AS THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS’ One O’Clock Lab Band winds down, a few instruments at a time, director Neil Slater asks, “How did that one go again? I can’t figure out what we did before.” The band was rehearsing an adventurous piece written by UNT undergraduate Alan Baylock. It’s one of roughly five thousand compositions in the UNT jazz library, maybe two thousand of them by students, but there’s a hitch today. When last year’s lab band recorded the tune, they revised the score, and nobody can remember precisely how it went.
“Oh, well, then, forget it,” chuckles Slater, a round-faced 61-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard who wears a blue polo shirt, faded jeans, and shiny new Reeboks to class. “We’re going to do a couple more fast ones, some music to help you lose weight by, and then we’ll play a slow one to finish.” The students—collegians dressed in baggy shorts, T-shirts, and the odd gimme cap—jump deftly into another roaring number.
You’d never guess from the players’ cohesiveness and feel for the music that this is the first day of school at UNT in Denton, home of the first jazz major ever established at a university (1947). The One O’Clock is the flagship of nine lab bands—student jazz orchestras, really, with 20 to 25 players each—and Slater is both director of the One O’Clock and chairman of the division of jazz studies within UNT’s college of music. In a music school that typically enrolls 1,300 to 1,500, the jazz division accounts for about one third of the students, and about half of them play in a lab band.
By the sixties, the One O’Clock could be counted on to win at any college jazz festival it entered. Since 1967, however, though lower-ranked UNT bands have competed, the One O’Clock has not. As Slater explains, “We were a little too good. If other schools found out the One O’Clock was coming, they didn’t go.”
Denton and the One O’Clock have their critics, to be sure. Those detractors say that the school has fallen behind the times and discourages creativity in favor of cranking out mainstream musicians for cruise ships and the so-called ghost bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Woody Herman. Or, the argument goes, students have been channeled into jingles work, movie and television scores, or any other kind of gig that requires sight-reading skills and the ability to pick up on someone else’s unfamiliar music rather than pursuing their own. But having voiced their concerns, these critics ask to stay off the record, and most admit that UNT and the One O’Clock continue to dominate college jazz.
Denton alums represent a range broad enough to include Lyle Mays, keyboardist with Pat Metheny; Lou Marini, saxman for the Blues Brothers; Jeff Sturges, who’s been music director for both Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck; bassist Marc Johnson, whose own group has recorded for fusion jazz cornerstone ECM Records; drummer Greg Bissonette of the hard-rock David Lee Roth band; Bruce Fowler, trombonist with Frank Zappa; and saxophonist John Giordano, conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony. More predictably, three Denton vets now back up Harry Connick, Jr. The recently released Best of the One O’Clock Lab Band (Amazing), a compilation of tracks from previous lab band albums, includes fourteen musicians who have played for Maynard Ferguson and twelve more who have been in one of Woody Herman’s various Herds.
But the late Stan Kenton casts the longest shadow over the program. Upon Kenton’s death in 1979, his collection of more than two thousand compositions passed to the lab band library. “He did that because he didn’t want a professional ghost band,” says Slater’s assistant Mike Bogle. “But, in effect, the One O’Clock is the Stan Kenton ghost band.”
The connection goes back to 1960, when Kenton was one of the judges who awarded the Two O’Clock Lab Band (then the top guns on campus) first prize at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. Kenton began recruiting new band members out of Denton because they sight-read flawlessly. At one time fully half his orchestra was made up of North Texas players.
The pioneering Denton jazz program began to build its reputation from its founding, when M. E. “Gene” Hall created the curriculum so that there would be bands to play the charts that his scoring and arranging class produced. There was furious resistance to the new division from the department’s classical music establishment; Hall had to call the program’s focus “dance band” because “jazz” was considered seedy and dangerous. When Hall left in 1959, he turned the program over to Leon Breeden, a former director of high school and college bands.
Breeden was a devout, firm-but-fair leader who cosigned loans for needy students. He wouldn’t hesitate to call a nonconformist into his office for a talk if the youth was neglecting non-music studies, dressing sloppily, or otherwise playing into the prevailing negative image of the jazz misfit. During Breeden’s 22-year tenure, the division soared. He instituted a Fall Concert that brought such notables as Kenton, Marian McPartland, Louis Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Thad Jones, and Mel Lewis to work with the One O’Clock. His bands and soloists won nearly fifty national awards. In 1967 the One O’Clock began recording at least one album a year, with the 1975 and 1976 sets both nominated for Grammys. The One O’Clock then toured Mexico, followed by several trips to Europe and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in there they even started calling it jazz.
Slater, a New York pianist who established the jazz program at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, took over in 1981. He has put more emphasis on small groups and added a master’s program, which has improved the overall quality of the lab bands (the One O’Clock includes eight grad students). He has also formally integrated jazz studies classes with lab band experience. Like his predecessors, he has sought to develop all-around musicians who are less likely to find themselves, at age forty and with