Before moving to Pensacola in 2003, Kat and I lived in Denton, Texas, home of the University of North Texas (UNT), where I completed possibly the longest master’s degree program in history – six years – leading to a Master of Music Degree majoring in Jazz Studies.
In 1964, when I was in high school jazz band in Altus, Oklahoma, UNT, which was then North Texas State College, was my dream college to attend. I auditioned and visited the campus, listening with awe to a concert that featured all of their Lab Bands (that’s what they called their large jazz/stage bands). Mostly for financial reasons, that dream was put on hold.
Thirty some years later, the dream reappeared. I could afford it. I had an opening in my schedule. And they approved my admissions application. There I was – an over 50-year-old, retired U.S. Air Force aviator (25 years) with a rather old Music Education Degree, some old band directing experience, some musical talent and experience, and a 30-year old Conn Constellation trumpet that I had resurrected and was working to sound better on. So enter I did – to a musical world full of young, highly talented musicians from all over the World. Boy, did I fit in.
And why did it take me six years to graduate? Well, for one thing, earning a masters degree in jazz studies at UNT requires proven proficiency or requisite course completions at the undergraduate level. That means you either show up for your masters program as a professional jazz performer listed on a Downbeat Jazz Poll, or you have earned a suitable undergraduate degree in jazz, or you have to take most of those UNT undergraduate courses in progressive order – you can’t just skip from Improv 1 to Improv 4. The latter option was my road to the mountain top. But hey, I had some time, and it was a fun journey.
UNT Jazz Studies was like a musical meritocracy. Neither students or faculty cared about your non-musical experiences or credentials. Your previous rank in the U.S. Air Force or your leadership and management experience or your age or lots of other things made little day-to-day difference. It was all about your last jazz solo or arrangement or other school performance in a very competitive environment. Neil Slater, then head of Jazz Studies, conferred with me well into my program, that getting in was one thing, getting out with a degree was quite another. Dan Haerle, a renowned pianist and one of my instructors, told his class something like: one of our jobs here is to help you in making your career choice in the field of jazz. In other words, maybe it’s not really the best fit for you.
One of the highlights of attending the UNT Jazz program is playing in one of the Lab Bands, or large jazz ensembles. The term Lab Band came from the historic experimental nature of often playing student arrangements/compositions and exploring new frontiers of jazz. Bands were named by the hour they met: one o’clock thru eight o’clock (the last 2 actually met earlier using a second room). The upper level bands met in the Kenton Hall Monday thru Thursday. All the bands were very good to excellent. The top one o’clock and two o’clock bands were highest level professional quality.
Placings, band and part/chair (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), were by audition each semester. The jazz staff would deliberate our audition performances and assign placings in the various bands. The results, typed on 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, would then be posted in the foyer of Kenton Hall for all to see. Hundreds of students would mass around the bulletin board to see what their fate would be for the upcoming semester. I remember being happy and sometimes sad at my placing. I was mostly in a solo position (4th or 5th trumpet part), which I liked, in bands ranging from 6 to 3 o’clock.
I was often disappointed to not make the one or two o’clock bands. It was considered the UNT badge of honor and ultimate sign of success. I worked and tried hard and gave it my best – and never made it. Once, I felt really good going into the auditions – this could be the year, I told myself. I looked at the placing sheets and found my name as 4th trumpet in the 4 o’clock lab band. Not only that, but one of the trumpet soloists in the one o’clock was a freshman. It turns out, he was really good. Welcome to the competitive world of jazz.
Staying in the upper two bands could also be a challenge. They were very unforgiving of any lapses in proficiency or participation. I remember a young trumpeter who made the one o’clock and in the first week announced to Neil Slater that he had a conflict with one of the scheduled concerts. A new guy was in place the next day.
Once when I was in the 6 o’clock band the lead trumpeter from the one o’clock substituted as lead with our band. The rule was, if you can’t be at a rehearsal, you must arrange a substitute. No exceptions were allowed. Your honor was at stake. Anyway, he was sight reading, so you might expect an occasional small error. None were made. He played perfect. I was impressed.
I did sub in the 2 o’clock a couple of times. The first time I remember, and learned a lesson, about what it is like to play in a top level ensemble. The slightest imperfection – hold a note a little longer than the others, crack an attack, not perfectly in tune in a unison section – made you stand out like a shark fin at the beach. You are motivated to bring your best skills and attention to the task at hand. When great players do this – great music happens.
The Lab Band music library was huge and diverse. Lots of original charts from famous big bands. Stan Kenton willed his library to UNT, and we played quite a few Stan Kenton charts. Always copies, never originals, which were of course quite valuable. Kenton charts were fun and exciting to play. Characterized by BIG sound. BIG climactic parts with VERY LOUD brass with VERY HIGH lead trumpet parts. And by the way, the 8 UNT jazz bands were all set at Kenton size: 5 saxes, 5 trombones (with 2 bass trombones), 5 trumpets (solos split between 4th and 5th players), plus piano, guitar, bass and drums.
I remember playing Bill Holman’s Malagueña in a 3 O’clock Lab Band concert at a high school in Dallas. The lead trumpet part is one of the most difficult I have ever seen – super high, with some fast fingering and complex note combinations. The other trumpet parts are also challenging. In one climactic part the whole section plays the melody in unison up to a high D above the staff, over the very big sound of the rest of the band. Very exciting!
So there you have it. I did graduate (that’s what DG really means), and we moved to Pensacola, mostly because of the beach, but also attracted by the musical and jazz scene in our beautiful area.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 years experience at UNT Jazz.
And, for those interested, I plan to write more about some other UNT experiences. Next up: improv classes and playing in UNT jazz combos.