Jazz, the Medium and the Message: Introducing The One O’Clock Lab Band

On an autumn Tuesday, around 12:47 pm, a group of players begin prepping for rehearsal in Kenton Hall. They set up their instruments, review their sheets. They greet their fellow players, maybe crack a joke or two. There is a vibrant kinship amongst these musicians. At some point, about 12:54 pm, most if not all of the players are sitting in their chairs. They tune and tune and tune. The tuning is not as pleasant as the sounds to come, but somehow it is still chilling and beautiful. By 1:00, the director arrives. His face, relaxed and ready. He looks at the players and the One O’Clock Lab Band rehearsal begins.

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The identity of our university is like a tapestry and our jazz scene is one of its most vivid fabrics. In 1947, UNT started offering the nation’s first jazz degree program which gave way to greats like Norah Jones, Snarky Puppy, Jeff Coffin, Ari Hoenig, and Charlie Young. The music faculty and students contribute a degree of talent and tenacity that makes our program one of the best nationally and globally. The seven-time Grammy-nominated One O’Clock Lab Band is just evidence of the jazz program’s success.

The founding director, Gene Hall, led the initial ensemble in 1947, then Leon Breeden, Neil Slater, Steve Wiest, and Jay Saunders followed as directors after. Alan Baylock serves as the current director.

“It’s called the One O’Clock because we rehearse at one o’clock,” Baylock explained. “The band has had dozens and dozens of very successful musicians come out of it. It’s a very elite group that is difficult to get in and stay in.”

Every semester, music students go through the rigorous audition process. During this week, two for drummers, players are tested on their ability to improvise various styles and tempos. Each instrumentalist experiences a bit of a different process, but the intensity is high for all of them.

“The drum audition is broken up into two stages.” One O’Clock drummer, Alex Souris said. “The first stage is just you and the drum professors in a room with some drums and you have to read these charts with no play on’s, no band. There is nothing else happening audibly except these charts.”

Drummers face the challenge of auditioning twice: first as individuals, then with the band as a whole. Once the members of the One O’Clock are selected from the general audition week, each drummer must then play alongside the top three bands to test compatibility and performance.

“The people that are selected from the first stage to move on, play with one of the top three bands in the second stage. That is difficult in its own way because now you have that audible context and you’re playing with real human beings, which is always nice, but at that point, the pressure is really on.” Souris said.

Players are expected to play anonymous charts in a way that demonstrates their ability to interpret and stylize the music.

“For the trombone audition, my professor will pull out three big band charts. They usually take the name off of them, so I don’t have a reference.” One O’Clock Trombonist, DJ Rice said. “It’ll just be one or two pages of music that I have about 30 seconds to look at. Then they go ‘okay go, here’s tempo’. And you just have to be able to nail it.”

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Jazz is undeniably one of the most compelling art forms. The music is full of melodic inventiveness and harmonic density, however, its significance is more than just notes and tempos. Both the genre and the culture embody a certain effortlessness that transcends fads and trends.

Jazz is the unification of players and their practice, the rhythmic translation of ideas and feelings. It is the spiritual hymns of the marginalized, the praises of the freed. It is a homage to the past and an entryway to the future. Like worn high tops and 90s hip-hop, it is timeless and, dare I say, cool. As a medium, it is full and as a message, it is fulfilling. The word alone suggests an array of meanings and concepts, but at its core, jazz is about and of the soul.

“I’m certainly no authority on this. I’m not the best person to answer to answer this question. I’m just the person answering it right now,” Souris said. “If we’re gonna talk about what jazz is, then we need to address that jazz is a protest music from an oppressed people that found an outlet to express pain, but also rose above and beyond that pain to express joy and solidarity within their own communities.”

“For me, there is a huge social part of this music. When I’m thinking about my part, my role,” Souris explained. “A big part of it is how I can contribute in a way that is respectful to that history and that pain, in a way that uplifts and reaches out to people that genuinely do have a more historically personal pain to this music.”

Souris grew up attending various College of Music performances with his father, but the One O’Clock ensemble shaped the way he viewed and played music.

“I’ve lived in Denton my whole life. To me, the One O’Clock lab band is all of those things in addition to being the first big band that I ever saw.” Souris expressed. “The One O’Clock lab band is a huge part of my musical development just in terms of sitting in the audience and seeing like, this is where I want to be.”

“It’s a very full circle moment for me. This will be the first year that I will not be sitting in box F in the Murchison for the fall concert because I will be on stage. That’s a huge thing for me.” Souris stated.

The complexity of jazz may intimidate some listeners. It’s easy to misunderstand its layers and then just dismiss it. However, if deeply explored, then people can access a new way of connecting to different ideas.

“It’s not as complicated as one might think. I think most people, even if they have a superficial understanding, when they listen to DJ play a wonderful solo in the syndicate, it will click for them.” Baylock said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just really hard work, a deep understanding of theory, and a lot of practice.”

Past directors led their ensemble players in a strict manner, but Professor Baylock prefers an encouraging style of leading.

“I hope to bring a nurturing, loving approach so I can mentor these young, outstanding musicians in a caring, supportive way,” Baylock explained. “I think that’s the era we live in. A couple of decades ago, when I was a student here, it was a different era.”

“I want the musicians to have fun. I like to crack jokes, to smile and laugh. But I definitely have an extremely high standard. If the musicians aren’t showing that they’re serious enough, then I’ll lose my temper or call them in here and talk to them very directly. I’m not afraid to say what I really think, but I want to approach it in a loving way.” Baylock said.

The ensemble’s rigorous expectations and brilliant talent make it especially difficult for undergraduate students to gain spots. However, this semester a large number of undergraduates are playing in the One O’Clock.

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“This band is really cool. Last year’s band, we had four undergraduates. Now we have 10 undergraduates, 9 grad students, and a DMA candidate.” Baylock said. “So it’s a much younger band. Something about the junior class, they’re killing.”

The band’s age has not lowered Professor Baylock’s standard though. He hopes that these new players can surpass the greatness of their predecessors.

“My goal is to have the band be the best One O’Clock that has ever existed,” Baylock stated. “We have that potential this semester. We’ve had it in the past, but I want to inspire and lead these musicians into the reality that this can be a historical group.”

Make sure to check out the One O’Clock Lab Band’s first show tonight in the syndicate at 9 pm. The amazing other lab bands will also be playing in the Union throughout the semester. For more information, check out the schedule on our website: http://studentaffairs.unt.edu/university-union/things-to-do/jazz-music-in-the-union

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To check out more information about the One O’Clock Lab Band, visit their website and social media accounts.

Website: https://oneoclock.unt.edu/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theoneoclock

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/oneoclocklabband/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/northtexasjazz