History of Jazz at North Texas

Section Panel: 

Written by John Murphy
Additional research & writing by Maristella Feustle
Edited by Kimberly Hannon Teal

Setting The Stage

Music instruction has been a part of course offerings at North Texas since the institution was founded in 1890, with a “Conservatory Music Course” offered in Joshua Chilton’s first bulletin. Several overlapping factors encouraged the growth of the program, including Denton’s geographical proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth, as well as the rapid development of mass media in popular culture during North Texas’s early decades: The new “normal” college in Denton had the fortune of growing up alongside the advent of the phonograph record, Edison cylinder, piano rolls, a thriving sheet music industry and, in the 1920s, the birth of radio.

Accordingly, music studies at North Texas arose in an environment characterized by an ample supply and eager demand for music, including popular music and jazz. At the same time, the growth of campus culture in the early 1900s set certain expectations of social life at a university with demand for events such as concerts and dances. At North Texas, the Saturday Night Stage Show debuted in 1927 and became a local institution for decades.

Floyd Freeman Graham (1902 - 1974) was the founder of the Saturday Night Stage Show. Born in nearby Roanoke, Texas, Graham’s family moved to Denton so that he and his brother, Wynne, could attend school. Floyd Graham graduated from Denton High School in 1919; in the 1920s he taught violin, appeared in ensembles on Dallas and Fort Worth radio, and briefly served as band director at Denton High. He joined the faculty of North Texas in 1927 to teach band and orchestra, having earned a teachers certificate from Chicago Musical College. He continued his education with a bachelor of music in violin from CMC in 1931 and a master of music degree from the American Conservatory of Music in 1936. While in Chicago, Graham studied with Leo Sowerby, and he studied at Juilliard in the summer of 1939 with Ferde Grofé and Fritz Mahler.

The combination of Floyd Graham’s entrepreneurial spirit and musical achievements lent important context to the Saturday Night Stage Show as an incubator of local talent. Over the years, the show helped launch the careers of Joan Blondell, Louise Tobin, Ann Sheridan, the Moon Maids, and Pat Boone. The show’s Aces of Collegeland stage band became the forerunner of the present-day Jazz Studies program. It created a community of performers with common interests, and the existence of that community helped generate demand for expertise in jazz performance and arranging. The stage show provided a venue for live performance and also provided performance and income opportunities during the Great Depression.

Even before the formal Jazz Studies program was initiated, North Texas boasted a formidable assembly of future jazz stars, including Herb Ellis, Jimmy Giuffre, Harry Babasin, and Gene Roland, all of whom either graduated or moved on around 1942. Many of them lived together in a house that still stands at 204 Normal Street. Two women’s vocal ensembles, the Moon Maids (first known as the Swingtet, later joining Vaughn Monroe’s band), and the Sunnysiders (first known as the Blue Notes, later joining Sonny Dunham’s band), were also examples of early excellence, featuring precise, close-harmony arrangements.

Gene Hall and the Early Days of the Jazz Program

The opportunities to play and earn money at North Texas attracted Gene Hall from Whitewright, Texas, as he was scrambling in “panic bands” around 1934. He and some other musicians had hoped to get into the fraternity circuit for gigs. But Hall had trouble even scraping together the $32 tuition and wound up touring with a band that got stranded in Spain before eventually returning to Texas. Hall later stated in an oral history that the demand for formal training in arranging that arose out of the stage shows was a prime motivator for curricular expansion, though one collection donor has insisted to the Music Library that the urgency for increased enrollment during the Depression also made administrators more amenable to the idea of recruiting students interested in jazz. However, Hall himself recalled being assigned to patrol the practice room area to ensure no one was playing jazz or popular music. In spite of the apparent hostility to jazz, however, Hall said that School of Music Dean Wilfred Conwell Bain essentially selected his thesis topic for him: writing a method for teaching jazz on the college level. Hall finished his thesis in 1944 as the jazz community at North Texas continued to thrive.

