July 6, 2008
UNT Jazz Program Set for New Direction As Longtime Leader Scats
By David Flick, The Dallas Morning News
Jul. 6--DENTON -- Neil Slater has faced many challenges in his 27 years as chairman of the University of North Texas' Jazz Studies Division.
But convincing young musicians that they can learn America's most urban art form in the middle of the Texas prairie has not been one of them."I've never had any problem recruiting," he said. "The reputation of the school is out there."
Last week, Mr. Slater, 76, led the school's famed One O'Clock Lab Band on the start of a three-week tour of European jazz festivals.
After he returns, he said, he will clean out his desk and begin retirement, which officially starts Aug. 31.
The next steps are less specific. He intends to continue to live in Denton and maybe play some gigs at local clubs.
It will bring to an end a tenure in which he not only ran the Jazz Studies Division but directed the One O'Clock Lab Band (named after its rehearsal time), was instrumental in founding a jazz master's program and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship grant.
He did so with enough time left over to compose more than 60 pieces, one of which, the multisectional "Values," was nominated for a Grammy in 1993.
Tim Ries, a former student whose resume includes stints with Maynard Ferguson and the Rolling Stones, played in the One O'Clock Lab Band when Mr. Slater took over in 1981.
"He very definitely put his own stamp on it," Mr. Ries said. "He gave us the freedom to play, but he could be very brutally honest with the students."
Even his praise sometimes had an edge.
Mr. Ries was on Mr. Slater's first European tour with the band in the early 1980s, when they played some of the most prestigious venues on the continent, often sharing billing with the biggest names in jazz.
"I remember one day we were on the bus, and we were behaving like typical 20-year-olds, like we were teenagers on a vacation with their parents," he said.
When the bus arrived at the Antibes Jazz Festival, the group saw its name on a poster that also included Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and Ron Carter.
"These people were our heroes," Mr. Ries recalled, "and he pointedly said, 'For some of you, this may be the pinnacle of your careers.' He was telling us that if we wanted to go further, to be players, we had to be serious and have respect for ourselves and for our school."
More recent students say Mr. Slater hasn't mellowed.
Evan Weiss, who graduated this year, said, "If something sounds bad, he'll tell you it sounds bad."
But he said Mr. Slater's background as a musician gives credibility to his judgments.
"I guess the fact that Neil is a writer, he has an honest perception of what he wants the band to sound like. When he gives you a suggestion, it's not done as a pedagogue," Mr. Weiss said.
Still, he said, Mr. Slater could be intimidating to a young musician.
"When I was a freshman just joining the band, he handed me the book [of pieces the group would perform], and said, 'Don't mess this up.' "
The One O'Clock Lab Band will continue, and a national search will be conducted to replace Mr. Slater.
If Mr. Slater expresses disappointment these days, it is not with students but with the public.
"While jazz was invented in America, it seems like Europeans appreciate it more," he said.
It pains him, he said, that the musical genre he loves is not more popular.
"Pop music so often has been reduced to a rhythm. Boom, boom, boom, and that's all there is," he said. "You don't have to know anything about it, you don't have to do anything; you just listen.
"You have to listen to jazz; it's not something you just hear in the background," he said. "In jazz, there's a story -- and you have to follow that story."
Here is a look at the One O'Clock Lab Band's European schedule:
Today -- Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland
Monday -- Vienne Festival, France
Tuesday -- Concert in Lyon, France
Thursday -- Concert in Rudesheim, Germany
Friday, July 13 -- North Sea Jazz Festival, Netherlands
July 16 -- Tuscany Jazz Festival, Italy
July 17-19 -- Umbria Jazz Festival, Italy
July 20-22 -- Performances in Antibes and Nice, France
SOURCE: University of North Texas
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