Leon Breeden, 1921-2010

September 9, 2010

A clarinettist and composer who played a pivotal role in establishing jazz studies as a serious academic discipline has died.

Leon Breeden was born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, on 3 October 1921 but moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, as a young child. He started early on the clarinet, much to the confusion of the chickens in the shed where he practised.

After high school, a brief period at Texas Wesleyan College and service as a music librarian during the Second World War, he completed his undergraduate and master's degrees at Texas Christian University, where he was also director of bands from 1944 to 1949.

He left higher education for most of the 1950s to work as a composition and arranging assistant in New York and then served as director of bands at a Texas high school.

In 1959, however, he was appointed as the second director of jazz studies at the University of North Texas College of Music, where he remained until retirement in 1984, from 1981 as a professor.

The university's jazz studies programme was the first of its kind in the country when it was created by Gene Hall in 1947, although - at a time when many conservatives viewed jazz as disreputable, ungodly or the work of drug addicts - the term "dance-band music" was often used instead of "jazz".

Rejecting such a timid approach, Professor Breeden was enthusiastic in his promotion of jazz both within and beyond the academy. For more than 30 years, he directed the university's leading ensemble, the One O'Clock Lab Band, which toured Europe, Mexico and the Soviet Union as well as the US.

It performed in the White House for presidents Johnson, Carter and Reagan, once with Duke Ellington. It also released an album a year, and became the first university band to be nominated for a Grammy.

If purists worried that universities were not the right places to train jazz musicians, they were proved wrong in the mid-1970s when band leader Woody Herman assembled a complete rhythm section from graduates of Professor Breeden's programme.

Academic commitments, however, meant that the One O'Clock Lab Band was unable to accept an invitation extended by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald to accompany her on tour after they performed with her at a festival.

Professor Breeden's eminence within his state was acknowledged by the decision of the Texas legislature to name 3 May 1981 Leon Breeden Day in his honour.

He died after an abdominal infection on 11 August and is survived by his daughter.


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