Bain’s successor as dean of the School of Music, Walter Hodgson, offered Hall a job at North Texas leading the still-incipient Jazz Studies program. Through careful diplomacy, Hall obtained approval from the curriculum committee for a “dance band” program because, in his words, “jazz was such a negative term in those days.” The ensemble’s name, “Laboratory Dance Band,” is the origin of the famous “Lab Bands” we know today.

While many sources continue to cite 1947 as the year our program began, it started slightly earlier in the fall of 1946 before Hall began his full-time role. The fall 1946 academic catalog lists Dance Band as a major. Alumnus William Thomson, who played trumpet in the early bands and went on to a distinguished academic career that included serving as Dean of the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California described that first fall semester in an email to Dr. John Murphy in 2010 in an effort to correct the historical record. Thomson explained that he turned down an opportunity to join the Jimmy Dorsey band in order to study in the brand-new program and played in the Dance Band under the direction of composition graduate student Charles Meeks. At the time, work commitments in Fort Worth kept Gene Hall away from Denton except on weekends, but Hall would take the helm in 1947. A photo from the North Texas yearbook from 1947 shows Meeks in front of the band and Thomson in the trumpet section.

Thomson’s clarification, combined with documentation from the University Archives, have led to the revision of Jazz Studies founding date despite prior anniversary celebrations as recent as 1997 that asserted the 1947 start date.
As the new program picked up steam, Hall arranged media appearances to raise its national profile. The end of World War II and the educational benefits of the GI Bill encouraged enrollment. Hall entered the Lab Band in the Teenage DownBeat competition, and in 1957 he took the 5-Front Group, a scaled-down big band, to appear on the “Tonight Show with Steve Allen”. That same year he appeared on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” on NBC with a student Dixieland group, and he appeared with various band members on the Dallas television station WFAA. Hall organized a Festival of High School Stage Bands towards the end of his tenure. The clinicians in 1958 were Marshall Brown, a band director from Long Island; Chuck Suber, publisher of DownBeat magazine; and jazz educator Ted Crager.

Leon Breeden, the Program’s Growth and Rise to Prominence

Leon Breeden, clarinetist, arranger, and music educator, succeeded Hall as director in 1959 and brought the program even more visibility. Like Hall, he had to contend with public opposition to the teaching of jazz in a public university in a formerly Confederate state. Breeden weathered hostility from within the School of Music, as well as calls to his home phone number and admonitions that his teaching jazz put him in peril of damnation. To counter it, he insisted on strict standards of professionalism, with an emphasis on sight-reading and stringent expectations of his students with respect to grooming and behavior. Breeden’s archive in the UNT Music Library preserves an early document in which he even forbade goatees. In order to understand Breeden’s concern for presenting the band as a disciplined, professional group, it helps to have the perspective of former students like guitarist Don Gililland:

I arrived at North Texas in Spring 1959, just hoping I might get close enough to the Lab Band to listen to it, never dreaming I could wind up sitting next to those guys. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was arguably the most incredible period of my life.

When Leon Breeden assumed the directorship, the young department was at a crossroads. There was a long-standing stigma attached to jazz and its artists—not altogether unwarranted—and the idea of bringing that element into the college classroom was not greeted warmly by many in the NT hierarchy; I knew this from firsthand accounts from friends and colleagues who were music majors with contacts in all genres of the music school.

What Mr. Breeden brought to the table was a legitimacy (not to imply Gene Hall did not) that jazz desperately needed to survive over the next few years. His credentials were impeccable, even to the most severe critics, and he maintained a professional rapport with fellow faculty members that I could not see existing had some of the more flamboyant jazz personalities of the day been in that position.

Remarkably, while navigating this administrative tightrope, Leon was still somehow able to inspire a talented, diverse group of guys to produce some of the most innovative music ever created to date. Then, at semester’s end, came the festivals, and that same bunch would pack those egos 4-deep into whoever’s car was running for the drive to South Bend or Georgetown. Breeden’s long-suffering ‘57 Chevy, hauling a trailer full of instruments, was a familiar sight on the side of the road.

