The University of North Texas College of Music in Denton is one of the nation's premier institutions for musical training and education. Prominent alumni include Harry Babasin, Gene Roland, Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Belden, Lou Marini, Conrad Herwig, Jim Snidero, and Norah Jones. In 1947 North Texas State Teachers College (as the current University of North Texas was then named) became the first university in the world to offer a degree in jazz, and over the years the university has solidified its reputation as one of the preeminent institutions for the study of that genre.
From the beginning, music was a part of the UNT curriculum. A "Conservatory Music Course" was offered as part of the university's initial "Nine Full Courses" in 1890. The complete course in music, lasting forty-four weeks, required private lessons that had to be paid for, in addition to regular school tuition. These classes ran at a rate of $200 for the complete course, while regular tuition for a forty-week school year was only $48. President Joshua C. Chilton himself taught the first classes in the history of music and the theory of sound. John M. Moore, a Dallas Methodist bishop and teacher of mathematics and engineering courses, taught the classes in voice culture and harmony. Mrs. E. J. McKissack was also a teacher of music and may have served as the director of the music conservatory. Between 1917 and 1919 the school purchased land for the construction of expanded campus facilities. Included in the purchase was the former residence of past president Joel S. Kendall. This two-story frame house, known as Kendall Hall, became the Music Hall and served the department in various capacities until 1940.
Music-oriented activities played an important role in the extracurricular life of early North Texas students. As early as 1897, an Orchestra Club and a Mandolin and Guitar Club were organized. By 1920 extracurricular activities, including choral clubs, had become so distracting to many students that a point system was instituted in order to limit participation in them. In 1925, when motion pictures first came to the campus, a student pit orchestra was formed in order to provide music for the films. Faculty member Floyd Graham, who organized the orchestra, saw it as a means of providing income to the students who participated. Extracurricular musical clubs of the day also included the College Choral Club, Girls' Glee Club, Men's Glee Club, College Band, and College Orchestra.
The year 1938 was one of the most important in the development of the North Texas music program. Under the auspices of President W. J. McConnell, the music department was greatly expanded. Dr. Wilfred C. Bain was appointed to head the department, and under his leadership, several new initiatives were taken, including an enhanced degree program. The school began offering five degrees in music: bachelor of science in music education, bachelor of music in music education, bachelor of arts in applied music, bachelor of arts with a theory major, and a band master's certificate. At this time, an a cappella choir, which appeared on WFAA radio, was formed, and the college had a marching band, a symphony orchestra, a college band, and a stage band called "Fessor Floyd Graham and His Aces of Collegeland."
McConnell and Bain's plans for an improved music school immediately paid off. On December 17, 1939, the National Association of Schools of Music admitted North Texas as an associate member, the first such accreditation for the college in a discipline other than teacher training. In 1940 the association granted North Texas institutional membership, with Bain serving as the association's national vice president.
In 1940 the music program's success was rewarded with funds for expanded facilities. The board of regents voted in May to provide $70,000 for the construction of a combination male dormitory and music hall. Revenue from the fees charged the dorm residents was used to repay bonds sold to generate the construction funds. The three-story music facility opened in March 1941. Although the new building contained classrooms and practice rooms as well as a broadcasting studio, it still did not house the entire music department, which had practice rooms and studios spread throughout the campus.
In 1945, when the institution became North Texas State College—a name that reflected broader offerings than mere teacher training—an administrative reorganization gave the school of music its own dean. The Jazz Age also came to North Texas in the 1940s. Former students such as Harry Babasin, Gene Roland, and Jimmy Giuffre began making a name for themselves in the West Coast music scene. Famed bandleader Stan Kenton also began recruiting North Texas musicians for his orchestra. In 1942 Bain asked Morris Eugene "Gene" Hall, a graduate student in music, to write his thesis on proposals for a dance–band music-degree program at the university. Hall's work became the basis for the world's first university degree in jazz. The dean of music, Walter H. Hodgson, asked Hall to head up the founding of the new program in 1947. Of central importance to the program was the formation of a practice band—or "lab" band—for which students were given credit for participation. The Two O'Clock Lab Band, named for the time at which it met, became the first of these.
In 1959 renowned multi-instrumentalist and arranger Leon Breeden succeeded Hall as the head of the jazz program. Breeden moved the practice time of the Two O'Clock Lab Band up an hour, giving it the name it has today, the One O'Clock Lab Band. Under Breeden's leadership, the program earned nearly fifty national awards for individual and group performance. The One O'Clock Lab Band has shared the stage with musical greats, including Duke Ellington and Stan Getz, and has even toured abroad. Two albums cut by the band, Lab '75 and Lab '76, were nominated for Grammy awards, the first such college band albums to be granted this honor.
In 1963 the music program once again championed innovation in musical technique with the establishment of the Electronic Music Center, formed by composer Merrill Ellis. A Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater was opened in the new Music Building in 1983, and in September of that year the program was renamed the Center for Electronic Music and Intermedia. CEMI's key components involve experimentation with electroacoustic composition and the incorporation of various intermedia such as dance and visual–projection systems. In 1981 the program played host to more than 400 participants at the Seventh Annual International Computer Music Conference.
As a complement to the music program, the University of North Texas maintains one of the largest music libraries in the United States. It includes more than 300,000 volumes of material and 1,000,000 sound recordings. Many of the musical scores in the collection date to the earliest history of music publishing, and the recorded media range from Edison cylinders to the latest digital renderings. One of the centerpieces of the Music Library is the Stan Kenton Collection. At his death, bandleader Kenton left his entire orchestra library to North Texas, a collection made up of some 2,000 manuscripts.
In 1988 North Texas once again changed its name, this time from North Texas State University to University of North Texas. As the school has expanded into a university system, the music program has expanded with it. The UNT School of Music became the College of Music in 1995. The college maintains one of the finest performance halls in Texas—the Murchison Performing Arts Center which opened in 1999—as well as seven other performance halls, including the Margot and Bill Winspear Hall. It offers degrees in a variety of different disciplines, and has more than fifty performance ensembles that give nearly a thousand concerts a year. In 2015 the UNT College of Music—one of the largest schools of its kind in the United States—was staffed by 100 full-time faculty members, 200 adjunct faculty, as well as music technicians and administrators. The school enrolled approximately 1,100 undergraduate and 500 graduate students each year.