August 1, 2008
Director of UNT’s Renowned One O’Clock Lab Band Retires After 27 Years
By John Austin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas
Aug. 1--DENTON -- Every musician dreams of going out on a high note.
"The crowd just wouldn't let them off the stage," said Craig Marshall, manager of the lab band, describing a concert in Italy on the 20-piece ensemble's just-ended tour of European music festivals. "I think it's the best trip we've ever done. It was a really neat way to end Neil's career."
After nearly three decades and more tours and recordings than he can count off hand, the Grammy-nominated Slater retires this month as head of jazz studies and the third director in the 50-plus years of UNT's best-known jazz ensemble.
"I've been here 27 years," Slater said. "Can't say I can't hold a job."
Colleague Steve Wiest credits the 77-year-old Slater with implementing a master's program in jazz studies and more than doubling the size of the jazz faculty.
"He's just been supercharged. Essentially, he came into the program when it was already world-renowned," said Wiest, himself a Grammy-nominated trombonist and Maynard Ferguson band alumnus who teaches trombone at UNT. "Neil came into the position and made it better.
Wiest will lead the lab band until a permanent director is found.
A few notes
A musician who began playing at age 6, Slater had a band, the Knights of Rhythm, and a local radio show by the time he was in high school.
Slater said he figured that Denton would be another stop on the road that had taken him from East Pittsburgh, Penn., to New York, where he played in the jingle industry and worked with luminaries such as Stan Kenton.
"I lived in New York City and got to meet many graduates" of the lab band, Slater said. "That was one of the reasons I came here. I knew it was a powerful jazz program even then, but from New York to Denton was kind of a shift. But when I walked into the school and heard everybody practicing, it sounded like New York."
Slater doesn't volunteer a lot of information and nixed a request to interview him at his Denton home, where he lives with his wife and composes. He's content to let the music speak for him.
"These are hard questions," Slater said, folding his arms, then grinning. "Is it time to get a drink yet?"
More notes with Neil Slater, retiring director, UNT's One O'Clock Lab Band People compete with hundreds of fellow students for a spot in your band. How hard is it to stay once you make it?
Well, you play for your chair every day. If you can't make it, you have to have a substitute. You must be there, you must be on time. If you're not, you're fired, just like in the real world.
What keeps the One O'Clock Lab Band in the limelight?
I think our international tours are very important. You can't be international if you never get out of the country.
Does it ever bother you to think that you're cranking out fantastic jazz players who face a very daunting time making a living?
Yeah, yeah. Business has changed quite a bit. But people come in, this is what they want to learn, you try to help them.
You've said you're going to continue playing and composing. Which will dominate?
I believe composing will be up front. The idea is you don't have to be there to get paid.
Are you deaf after all these years in front of the band?
My hearing is pretty good. I've learned to wear ear plugs.
Are you happy to have had the same job for all these years?
Yeah, the same good job. I do know how fortunate I've been.
More at www.jazz.unt.edu
What is the One O'Clock Lab Band? An jazz ensemble that includes percussion, piano, bass, drums, guitar five saxes, five trumpets and five trombones. The University of North Texas ensemble takes its name from its practice time: 1 p.m. to 1:50 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
Famous people who have come out of the program Pianist Lyle Mays, saxophonist Steve Duke, saxophonist Lou Marini, drummer Gregg Bissonette, saxophonist/arranger Bob Belden and a host of others.
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