No one could have envisioned that, only a few years later, the band would be making those trips on chartered flights. So many great things were to come, due in no small part to the sacrifices made during those formative years. I was gratified to learn that, approaching his retirement, Leon finally received some of the credit he so richly deserved.

Leon Breeden’s contributions to Jazz Studies at North Texas and in colleges and universities both nationally and internationally could fill a book, but several milestones are particularly worth noting:

It was under Breeden that “North Texas State Lab Band” became “The One O’Clock Lab Band” and this marker of time became synonymous with quality. His autobiography identifies April 11, 1961 as a pivotal moment, as it was the date of the first full concert that identified the top band as the One O’Clock Lab Band.

In the early 1960s, Stan Kenton first heard the One O’Clock Lab Band (or as he called it, the Number One Lab Band), and was astounded. Breeden began a collaboration with Stan Kenton that included collaborating at the Kenton Clinics and a Lab Band appearance on ABC television in 1966; this resulted in Kenton’s donation of his library to UNT and the naming of Lab Band West, the One O’Clock Lab Band’s rehearsal hall that had been added in the 1978 expansion of the music building, in Kenton’s honor.

Stage band contests had brought Gene Hall and Leon Breeden in contact with judges who included Voice of America’s jazz radio host Willis Conover. By 1962, Conover was broadcasting recordings of the One O’Clock to a global audience on his nightly program.

In 1964, Breeden welcomed the band’s first Black member, Billy Harper, almost a decade after the university began to integrate. Harper graduated in 1965 and hit the ground running as a distinguished leader and sideman, playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Elvin Jones, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Max Roach’s quartet, and Gil Evans in addition to leading his own projects.

The year 1967 brought a State Department-sponsored tour of Mexico, followed by a summer trip to the White House to perform with Duke Ellington and Stan Getz for President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson and the king and queen of Thailand. The late king Bhumibol Adulyadej was himself a composer and jazz saxophonist, and he met the band again on its tour of Thailand in 2004. Ellington was also impressed by the encounter and was quoted as saying that after hearing the “kids” of the One O’Clock Lab Band, he was going to go home and call a five-hour rehearsal. In addition, 1967 saw the inaugural album of the band’s annual album series with Lab ’67.

The ascendancy of the band – and with it, the profile and reputation of jazz education – continued into 1968. While the band was reaching a new high point, Breeden pressed on through a crushing low point in his life, grieving the death of his 19-year-old son Danny in a hit-and-run accident in February of 1968. The band grieved with Breeden and supported him as they prepared for the Music Educators National Conference in Seattle. There, the band played for over 3,000 of the top music educators in the United States. As they waited to play, one band member told Breeden: “Tell them not to open that curtain. We’re going to blow it open in memory of your son Danny!” Indeed, the band brought the house down, and gave the first encore in the history of concerts at MENC conferences. Breeden later wrote in his autobiography:

It was wonderful to receive letters from many parts of the United States from administrators who said in effect: ‘After hearing your band in Seattle, how can we get such a program started at our school?’ I wrote and gave them the best advice I could, namely that it will take a strong desire on the part of many people and also must be given strong support by your administration if your program will succeed! This always reminded me that at our school we would not have survived if the desire had not been so strong on the part of all of us. I felt in summation that we succeeded in spite of and not with the help of many who could have helped us but did not.

The band followed its North American travels with a transatlantic tour in 1970, in which the One O’Clock Lab Band was the official band of the Montreux Jazz Festival and was recorded and broadcast on the Armed Forces Network. The band returned to Europe in 1976, playing in Portugal before undertaking an extended tour of the Soviet Union and its major cities. In this tour, Breeden wore a custom pair of cowboy boots with “NTSU” on the front of the right boot, and “JAZZ” on the left. These boots came to the UNT Music Library with the rest of Breeden’s extensive archive.

