By Marc Phillips
“The truth is, Andrew, I never really had a Charlie Parker. But I tried…and that’s more than most people ever do. And I will never apologize for how I tried.”
By now I assume that most jazz aficionados have watched Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash. I’m a fan, especially of the final heart-pounding musical sequence, but after watching it for the first time I came away with a couple of interesting questions. First, are university jazz programs really that heated, competitive and intense? Second, are these students really playing at that high of a level, or is this just another case of Hollywood pumping up the volume for dramatic effect? Damien Chazelle did base his script on his own experiences as a jazz drummer, but really?
Recently, my questions have been quietly and steadily answered. Over the last 18 months, I’ve reviewed well over 100 contemporary jazz releases. It’s been quite the education. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of these modern albums aren’t the product of the 21stcentury professional equivalents of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. Some of the most interesting titles I’ve explored are released by people with the curious title of “Professor of Jazz Studies,” or some variation, from university music programs from all across the United States. In just the last few weeks alone I’ve been wowed by the University of Cincinnati’s Phil DeGreg (Queen City Blues), the University of Louisville’s Gabe Evens (The Wrong Waltz), North Carolina Central University’s Baron Tymas (Montreal) and the University of Central Florida’s Flying Horse Big Band (Big Man on Campus, The Bat Swings!).
I’ve also learned that the dynamic world depicted in Whiplash is, for the most part, real—perhaps without the histrionics.
Late last autumn, I received a couple of boxes of CDs in the mail from the University of North Texas’ Division of Jazz Studies. This lauded jazz program is celebrating its 70thanniversary by releasing three compilation CDs along with a couple of new releases. These five albums, 11 CDs worth of music in total, chronicle most of the UNT program’s recorded output since 1967. (That’s when the seven-time Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band started releasing their recordings annually.) One O’Clock, the premier big band in the program, is also joined by the Two O’Clock Lab Band and the Three O’Clock Lab Band. There are seven separate lab bands in total, and they sort of represent the same alternate-core hierarchy as found in the Damien Chazelle film but with slightly different ensembles in each classroom. But, as these CDs reveal, there are truly great performances found at each level—at least in the One and the Two.
First, I must offer a disclaimer. While I believe that Terence Fletchers exist in the real world, my only reason for bringing up the film is to show that quality, professional jazz is flowing from these university programs. My legal team, such as it is, would like to gently suggest that no parallels be drawn between the beloved musical directors and other educators who have resided at UNT over the last few decades and that Oscar-winning guy from the Farmers’ Insurance TV commercials.
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Legacy is a great place to start since it’s the most comprehensive survey of UNT’s jazz output. These four CDs covers the output of the One O’Clock Lab Band under the direction of composer Neil Slater, who led this ensemble longer than anyone else. Each disc covers a decade—the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the 2000s and a final disc that is labeled “A New Era.” As you listen from the beginning, you’ll immediately notice that the recordings during the 1980s are less than state-of-the-art. They sound more like those pre-stereo historical recordings, small and flat-sounding and preserved primarily for the performances. I can only imagine that the recording facilities at UNT became more sophisticated as the program built its reputation and budgets for the department increased, since discs two through four sound just as professional as any major record label release.
Despite the technical shortcomings of the early years, it doesn’t take long to realize there was incredible talent and discipline under Slater’s tutelage. Slater seemed to be universally loved by students, faculty and audiences. Rich DeRosa, a UNT alumni and protégé of Slater who later became part of the faculty—more on him later—wrote a tribute to him later simply titled “Neil.” (If the students at the Shaffer Conservatory had done the same thing, “Terry” would probably evoke Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breaking My Heart.”)
“This boxed set is the most significant and ambitious release in the history of the jazz program at North Texas, and that is saying a lot,” says Craig Marshall, who serves as UNT’s lab band manager and producer. In addition, you get a beautiful 168-page booklet full of photos and notes from these performances. As I mentioned, this is the place to start since it provides such a comprehensive survey of the program while under the guiding hand of its most treasured mentor.
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This album covers the group down the hall from the One, the Two O’Clock Band and their recordings under the direction of Jim Riggs. While the title seems a bit odd, like something out of the Windham Hill catalog in the early ‘80s, it actually refers to the unique phrases that Riggs coined while behind the podium that also included “dart your air,” “more point on the bass sound” and “listen to the cymbal taps.” In addition, Riggs had a reputation for wandering off the podium during rehearsals and wandering amongst the musicians, looking for ways to manage the overall sound through the tiniest of details such as repositioning musicians and equipment. Perhaps Riggs was also an audiophile.
This somewhat ethereal approach to direction is thought to have influenced the sound of the Two—they enjoy a reputation of being carefully rehearsed into perfection. These three CDs are jam-packed with all types of big band jazz, everything from “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” to an inspired version of “O Sole Mio.” Riggs has a greater affinity for Latin jazz than Slater and pushed his students into more rhythmic grooves with tunes such as “Samba Nice” and “Que Pasa Bossa.”
