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.
Once again I would like to thank you for recognizing our living artists and for remembering those who are no longer playing. I never knew Leon Breeden personally, but I knew his name and I knew about the One O’Clock Lab Band through my high school biology teacher, Galen Jeter. Mr. Jeter was one of Leon Breeden’s students. Through his infectious enthusiasm for the Lab Band and the music itself, Mr. Jeter instilled in me an appreciation for jazz that I continue to cultivate and (I hope!) pass on. Multiply my experience by the hundreds or thousands of others who must have been similarly affected by Mr. Breeden’s dedication, and his legacy must be spread around the world by now.
Peter Kountz says
Leon Breeden is one those unrecognized legends in your institutional memory bank. Perhaps like some other Rifftides readers, I encountered and was touched by Leon Breeden. When I was a graduate student at The University of Chicago I ran the radio station (WHPK-FM) for a couple of years and wrote and hosted regular jazz shows, as well. One was called “Jazz Portraits,”(original, eh?) and over a period of 2-3 weeks, I did a series of shows on Leon Breeden and his lab bands at what was then called North Texas State University. This was in 1970-71, I think. We corresponded and he was, as always, exceedingly gracious and complimentary of the programs (I may have sent him tapes..) He had sent the station the early LP’s, beginning in 1967 when I first went on the air, and I was the only one who was interested in them. After I did his “Portrait” shows, LB sent me virtually all his recordings, including those of the other NTSU bands, on a regular basis. As you know, many of the recordings were amazing, way, way ahead of the Jazz Studies curve and, in some instances, so stunning as to be almost unreal.
Your early piece on LB documents the remarkable nature of his work and what a superb teacher-demanding and fair at the same time– he was. Growing up in Toledo, I played a bit with Jim Riggs who became a Breeden student and stayed on at NTSU to serve on the Jazz Studies faculty. From what I understand, Jim Riggs became the same kind of teacher.
There are so many ways in which you and Rifftides serve as an extraordinary institutional memory for the “middle years” of 20th Century American Jazz and I, for one am always moved by the people you remember and how you remember them.
Greg Henry Waters says
I did not know my own feelings about Leon until I heard he died.
I went to NorthTexas to learn about jazz. Since I was mainly a classical musician it took a long time to make the transition. NT was the only school at that time one could get an education in jazz, classical music and music ed. all at the same time. What I did not know was I wasn’t set out to be a teacher, but a performer, composer and innovator.
Leon had such a strong personality and had a vision for the lab bands. It was so organized how he set up the bands, auditions, and placement. I finally found a place were I could learn what I wanted too and had the time to do it. I was very shy about a lot of things and did not understand my own abilities. But this is why we go to school. I came down to Denton with two friends, Jim Robak and Don Erdman.
Leon had such inner strength which is something I just realized how it affected me. We wrote letters and I sent him LPs I made. He put my notes up on the bulletin board and wrote me a short note. Just reading that letter makes it clear how Leon thought about the development of jazz programs, that music wasn’t a competition, but an art to enjoy and understand. I find in NYC that it is more about who you know and competition than about music. Leon did not like NY for that reason, I believe. His standards were higher than that.
I was in the ’65-’66 one-O’clock band. I remember Leon standing right over me while conducting the band. Because I wanted to graduate on time I had to drop out of it the next semester to take some required classes. Leon was upset with me about that. Sorry Leon! We all loved you.
I was so lucky to know him and I just realized how much he affected me. Thank you, Leon. So few people really work for music, most just work for selfish interest. Leon was certainly not one of those people, but what we call a hero. Yes a hero.
Greg Waters says
Maybe there wasn’t much to write I do not know.
I just think his students could of taken some time to write something.
Your article only produced three comments. It is a shame.
Sandra Magers says
While I was not a music major, I took my first music course, a one hour “Forms in Jazz” class from Mr. Breeden in 1970 and it was so much fun. While we listened to great jazz music, we learned about his love for the genre and how to recognize what constitutes excellence in music. I will always be grateful to Mr. Breeden for his leadership in that class, in building and fortifying the One O’Clock Lab Band and making UNT a force to be reckoned with in the music world. Rest in peace, good and faithful servant.