Breeden solidified the program’s reputation as a place where students learn to be well-rounded professionals by studying the jazz tradition and by adding to it with their own compositions, arrangements, and improvisations. The degree title was changed from Dance Band to Jazz Education in 1975, in a year that coincided with the first of the One O’Clock Lab Band’s seven Grammy nominations for Lab ’75, which featured compositions and arrangements by Lyle Mays. The first and only collegiate jazz band to achieve this honor, the One O’Clock Lab band earned a second nomination for Lab ’76.

Beverly Dahlke-Smith was the first woman to ever play in the One O’Clock Lab Band; she played baritone saxophone on Lab ’76. She has since gone on to have a prolific saxophone career playing as a member of the “Late Show” Band, appearing in the “Heat is On” music video with Glenn Frey, recording on dozens of movie soundtracks, television (“The Simpsons,” “The Family Guy”) and broadway shows, not to mention albums with numerous artists (Dwight Yoakum, Jimmy Buffett, Kansas, Bette Midler, Dianne Reeves, Kirk Franklin). Beverly has had the distinctions of being the only female instrumentalist in the Les Brown Band of Renown, the first female instrumentalist in the Harry James Band and the first woman to be a full-time member of a studio band for a TV talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show.”

As the ’70s went on, Breeden hired faculty who had long, influential tenures, including Jim Riggs, Dan Haerle, Rich Matteson, Jack Petersen, and Paris Rutherford, strengthening the program’s institutional standing. Rutherford built upon a group of singers initially put together by Lew Gillis to sing jingles for a commercial arranging class to form the Jazz Singers in 1979. The ensemble has gone on to perform in a variety of high-profile national and international festivals and win numerous awards, and the vocal jazz program has grown to include three additional groups.

New Directions and New York Connections

Pianist and composer Neil Slater succeeded Breeden as director in 1981. He brought a New York sensibility to the program and established the Jazz Lecture Series in 1982 to bring top jazz musicians, mostly from New York, to perform and speak with students. He hired faculty who would have a lasting impact: Mike Steinel (trumpet, improvisation, pedagogy), Ed Soph (drumset), Fred Hamilton (guitar), Lynn Seaton (bass) and David Joyner (jazz history).

The undergraduate degree title was changed to Jazz Studies in 1981. A master’s degree was added in 1983. Later in the 1980s, a distinct degree program for vocal jazz emerged, and it has since grown to serve around 20-25 students at any given time. The university’s name changed from North Texas State University to the University of North Texas in 1988. According to John Murphy, the previous name has nonetheless proven quite durable, with the name change being, “a fact that continues to be overlooked by journalists and musicians—and everybody who wants to seem hip by pretending they knew about it before the name changed.”

Under Slater’s leadership, the One O’Clock Lab Band added two more Grammy nominations, including “Got a Match?” from Lab ‘89 and one for his composition “Values” from Lab ‘91; toured Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Thailand, and all the major European festivals; and recorded live in Montreaux, Australia and at Blues Alley. Starting in 1995, the Glenn E. Gomez International Artists Endowment for Jazz Studies has brought distinguished musicians to meet with students and perform with the One O’Clock Lab Band and other student ensembles.

Slater’s era also saw the beginnings of the diversification of the program’s faculty and curriculum. When Stefan Karlsson succeeded Dan Haerle as professor of jazz piano and small group coordinator, he became the first full-time Jazz Studies faculty member from outside the United States (Sweden). When classical and jazz trombonist Tony Baker joined the faculty of the Division of Instrumental Studies and began teaching lessons to jazz trombonists, he became the first Black full-time professor to teach in Jazz Studies. Rosana Eckert joined the faculty in 1999 as not only the first recipient of an MM in vocal jazz from UNT but also the first woman and Hispanic faculty member to teach in the division. In 2003, José Aponte, another alumnus who had been involved in leading early Latin jazz projects as a graduate student in the 1990s, returned to UNT as director of the Latin Jazz Ensemble. Designated a Lab Band in 2010, they have recorded five albums, including their most recent project, 5th Harvest, released as part of the 75th anniversary of the program. They have performed at numerous festivals; worked with guest artists Michael Spiro, Ignacio Berroa, Luis Conte, Manuel Valera, Duduka da Fonseca, and Danílo Pérez; and received multiple DownBeat awards.

