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