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Your day starts at 8 a.m. with history. Or music theory. Maybe chemistry. After that, you take a second to scribble out some homework and inhale a brief lunch before it’s time to tune up for your daily ensemble rehearsal with your assigned band. There’s an hour penciled in for time at the studio, composing and recording an original 10-track CD. Then, eat dinner quickly because right after, a classmate is giving a recital and after that, another friend is playing a gig at a local bar until midnight. Then it’s off to bed because class starts again at 8 a.m. tomorrow.
This is the life of a University of North Texas (UNT) Jazz Studies student. “It’s music all day long,” Professor John Murphy summarizes. “We are one of the nationally top-ranked programs in music generally, and in jazz particularly.” A former UNT student, Murphy spent his undergraduate years playing saxophone with the One O’Clock Lab Band, the most famous of the program’s nine lab bands, and now chairs the division of Jazz Studies.
UNT jazz students have gone on to do all sorts of amazing things, from launching their own singer/songwriter career to playing backup for Lady Gaga. In some ways it’s harder than ever to make money in an industry dominated by streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, undoubtedly convenient, but paying artists—the grand majority of which are not Kanye West—fractions of pennies. On the other hand, the same technology has made connecting to a wide audience much easier, if one is able to harness it. To that end, alongside performing and composing, students are also trained in practical skills like grant writing and self-promotion. They graduate UNT equipped to navigate the industry and ready to perform at a professional level, whether it’s jazz, rock or Gregorian chant. “Whatever they pursue,” Murphy agrees, “they’re doing it with a high level of artistry.”
For example, the One O’Clock Lab Band, a 19-piece student band, has received seven Grammy nominations over the years. It’s no surprise that UNT has produced such streamlined success; theirs was actually the first jazz degree program in the world, founded in 1947, and since then, music students from all over the world have flocked to Denton to study among the very highest caliber of musicians.
Murphy describes diverse classes where “on one side could be a Texas All-State musician from Plano, and on the other side is a graduate from one of China’s top music schools.” Diversity is one of the program’s greatest strengths, bringing together many varied musical experiences for a continually shifting sound.
“Professors expect a professional level of playing so that they know what to expect once they start their careers,” Murphy says and explains that a career in music is more varied than one might expect. Jazz Studies prepares students for it all.
It’s working. Graduates are scattered around the world and they’re leaving a bold mark. Alumna Kaela Sinclair’s debut album, “Sun & Mirror,” snagged a feature on CMJ’s Monthly Mixtape, a song premiere by Paste Magazine, national airplay, a tour in the U.K. and rave reviews.
Horace Bray’s self-produced album “Dreamstate” which features ten original compositions was met with wide acclaim and whispers of award nominations.
Snarky Puppy is a group of UNT graduates who are held up as some of the major players in the jazz world with three Grammy awards under their belt: Best R&B Performance in 2014 and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016–and 2017.
The music industry is in a constant state of flux where there is not one road to success, but many. Students from UNT travel them all.
Good to know: One O’Clock Lab Band has a special concert on February 23 with guest artist Stefon Harris at the Winspear Performance Hall at UNT. They’ll also have their own stage at the Arts and Jazz Festival: a free festival in Denton happening April 28–30.