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 kids to feed, working clubs until four in the morning. So the lab bands continue to dominate the program, and the One O’Clock rules, with students in the lower bands fighting their way up the ladder.

That competition continues outside the classroom too; many students find the off-campus jams and cutting contests just as beneficial as the formal instruction. Notes Metheny keyboardist Lyle Mays, perhaps the most prominent UNT veteran, “The reputation of the school attracts huge numbers of talented players, and they re-create a New York City–style proving grounds.”

Woodwind player Lou Marini’s career illustrates how students become pros. As a student, Marini played for Doc Severinsen when he appeared in the Metroplex with pickup bands. When Marini went to New York in 1972, he worked for Severinsen for two months before joining Blood, Sweat & Tears. That led to sessions work, more than two hundred movie scores, seats in the Saturday Night Live Band, and, most recently, the Blues Brothers. “Breeden was so open to composition,” Marini recalls, “and it was like in the Ellington band, where you wrote for players you knew so well that you knew all their capabilities.”

According to Slater, academic programs such as Denton’s have taken the place of the old big bands. Jazz, after all, was born in red-light districts, not universities, but as the music grew, big bands became the incubators. A young musician would apprentice himself to a big band to polish his chops, then get his own small group together if he had what it takes. As the Denton program was launching, big bands were dying off. In the jazz world today, rivalries can get pretty nasty between musicians from the colleges and those who came up by scuffling on the jazz circuit. “All the street players thought it was wonderful there’d be jazz in college,” says Slater, “and when that started to happen, the same people were angry that kids in college didn’t have to go through what they did.”

Since North Texas paved the way, comparable lab bands have emerged on other campuses. But it is telling that music schools like Juilliard and Berklee are associated with inspired stars and leaders like trumpet classicist Wynton Marsalis and London piano whiz Julian Joseph, respectively. Denton, meanwhile, is still mainly feeding sidemen to the ghost bands and relatively anonymous technicians to the studios. Maybe musicians really do study jazz at Denton for the same reason students take up most other disciplines in college: so that they can get a better, more secure job when they graduate. Or, as Slater insists, “You can always look at the jazz school as being more like a trade school, but what’s wrong with that?”

John Morthland is a freelance writer who lives in Austin.