When it comes to music, the University of North Texas is a powerhouse.
Alumni accomplish amazing things, like performing with renowned opera companies, selling out concert venues and teaching at schools and universities across the country. But one group stands out. In this week’s Art&Seek Spotlight, Hady Mawajdeh focuses on world-famous One O’Clock Lab Band.
The One O’Clock Lab Band is arguably the most famous, skilled, professional-sounding big band at any college in America. It’s evident from their rollicking drum solos and bombastic horn play on the song “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To.” But that’s just the first track on their newest album “The Rhythm of the Road.” Alan Baylock directs the band. He says they had to come out hot to set a tone for the whole album.
“There are extremely talented students here, so the reputation precedes us,” says Baylock. “But we can’t rest on that laurel. We have to continue to move forward. The music is changing, and so we’re embracing that change and being out in front of that change as well.”
Baylock, a Pennsylvania native, has composed music that is performed throughout the world. And after serving 20 years as Chief Arranger for the USAF Airmen of Note in Washington, D.C., he’s a sought-after jazz composer and educator. He took over the One O’Clock three years ago. He says it’s been a treat.
“Oh! It was really special. And it’s kind of sinking in,” he says sheepishly. ” It’s still kind of surreal that I’m the leader of the One O’Clock because I did my masters here and I did a lot of writing for the band when I was here. But it’s a legendary institution.”
Senior DJ Rice agrees. He plays trombone for the One O’Clock.
“Being at such a high level all the time and the expectation that you’re going to do great things every time, no matter what the situation is, no matter how early it is you’re just going to be able to go in and nail it because you’re in this band and you’re the type of musician that deserves to be in here,” Rice explains. “All that’s been like icing on the cake for me.”
But what makes this band so special? Well, UNT’s Jazz Studies actually has nine large jazz ensembles. Each band has about 20 musicians. And musicians are assigned to bands by professors after an exhausting day of auditions. The best players make the One o’Clock band. And they rehearse at One O’Clock.
On top of that rigorous audition process, the One O’Clock has musicians from around the world come to the UNT Jazz Studies program in hopes of getting to play in this band.
“My band my second year, which was last year,” Baylock explains, “we had six different countries represented in the band. And that’s just in the One O’Clock alone. So we do get the top talent from around the world.”
Former Lab Band member Dan Higgins knows what it’s like to leave home and try to make the band. In 1976, he left school in Wisconson in hopes of playing with the One O’Clock.
“I had heard that North Texas was the place to be. And then I played with a couple of people who had played with members of the band. And I said, ‘Boy! I wanna play like that,” Higgins says.
Now, Higgins is a saxophone player in Los Angeles. He’s played in big bands at award ceremonies for Grammys, Emmys, and Oscars. And he’s recorded with icons like Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Lyle Lovett. Even still, he says playing in the One O’Clock is the real deal,
“And that environment just made me… just want it,” he says. “You wanna move up. And you wanna succeed. And then if you succeed at North Texas, it’s a little bit of an eye-opener because this is a microcosm of the United States’ players.”
Higgins says making it with the One O’Clock is like being a good college quarterback; you’re probably headed to the pros.
Denton music maker McKenzie Smith played drums in the One O’Clock. And since, he’s toured the world with his bands Midlake and BNQT. He also worked on the score to Robert Redford’s last film, “The Old Man and the Gun.” And he earned a Grammy playing with Annie Clark of St. Vincent.
After all of those accomplishments, Smith says making the One O’Clock is still one of the best things to happen to him during his musical life.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of things I’m really proud of and thankful for,” he says. “And I hope that I’ve been able to, you know, rack up some cool accolades that I can attribute back to the school, my time here, and I hope I’m just getting started.”
Past players have gone on to have great careers composing film and TV scores, playing with beloved jazz and rock-n-roll legends and even leading big bands on late night television. Plus, the university has birthed a chart-topper or two. We’ll have to thank bass player David Hungate for this song:
Alumni from UNT’s jazz program are virtually everywhere in the professional music industry. And the director says that’s because jazz music – and jazz musicians – are flexible.
“Jazz music is a wonderful type of music that can embody and embrace other types of music as well,” Baylock explains. “Jazz isn’t a stiff thing that you can put into a box. It’s a vibrant alive genre of music.”
This year about a dozen folks from UNT’s jazz program and the One O’Clock Lab band had ties to projects nominated for Grammys. Two of those projects won awards. One was a jazz record, the other was Cardi B’s “Invasion Of Privacy.” Proving jazz training can take you anywhere.
Note: This post has been updated to reflect that Annie Clark of St. Vincent is not a UNT alum.