Mimi Fox. In addition, the MMMIS put on Brazilian percussion and djembe jam sessions, intimate concerts with festival performers and a blues camp for young people.

Unlike the open-door MMMIS, the Guitar Show cost $10 to attend and catered to pros and collectors. Independent luthiers took center stage, traveling from all over Canada, the United States, Europe and South America to showcase their wares. Guitar makers, such as John Monteleone and Linda Manzer, gave workshops, took orders and let attendees try out their hand-made instruments.

The goal was to highlight the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into guitar building, Dupont said. Although luthiers were featured as part of last year’s MMMIS, the general interest audience wasn’t right for the specialty guitar builders, who received few orders. "[Luthiers] are not interested in the tire-kickers," Dupont said.

Next year, to account for the difference in clientele and allow for continued growth, the Guitar Show and the MMMIS will become even more disaggregated, with the Guitar Show taking place during the first weekend of the jazz festival and the MMMIS closing the event. Dupont also said he hopes to add separate rooms for acoustic instruments at the MMMIS to ensure they aren’t drowned out by amps and drums.