Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Fitting Fermata for a Brilliant Career

Surely anyone with any connection to my alma mater knows that two of the mainstays of UNT's famed Jazz Studies program, Neil Slater and Jim Riggs, are retiring at the end of the summer. The DMN ran a nice feature today on Slater, who's taking the One O'Clock Lab Band to pretty much all the major European jazz festivals as we speak; that's quite a farewell tour, if you ask me.

Granted, the school was already in Field of Dreams territory by the time he arrived; it was built, and people came:
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."
But that doesn't mean that he didn't do a lot to build on what was already there:
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.
LIke many of the UNT faculty, Neil could be bluntly honest with students, but he was respected for that:
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.' "
Heh. Sounds like very little has changed since I was in school.

But today, Slater's complaint is with those who don't support our truly American art form in its home country:
"While jazz was invented in America, it seems like Europeans appreciate it more," he said.

[...]"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."
Read the whole thing, and be sure to watch the video of Slater and some of the bandmembers preparing for the European tour. And check out the itinerary:
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
As someone who got to perform at Montreux--nine years ago this week, as a matter of fact--I really wish I could be there to see today's show; with the seven-hour time difference, they're probably playing right about now. (And yes, I started this post at a specific time for a reason.)

Personal memorab-Neil-ia: As for me, I'll always be grateful to Neil for giving me an opportunity that had a direct bearing on what I do now. When we first met, I was an undergrad music-ed major who played in the "lower" lab bands, but I was also on staff at KNTU, which was always involved with the promotion of the One O'Clock's concerts and recordings. Still, I'll never forget when he introduced me to someone as a "fine saxophonist and broadcaster," and I'm pretty sure it was in that order. (Years later, he would let me teach the introductory class to the Jazz Lecture Series--giving a profile and musical examples of each artist who would be visiting--because he said I "had my KNTU chops together" and would likely do a good job.)

In grad school, I moved to a jazz emphasis (realizing that being a high school band director was not for me), and I moved up slowly but surely through the system. One spring, my fraternity put together a big band that, as fate would have it, ended up under my direction (probably because I was the one being the most vocal about the unorganized nature of our leaderless rehearsals up to that point). We managed to snag a spot in the event that's now called the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival, opening up for the One O'Clock and the Zebras (UNT's multi-keyboard ensemble). I thought it went pretty well, as did the audience...which included one Neil Slater. This led to a fateful conversation:

NEIL: Are you signed up for my class for the fall? (His class, "Conducting College Jazz Ensembles," was in fact something I was pondering for that semester.)
ME: Well...I could be, if you'd like me to be.
NEIL: You should take it, because I'd like to see you direct a lab band in a few semesters.

Need I say that I practically floated home? For someone who barely knew a lick (pun intended) of jazz before arriving at UNT, the prospect of actually directing a lab band was like a dream come true.

So I did take the class, during which (since I was the only person in their to raise his hand when the class was asked if anyone had any previous big-band directing experience) Neil threw his share of curveballs at me; I'm pretty sure the first chart he assigned me was an arrangement of "My Favorite Things" in 5/4 time. (He also assigned me one of his own tunes--one which had yet to be recorded. This dovetailed nicely with his preference for actual score study vs. practicing "conducting the recording." But talk about nervewracking..)

The result was that I did get to direct lab bands for two years: First the Nine O'Clock, and then the Six O'Clock the year afterwards. Many of the things I've done since then--being the interim director at my college while my colleague was on sabbatical, directing an All-Region jazz band, doing clinics at various schools, and co-founding a youth jazz band (which will rise again, mark my words)--have all been the result of Neil's being willing to take a chance on someone who never played in the One O'Clock (except for subbing on a dance gig) and had learned jazz from the ground up upon arriving in Denton. I'll be forever grateful for that opportunity.

It's going to be cool to see my old classmate Steve Wiest take over the One O'Clock on an interim basis next year; in fact, next year will be especially fun for me, since the majority of the jazz faculty will be people with whom I attended school. (I imagine that my Wednesday night Syndicate runs will increase in the fall because of this.) But still, it will be hard to imagine UNT jazz without Neil Slater at the helm. It sounds like he's getting a great send-off party this month, and I'm sure I'll have more to write when his official retirement ceremony happens sometime in the fall; I'll share my thoughts on Jim Riggs when he has his day in the sun as well.

3 comments:

IMHyde said...

Looking at the tour schedule makes me think that not only is Slater going out with a bang, but he's taking advantage of getting one last "paid vacation"! Don't get defensive, I know he'll be working, but I'm sure the band is finessed enough to not need much direction!!

I'm curious to see what direction the new leader will take....I think it's past time for a change; any program, corporation, etc. needs new blood to prevent it from becoming complacent and resting on its laurels!

Kev said...

Oh, no doubt the trip is a huge final "perk," but 1) he's earned it, for everything he's done over the years, and 2) getting to go to any festival like that is definitely the icing on the cake (with the cake being the hard work it took to get there). I certainly feel privileged to have gone to as many festivals like this with my own school, and I'm decades away from retirement.

But yes, Neil won't have to actually do much onstage; the bulk of the director's work is always done in rehearsal (I learned that his class, ya know).

And while the search for the permanent hire is still a while away, I'm looking forward to the "Wiest O'Clock" next year.

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