Transitions and Traditions

The 2008 retirements of Neil Slater and Jim Riggs, followed by that of Paris Rutherford the next year, began a period of renewal during which the program adapted to a changing music profession and jazz education market while holding fast to fundamental values of tradition, student creativity, and professionalism.

Because the university had begun to require more administrative work by chairs, Dean James Scott separated the roles of division chair and director of the One O’Clock Lab Band, which until then had been filled by the same person. John Murphy was named to the chair position to advise graduate students while continuing to teach history, analysis, and research. Trombonist, composer, and alumnus Steve Wiest, recently hired in a new jazz composition line, became director of the One O’Clock Lab Band.

Wiest’s high-energy, jazz-rock influenced compositions continued the band’s tradition of pushing the envelope and resulted in two Grammy nominations for Lab 2009, one for best large ensemble jazz album and the other for best instrumental composition for his “Ice-9.” The band continued to perform extensively across the United States, including headlining such festivals and jazz venues as the Jazz Education Network Conference, Texas Music Educators Association events, Monterey Jazz Festival, Catalina’s, and Birdland where they released a three-piece live video. They also toured internationally, returning to both Thailand and the United Kingdom. Wiest collaborated with donor and alumnus Bill Collins III, an anonymous donor, and the UNT Music Library to bring the library of Maynard Ferguson, Wiest’s former employer, to UNT in 2008. He also founded the U-Tubes jazz trombone ensemble, which has won national recognition.

Most of the current faculty joined the department after the end of the Slater-Riggs-Rutherford era, bringing fresh perspectives to the already robust program. Vocalist and composer-arranger Jennifer Barnes became director of the UNT Jazz Singers and the first woman to be a full-time, tenure-track faculty member in Jazz Studies. Her efforts in collaboration with the UNT Music Library led to the donation of the Gene Puerling library of vocal jazz arrangements to UNT in 2014, and she has begun publishing her editions of Puerling’s arrangements. Brad Leali, who succeeded Jim Riggs as professor of jazz saxophone, became the first Black full-time, tenure track professor in the Division of Jazz Studies. In addition to his applied lesson teaching, he directed the Three O’Clock Lab Band and coordinated the small group program. Composer and drummer Rich DeRosa succeeded Paris Rutherford and added orchestral and new media emphases to the composition and arranging curriculum.

Upon Wiest’s departure in 2014, lead trumpet specialist Jay Saunders, who had succeeded Jim Riggs as director of the Two O’Clock Lab Band, directed the One O’Clock Lab Band for two years and added the seventh Grammy nomination, for Rich DeRosa’s composition “Neil” (in honor of Neil Slater) on Lab 2015. Saunders led the band on their return to Australia, headlining the 2016 Generations in Jazz Festival. Composer-arranger Alan Baylock became the One O’Clock Lab Band director in 2016. A UNT alumnus himself, Baylock enjoyed a successful and prolific career as chief arranger for the United States Air Force’s Airmen of Note before he returned to North Texas.

As the 2010s continued, Tanya Darby succeeded Jay Saunders in the lead trumpet teaching role and directed the Three O’Clock Lab Band before departing to chair the Brass Department at the Berklee College of Music. The expertise of new faculty continues to expand and enrich the experience of jazz students at UNT: Quincy Davis as professor of drumset, Davy Mooney as professor of jazz guitar, Philip Dizack as professor of trumpet, and Dave Meder as professor of piano and coordinator of jazz improvisation. When health issues forced John Murphy to retire after the fall 2019 semester, Rob Parton, professor of jazz trumpet (lead emphasis), assumed the chair role, and musicologist Kimberly Hannon Teal was hired in 2021 to teach jazz history, analysis, and research.

