Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Remembering a Lion of Jazz Education

The world of music education, and jazz education in particular, lost one of its giants today with the passing of Leon Breeden after a long illness.

Breeden was the chair of Jazz Studies at my alma mater, the University of North Texas, from 1959 until 1981, and he brought national and international acclaim to the flagship ensemble, the One O'Clock Lab Band, during his time at UNT. Among other things, he started the tradition of recording an annual album (and two of those, Lab '75 and Lab '76, were the first collegiate big band recordings to garner Grammy nominations), and his relationship with the legendary bandleader Stan Kenton led to Kenton bequeathing his entire library to UNT upon his passing in 1979; the university would later bestow the name Stan Kenton Hall upon the larger of the two lab band rehearsal halls in the Music Building.

In retirement, Breeden spent a number of years on campus cataloguing the Kenton library (it was during those days that I had the privilege of working with him to deliver a talk for a series called Sinfonian Forum, as he was a brother in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, having been initiated into the Delta Mu Chapter at TCU in 1948). In latter years, he would make an occasional appearance as clarinet soloist with Jim Riggs' Original Texas Jazz Orchestra, and I had the privilege of being in the audience for many of those performances (one of which was chronicled here). He also capped off his long list of accolades with an honorary doctorate a year ago this week.

Having received some emails recently from Riggs (though, oddly enough, I have yet to get the one from today that announced his passing), I knew that the end was probably near; he was described as being "gravely ill" after a long emergency surgery back in July. (He had also lost his second wife back in April.) Still, a lot of us were cheering him on to a hopeful recovery; how great it would have been to hear a few more golden notes from that clarinet again.

It was said during Breeden's time at UNT that when he walked down the hall, the waters parted. He was truly a giant even among all the noted professors at the school, and his contribution to jazz education was immeasurable. Aa watched the Facebook tributes from UNT alums pour in, I wondered how many of us--even those who didn't major in jazz studies, including my own undergrad self--might never have attended the school if not for Breeden's work; his work to put the One O'Clock and the jazz area on the map also raised the profile of the entire school in those pre-Internet days; who's to say that UNT would have been anything more than a small regional school were it not for his accomplishments?

The name Leon means "lion" in Latin and several of its derivative languages. Leon Breeden was aptly named, for he was surely one of the lions of our discipline. R.I.P., Leon, and thank you for all that you gave us.

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