The average jazz listenerwhoever that might bemay never give a thought to how his favorite musicians learned their art. There was a time, long past, when most professional jazz artists reached proficiency through on-the-job training. Music departments in institutions of higher education took decades to recognize jazz as a serious branch of music. Older jazz players who majored in music can tell you stories of being disciplined or, in extreme cases, thrown out of school for jamming in practice rooms. That changed. I haven’t done a survey, but my educated guess is that the majority of professional jazz musicians at work today studied in a college or university jazz program. One of the key agents of the change was Leon Breeden of North Texas State University. Breeden died yesterday. He was 88. Here’s the beginning of a 1979 Texas Monthly piece I wrote about him.
Fifteen or twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable for a major jazz leader to select key players from recent college graduates. But the quality of musicians on the college level has improved so dramatically in recent years that in the mid-seventies Woody Herman hired his entire rhythm section right out of North Texas State University in Denton. North Texas State’s lab band progam, under the direction of Leon Breeden, led the way in showing that properly trained and disciplined youngsters can produce superior music.
Jazz education has been a part of the NTSU music program for 32 years, and although other universities have occasionally produced impressive student bands over the past couple of decades, Breeden’s have been consistently noteworthy for their polish, unity and flair. His understanding of the requirements of jazz ensemble playing, and his ability to make his students understand them, have resulted in playing that has aroused envy in professional musicians.
To read all of that 31-year-old article, go here. For The Dallas Morning News obituary of Breeden, go here.
This video, posted today by an admirer, presents a summary of Breeden’s career and importance, with photographs and musical evidence of what he achieved. It begins with his own words.