To help students meet the changing demands of the music profession, adjunct instructor and lead trumpeter Jason Levi created and taught a music business class. With the help of Dean John Richmond, new faculty lines were created in popular music and technology, taught by Jonathan “Capital” Patterson; jazz strings, taught by violinist Scott Tixier, who re-established the Jazz Strings Ensemble as a faculty-led ensemble; and jazz trombone, taught by Nick Finzer, whose media company/jazz record label Outside In Music provides a model of entrepreneurship. This fall, Jessica Muñiz-Collado and Federico Llach joined the faculty to teach music business and commercial music.

Other recent developments in the curriculum include the addition of a doctoral degree in 2012 and a refreshed undergraduate curriculum designed to help jazz majors grapple with the music’s past and future. The new program centers jazz’s African American history with its inclusion of 15 credits of courses that make up the Africana Studies certificate, and it also provides space for students to pursue a minor in commercial music alongside their Jazz Studies major as they prepare to bring their jazz knowledge and skills to contemporary music careers. Jazz at North Texas continues to thrive by building on its remarkable history while preparing students to be at the forefront of the music’s future.

Reflections on 75 years of North Texas Jazz

Isabel Wilkerson opens her book on caste in the United States with the metaphor of a house:

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), page 15.

As the program looks back on its first 75 years and imagines its future, we are surveying our 75-year-old house. In addition to surveying our program’s achievements, it’s important to look in the basement: to check its foundation, to address its failings, how it has been perceived over time, what its effects on jazz education and the music profession have been, and how its enduring values can be adapted to the continuously changing music profession.

Segregation, Race and Inclusion

Not surprisingly for a program that was started in a still-segregated university, race in particular and diversity and inclusion in general have been continual concerns, in various ways. Gene Hall’s 1944 master’s thesis on the dance band curriculum, regarded as a founding document of the program, includes an overview of jazz history that credits Native Americans, not Black Americans, as the originators of swing rhythm. He ignored the consensus of jazz writers of the time and adopted the view of a fringe commentator. In his 1991 oral history interview, Hall was asked by historian Michael Cogswell, “Did you have any black students in the program?” Hall replies, “No, we didn’t have any black students because this was not an integrated school until--what--1954 or 1955.” Interviewer Ron Marcello states, “The first graduate student was accepted in 1954, and actually it began accepting its first black undergraduate students in the spring semester of 1956.” Gene Hall replies:

Well, that year we had some good blacks come in. There was a guy who is still active around Dallas. He played saxophone. He plays piano now. I can’t think of his name. We had a good tenor man and a good baritone man come up from Dallas. Both of them were good tenor men—both saxophone. We were all delighted to have them because they improved the band. But about a couple of weeks later, I got a note from [then university president] Matthews to the effect that, if we played on our campus, it was all right; but if we went off the campus, we couldn’t use them in the band. So I had to tell the guys, and they left the school. I don’t blame them, but I had to be honest with them about it. I said, “Here is the way it is. What can I say?”

In this and other ways, the interview is a reminder that Hall was a product of his time and place. He was born in 1913 in Whitewright, TX, a small town near Sherman, the population of which has never exceeded 2,000, and spent much of his early musical career in a music business that was as segregated as the rest of society in those years. His choice not to make an issue of including black musicians in off-campus performances may reflect a reluctance to take actions that would jeopardize the continuation of the recently established program, which had faced opposition from faculty and community.

Guitarist and alumnus Don Gililland provides the perspective of a white player on the racial divide in the bands in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in the early 1960s:

I had been playing professionally for several years prior to NT, first with some outstanding high school colleagues and later with all-black bands (the legendary Buster Smith for one), where I gained valued experience. This was short-lived, however, as the black ensembles became popular in some of the mainstream Dallas venues. Sadly, while I had been accepted and welcomed at private parties and all-black functions, the still segregated downtown supper club scene was not open to integrated bands and I was let go.

At North Texas, the atmosphere was totally different. In the bands, and campus-wide, the diversity was apparent and harmonious, a stark contrast to what I was experiencing just a few miles away.