In comparison to the One under Slater, Rigg’s sound with the Two is less about impact and more about lightness and finesse. That’s notable because it is said that the road for a spot in the One went through Riggs. In other words, you had to master the delicacy and subtlety before you could go big and brash at UNT.
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Nice! might be the result if you combined the sound of the Two with the punchy presentation favored by Neil Slater with the One. Saunders, who led the Two between 2008 and 2014, spent many years as a trumpet player with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and he has a superb instinct for swing. He led his students with a singular vision, of preparing them for a professional career once they left UNT. Surprisingly, he comes off as an anti-Blanchard—he was known for his quiet modesty and the careful and considerate way he treated his students. He felt that a student couldn’t perform well unless they were feeling good about themselves.
That dedication and love for professional jazz is perhaps why Nice! comes the closest to what you might hear in a swanky ballroom instead of a classroom in Denton, Texas. Saunders doesn’t extract the same big and brash sound as Slater, nor the focus and precision of Riggs. His band sounds looser, more relaxed and, surprisingly, more dynamic thanks to his history as a trumpet player. The brass sections seem to play an even bigger role here than under other directors, and they leap and jump almost constantly.
I’m also mightily impressed with the sound quality on this collection—it sounds cleaner and more focused than some of the other UNT recordings. There’s also a more joyous feel to these tracks—Saunders was known for his enthusiasm and positive attitude, which was deeply connected to the morale of the performers. You can hear this feel-good attitude all the way through both of these CDs.
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This one isn’t a retrospective like the last three sets, but rather the annual release by the One, the same one they’ve been doing since 1967. This one is special, however, because it marks the 70thanniversary of the program. It’s also the first time in thirty years that the annual series is being released in LP, which I think is remarkable. (Unfortunately, I only received this on CD.) The sound quality is spectacular, however—this is the modern-day One with all of the bells and whistles when it comes to recording technology.
Lab 2017marks Alan Baylock’s first year as director of the One, which also promotes a “retrospective point of view” according to John Murphy, the chair of UNT’s Division of Jazz Studies. “This year’s tracks show that our students are just as creative and forward-looking as those of previous decades.” I suppose that might be an obstacle in comparison to the other CDs in the set—can Baylock reveal his character and influence in his first year? It’s hard to say since the vibe of Lab 2017 is so consistent with what we heard from the final CD in Legacy.
Neil Slater’s shadow must be large inside the One’s lab, but I suspect that Baylock will make his mark given enough time. It helps, of course, that he went through the UNT program himself, which is why there’s a looming sense of tradition in this recording.
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Perseverance focuses on the compositions and arrangements of Rich DeRosa, who serves as the UNT jazz composition/arranging studies director at UNT. DeRosa is present on almost all of these 70thanniversary releases for UNT, such as “Roundabout” on Lab 2017 and “Neil” on Legacy, but this CD is all DeRosa, all the time, performed by both the One and the Two. Professor DeRosa is actually quite accomplished—his compositions and arrangements for UNT have been nominated for several Grammys over the years.
This CD, however, has a very different feel from the others. Perhaps it’s due to the preponderance of original compositions—other than unique arrangements of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”—and DeRosa’s willingness to work toward the outside edges of big band jazz. He takes more chances in these arrangements and shows off a wider complement of moods in his scoring. He’s ambitious, as you’ll hear in the epic closer “Suite for an Anniversary,” which is performed by the UNT Orchestra. Composed for UNT’s 125thanniversary, this piece jumps out and impresses with its size and scope. I’d like to hear this performed at UNT’s football games.
It’s taken me a few months to really absorb all the music on these 11 discs, I have to admit. It’s a gigantic chunk of jazz history from a region that isn’t known for its jazz. I can see why Damien Chazelle set his film in New York City, a place where the frantic and barely controlled energy seems to feed this type of music. What kind of film would Whiplash be if it was set on the UNT campus?
I’ll tell you something, though. I lived in Texas for more than four years, and my favorite jazz club of all time, The Elephant Club, is located in a basement on Congress Street in downtown Austin. So much talent has flocked to UNT over the decades, and so many young musicians have left the campus ready for the big time: Bob Belden, Tim Ries, Chad Willis, Jeff Coffin and many more. I know one other thing from living in Texas—someone with Terence Blanchard’s attitude might get his ass whupped a few times and run out of town on a rail. The jazz program at UNT has a big, kind heart as well as a lot of talent, and this collection shows a calmer and happier side of big band music.
You can purchase these recordings, along with the others released during the program’s 70 years, at http://store.music.unt.edu/. All of the proceeds go back into the program—a worthwhile investment.