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Leon Breeden: He Set the Bar High
In 1959, when Leon Breeden arrived at the University of North Texas (then North Texas State College) to succeed Gene Hall as director of the school's Jazz Studies program, no one said muchout loudabout the program, which Hall had founded in 1946 and led under the guise of "dance band" music, as jazz had earned an unsavory reputation within the precincts of academia. Breeden set to work changing that perception, and by the time of his departure in 1981, the UNT Jazz Studies program was not only accepted but widely applauded as its flagship ensemble, the acclaimed One O'Clock Lab Band (named for its daily rehearsal time), became one of the nation's outstanding college-level bands, recording extensively and garnering half a dozen Grammy Award nominations between 1975 and 2009. In 1967, the One O'Clock Band shared the stage with Duke Ellington and Stan Getz in a command performance at the White House, and three years later performed at the prestigious Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival.
Breeden, who died from an abdominal infection August 11 at age 88, became renowned as one of the country's leading jazz educators and held the position of Professor emeritus of the UNT Jazz Studies program. When he came there in 1959, the program had 75 students and four lab bands; when he retired 22 years later, there were 500 students, nine lab bands and a library of more than 4,000 arrangements. Among Breeden's students were pianist / composer Lyle Mays, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and saxophonist Lou Marini. The program won admiration and praise from a number of jazz greats including Ellington, singer Ella Fitzgerald and bandleader Stan Kenton who willed his entire big-band library to UNT. Breeden, who grew up in Wichita Falls, TX, was a clarinetist, saxophonist, composer and arranger who before taking the reins at UNT was music director at Grand Prairie High School and band director at Texas Christian University. He played in bands at NBC Radio and wrote arrangements for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops as well as for the Cincinnati and Cleveland orchestras.