Regarding the job with Buster Smith, mentor of Charlie Parker, Gililland recalls:

Actually I inherited the job from a fellow classmate and mentor, Steve Rodriguez. We were making a whopping $8 a night playing in a strip club I was too young to even be in. I had no idea at the time I was in the presence of greatness.
The separation of the music scene into white and black spheres—not to mention separate locals of the American Federation of Musicians—was accepted as normal. White and black musicians in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area in those years worked in separate spheres. There were exceptions in the case of private parties or smaller clubs. But the larger venues expected bands to be segregated, and country clubs required all of the musicians to be white.

Trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago also studied at North Texas in the early 1960s. His experiences here, as relayed by George Lewis, provide a glimpse of what studying in the program in the early years was like for black students:

Bowie’s subsequent experience at North Texas State University, where he was part of the earliest crop of jazz students in the first degree-granting program in jazz in the United States, proved first enlightening, then daunting. Given the presence in the community of such amazing musicians as saxophonists Billy Harper, James Clay, and David “Fathead” Newman, Bowie found the atmosphere at the school itself incongruous, to say the least. “I’m trying to figure out, how can these motherfuckers be up here studying black art, and got the audacity to be racist? I went there one year, then dropped out.” [Quoted in George Lewis’, A power stronger than itself: the AACM and American experimental music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 137-138]

A well-known saxophonist of color who attended UNT in the late 1980s told me that he transferred away from UNT due to racist incidents experienced off-campus.

The jazz program, like any undertaking of imperfect human beings, has at times fallen short of being optimally welcoming and inclusive. This has been addressed in several ways in recent years. In 2018, in the context of the #MeToo movement, when fresh reports were made of instances in which faculty and students had treated each other with less than the respect they deserve, we acted. I collaborated with the university’s Division of Institutional Equity and Diversity to offer training sessions for faculty and students. Those who didn’t already know what a microaggression was found out. A committee of faculty and students designed a survey, which, after review by Equity and Diversity, was administered and studied as a basis for more training sessions for faculty. A student group, supported by Tanya Darby and me, formed the Women in Jazz Initiative, later renamed the Jazz & Gender Equity Initiative, both of which included all genders in their memberships. More of an effort was made to invite women as guest artists and to make sure they had opportunities to perform and to act as musical mentors, not only as speakers on women in jazz. Recent examples are residencies by Maria Schneider and the Terri Lyne Carrington group.

In 2020 the honorific naming of Kenton Hall was removed, and the name reverted to Lab Band West, due to concern from faculty and students about a 2010 book by Kenton’s daughter in which she claimed the two had a sexual relationship.

The jazz studies faculty is more diverse than ever. Of the fifteen full-time faculty whose primary division is Jazz Studies, four are people of color and three are women; a sixteenth line, in popular music, remains unfilled at the time of writing.

We’re moving in the right direction. If the program is to deal effectively with the legacy of its founding, it must continually reflect on how well it is meeting goals of diversity and inclusion. Our 75-year-old house needs continual maintenance.

The North Texas Jazz Program as Model & Target

Once a program has become prominent as a model of excellence, it’s not surprising that it then can become a target of criticism. When higher education in jazz is critiqued by journalists and scholars, our program and a few others are frequently cited as examples of the downsides of the shift in the way young musicians learn the tradition: from the bandstand to the classroom. Such critiques underestimate the degree to which professors’ traditional knowledge acquired on the bandstand and on the road is passed on to their students, many of whom will shortly have road experiences of their own.

During my time as chair, I tended to give more consideration to critiques by journalists and scholars in proportion to the time they have spent here in person, observing classes, listening to rehearsals and performances, and talking with students, faculty, and staff. In some cases the time spent in Denton has been zero, yet their opinions were published anyway.

The most meaningful critiques of our program are the ongoing ones provided by students, faculty, and staff. There is a strong sentiment that, while we are still a prominent program, and still attract highly capable students, we can always do better. In formal evaluations and informal exchanges, the students let us know when the program could be preparing them better. The faculty and staff actively seek ways to improve their teaching and the curriculum. Another source of constructive criticism has been the guest artists who visit regularly, especially those who are here long enough to coach and rehearse with our students.

