Leon Breeden, musician, arranger, educator, and band director, was born on October 3, 1921, in Guthrie Oklahoma. He was the son of Alvin and Marie (Sanders) Breeden. When he was about three years old, his family moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, where his parents operated a service station. Breeden recalled that, as a young boy, he sold a Coke to a young couple at the station; he later found out that the pair was Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Breeden learned the clarinet at an early age and later took up the saxophone. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth.
During World War II, he served as music librarian in the Unites States Army’s Sixty-ninth Infantry Division Band at Fort Bliss. He then attended Texas Christian University, where he studied composition and arranging, and earned a B.A. degree in 1945 and a master’s in music education in 1948. He was a band director at Texas Christian University from 1944 to 1949.
In the early 1950s Breeden lived in New York, where he worked as an arranging assistant to Don Gillis, producer of the NBC Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Breeden also wrote arrangements for Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, who offered him a permanent position as the orchestra’s staff writer and arranger. Breeden, however, declined the offer and returned to Texas to be with his ailing father. Back in Texas, he became a band director at Grand Prairie High School from 1953 to 1959.
In 1959 Breeden was recommended, by outgoing director M. E. “Gene” Hall, to head the Jazz Studies program at the school of music at North Texas State College (now University of North Texas). Breeden served as director of the program from 1959 until 1981. During his tenure, he dedicated his work to elevating the profile of the jazz program from an understated study in “dance-band” music (the term “jazz” had carried a disreputable connotation) to a highly-respected and recognized music curriculum that served as a model for other educators and institutions throughout the United States.
As head of the program, Breeden personally directed the music department’s popular Lab Band. Originally performing every afternoon at two o’clock, he changed the band’s rehearsal schedule to one o’clock and subsequently changed its name to the now famous One O’Clock Lab Band. Under his leadership, the band garnered international distinction and numerous awards. In 1967 the One O’Clock Lab Band performed for Lyndon Johnson at the White House along with jazz legends Stan Getz and Duke Ellington. The band performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1970. Breeden initiated the tradition of the band recording an album annually, and the ensemble received its first Grammy nomination in 1976. When the group accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1970s, the singer was so impressed that she requested the band to tour with her, but Breeden had to decline because of class schedules. The ensemble toured the United States, Mexico, Europe, and the Soviet Union and also performed for presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. In the process, Breeden and the band raised the overall stature of the music department and the university.
Breeden was named Outstanding Professor by the University of North Texas in 1976. The Texas legislature proclaimed May 3, 1981, to be “Leon Breeden Day.” Other honors included induction into the International Association for Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame in 1995. He received an honorary doctorate from TCU in 2001 and from the University of North Texas in 2009.
Breeden married Bonna Joyce McKee in 1945, and they had three children. After his wife’s death in 1988, he married Bennye Wayne Reid on June 18, 1990. Leon Breeden died at St. Paul Hospital in Dallas on August 11, 2010. He was survived by a daughter; two sons and his second wife had preceded him in death. He was buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in Denton.