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IT’S A JAZZ THING: UNT students have a 50-year legacy to swing from

By Marc Lee
When Gene Hall presented his master’s thesis at North Texas State Teacher’s College in 1944, he set off a debate about music and education.

The Development of a Curriculum for Teaching Dance Music at a College Level” led to grumbles of protest in smoky Harlem nightclubs, Kansas City bandstands and the sweltering streets of New Orleans: “You can’t teach jazz.” “Jazz is a lifestyle.” “You either get it or you don’t.”

Even today, 50 years after the college (now the University of North Texas) plugged into Mr. Hall’s vision and offered the world’s first jazz degree, the questions continue.

Classical music is written, for the most part. Jazz, on the other hand, is mostly improvised. Where rock is controlled, fist-pumping fury, jazz seems to spin headlong out of control. Jazz is about freedom to do anything; there are almost no rules. How do you teach that?

You can’t really, says Neil Slater, who, as director of UNT’s jazz program, is in charge of teaching 400 students the unteachable.

“It really has to come from the heart. It’s like having a baseball clinic and you’ve got Mickey Mantle there. And you say, ‘Look, Mickey, here’s a baseball bat and I’m gonna teach you how to swing it.’ You don’t really have to. He already knew that before he was born.”

Rosana Calderon, a jazz studies master’s student and member of UNT’s Jazz Singers, says her instructors do give her one piece of advice. “They say, ‘You gotta listen, you gotta listen, you gotta listen.’ ”

Apparently, having big ears has worked. Alumni from all over the globe bop into Denton this weekend to celebrate the program’s golden anniversary with concerts and events, building Saturday night to an all-star alumni show.

Some record on major labels and score films and come from New York and L.A. Jim Milne holds the impressive title of music minister of Greenland. Many have steered themselves toward the less-glamorous, but noble, profession of teaching jazz.

Somebody must have taught these people something.

UNT’s jazz students look just like everybody else on campus. You can’t tell their heads are filled with flats, sharps, modes or paradiddles. They burst out of the dorm early in the morning, wearing whatever clothes they found on the floor, anything that passes the “smell test.” They
hang outside between classes and talk to friends.

A minor difference

But that’s not a backpack they’re lugging around. It’s a guitar or a horn. And their notebooks are full of quarter and eighth and whole notes, not notes on biology or history.

Inside the music building, bulletin boards offer private lessons instead of algebra tutoring. Fliers urging students to “Come see this band” are outnumbered by fliers screaming “Come BE IN this band.”

“This is like New York,” says Ms. Calderon, who will be the first vocalist to receive a jazz studies degree when she graduates. “I mean, how did [legendary jazz trumpet player] Clifford Brown learn? … How did all of them? They were in this kind of atmosphere.”

The school is a tight, self-sufficient band of players, singers and composers whose members learn from each other, book gigs together, share music and, above all, play.

It was the same when Bob Dorough, creator of Schoolhouse Rock and composer-singer of possibly the most cynical Christmas carol ever, “Blue Xmas,” attended in the late 1940s.

“There was a little jazz community in Denton,” he says. “We used to read the latest Down Beat and order the latest records, then call up our friends and say, ‘Hey, man, I got this record!’

“That activity started as an underground thing. We’d all get together and jam.”

Extracurricular gigging is just as important as class work. Ms. Calderon sometimes works at Avanti on McKinney. One O’Clock Lab Band saxophonist Art Hayes leads a quartet Wednesdays at Cedar Street; and everybody plays weddings.

It’s fun, they get paid and maybe scam a few free drinks. But on the bandstand is where they perfect their playing. Better to make a mistake there than during an audition at school, where a few false notes can sometimes make the difference between passing and failing.

The pressure to perform perfectly can be nerve-racking. Although Ms. Calderon is a jazz major, she has to study classical music and perform it – solo – for a jury of experts.

“I work so hard at my classical. A week, I probably work eight, nine hours on my opera.”

She grouses good-naturedly that “it’s ridiculous” to spend so much of her time on opera. But in the voice department, she says, “they’ll flat-out tell you to change your major: ‘You know what? I think you should pursue other things.’ It’s very competitive and I’m completely intimidated.”

Yumiko Sunami, who came to UNT as a voice and theory major after receiving her law degree from Osaka University in Japan, remembers being “very nervous” during her first jury. She had no vocal training. Now she’s a master’s stUdent in composition.

The program revolves on competition. “It’s the driving force,” according to Ms. Calderon, especially among instrumentalists who play musical leapfrog over one another to make it from one of nine lab bands to the next.

Their goal: the One O’Clock.

It’s simply the nature of the music business, says Mr. Slater, who also directs the One O’Clock. “A track record is so important in many things that we do. But with a musician, it always seems like the last note you played is what people are judging you on.”

For musicians, making a band is the equivalent of having a stellar resume.

“I always say it’s like going to Harvard Business School,” he says. “When these guys get out of school, they’re all going to be hiring each other for the rest of their lives. Because they trust each other. They know what they’ve been through and they know who’s good and who’s not.

“Competition always … [brings about) a lot of hurt feelings,” he concedes.

But students don’t take it personally, says Ms. Calderon. “We’re all on the same side. It’s not like anybody ever goes, ‘He beat me and I hate him.’ It’s ‘He beat me and he’s great.’ ”

Well-known alums

The competitive atmosphere at UNT has produced a steady stream of well-known alumni: Lyle Mays, of the Pat Metheny Group; drummer Greg Bisonnette; producer, composer and pianist Bob Belden; guitar wizard Herb Ellis; saxophonist and composer Billy Harper; multiinstrumentalist Jimmy Giuffre; and on and on.

And for every ego-crushing moment, there’s an instant of exaltation.

“When I was in my third jazz arranging class, I didn’t think of writing big-band music at all,” says Ms. Sunami. “But … [her instructor, Paris Rutherford] said, ‘I’ll give you a scholarship, but your requitement is that you have to write for big band.’ And the next semester, the Two O’Clock Lab Band was playing my charts. It was great. I was so surprised, I didn’t think my music would sound so good.”

But the learning process doesn’t stop after Denton.

Mr. Dorough remembers when he left Denton he wasn’t accepted at Juilliard. But he continued to learn, jamming at loft sessions with bebop greats such as Charlie Parker. Later, he went on to record with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and now has a solo career, which includes the recently released Right on My Way Home.

Ms. Calderon isn’t interested in going to New York or Los Angeles. She isn’t interested in being “fastpaced and da-da-da,” she says.

She wants to do what many have said cannot be done: teach jazz.

“I want to teach young people, or old people … whatever, people … how to use their voice better. How to appreciate this music so that it doesn’t die.”