A Program Based in Denton

The history of the jazz studies degree included in this program identified the actions and motivations of the people responsible for founding a world-class jazz studies program in Denton, Texas, which had a population in 1950 of around 20,000. This place has had a significant effect on the experience of the program’s students. For those from even smaller Texas cities and towns, it represented a new kind of sophistication. Composer and trombonist Morgan Powell recalls:

I came from Archer City, TX of Larry McMurtry’s movie The Last Picture Show fame. Larry and I grew up in this dismal town of 1,400 people. We went on to be house mates in Denton—Larry as a sophomore and I a freshman. I was used to wearing cowboy clothes—Levi’s, pearl snap shirts and boots. After the first rehearsal day of the lab band in ‘56, several older members took me aside and said, “look boy, if you’re going to play in this band, you’ve got to get rid of that cowboy outfit.” And I did.

For students from larger cities and the coasts, Denton could feel like a town that was very small. The fact that there was little to do was a plus for their musical development. Bill Collins III recalls:

Denton was a small, boring town when I arrived from the big city of Ft. Worth. There was very little to do, and no distractions. Instead of being tempted to go see a great movie, or concert, I would find myself so bored that I would go practice. I didn’t have to make time to practice, there was nothing else to do in town. The school had a lousy football and basketball program compared to others, so I had hours to practice. The small-town environment is perfect to promote practice with few distractions. It worked for me because my playing improved much faster in Denton than in Ft. Worth thanks to the overall environment (small town, great faculty, great peer players, great writers, etc.). The environment is the key part of learning and growing, in my opinion.

What students then and now appreciated is the fact that the cost of living in Denton is relatively low compared to a larger city. The rental house that hosts jam sessions is a fixture of student culture. It’s close enough to Dallas and Ft. Worth to allow frequent gigging. Denton has typically had clubs where students could play for their peers, though too often for no pay. For much of the program’s history, when tuition was regulated, tuition was easily affordable. Even after many increases, UNT’s tuition is less (in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars less) than that of other nationally prominent jazz programs.

Denton has incorporated jazz in its civic identity. In 2011, when train service began between Denton and the Dallas transit system, it was named the A Train, after the Billy Strayhorn composition.

“Values”: What has Endured, What has Changed, and What’s Ahead

Over the 75 years the program has gone from an outsider program, one that required a name other than jazz, to the pride of the university. This has been accomplished through the collective efforts of the faculty, staff, administration, and largely the students themselves, whose accomplishments continue to shine light on the value of their experience in Denton, TX. The North Texas Jazz program is now lauded by the very institution that once shunned it.

During my tenure as chair, when I described the program to prospective students and parents, I typically described our mission this way:

Our mission is:

• To prepare students for careers as professional musicians. This doesn’t mean only performing; it could be stated as preparing students for careers as professionals in music, which could include composition and arranging, music education, music production, music business, and so on. It also obliges the program to adjust its curriculum as the demands of the music profession change.

• To ensure that students are knowledgeable about the jazz tradition. In each studio, in each professor’s unique way, students learn that “it didn’t start with me,” and that they need to internalize that history through listening so that they can make music with an awareness of who came before.

• To encourage student creativity. What’s traditional in jazz is to know the tradition and then add to it by making music that speaks to what it means to be alive right now. Many of us like New Testament Basie, Sarah Vaughan’s scatting, and the Blue Note records sound, but it’s not the 1950s–60s. We’re not relaxing between takes at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. We’re dealing with 2021, so the music should sound different.

Looking ahead, I envision continual improvement, as the program is revised to prepare students for the music profession they will enter. I expect the program to maintain what Neil Slater often stated as a reason for our success: “Full. Time. Faculty.” And I have confidence that the creative drive of our students, faculty, and staff will propel the program towards its centennial.