Time was when the words "music" and "North Texas State University" (as the University of North Texas was known until 1988), used in the same sentence, invariably conjured the names of pioneering jazz educator Leon Breeden and his famous One O' Clock Lab Band, as well as the sound of Stan Kenton charts and Maynard Ferguson-aping scream trumpeters. But music in the academy ain't what it used to be. Avant-garde icon Anthony Braxton has been teaching at the collegiate level since the mid-'80s, and UNT currently has a Frank Zappa class, taught by the chair of the Division of Composition Studies, no less.
On Monday, April 16, at 8pm, 20 students from the current class will perform Zappa compositions, including "Chunga's Revenge" and "Cosmik Debris," as well as an original improvised piece by the student ensemble, in a free concert in the UNT Music Building's Voertman Hall. Performing with them will be two veterans of Zappa's '70s and '80s bands, one of them with a UNT connection.
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Keyboardist Tommy Mars (né Mariano), a Connecticut Yankee who brought classical chops and jazz improvisational fluency to Zappa's bands from 1977 to 1982, was immortalized on celluloid when he appeared in the film Baby Snakes, a documentary that juxtaposed performances from Zappa's Halloween show at New York City's Palladium Theater - a tradition beloved among Zappaphiles in the Tri-State area, of which this writer was one - with the hallucinatory claymation of animator Bruce Bickford. In a band that also included musical personalities as striking as drummer Terry Bozzio and guitarist-singer Adrian Belew, Mars was still a standout, playing difficult charts with aplomb and providing visual comic relief with his corkscrew hair, shades and wise-ass demeanor.
San Antonio native and UNT grad Arthur Barrow, whom most fans wouldn't recognize if they saw him walking down the street with his instrument, played bass with Zappa on five tours, starting in 1978, and a dozen albums, including Joe's Garage, You Are What You Is and Them Or Us. Barrow overdubbed bass tracks on the '80s CD releases of classic '60s Mothers of Invention albums We're Only In It For the Money and Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, eliciting howls of protest from Zappaphiles, which forced the composer to re-release the albums with the original tracks restored. Barrow also served as the "clonemeister" for Zappa's bands, leading the musicians through grueling days of rehearsal, a role he's reprised for this UNT residency.
The class - which focuses on the social commentary embedded in Zappa's writings, interviews, and TV appearances, as well as his music - has been in UNT's curriculum since 2001, and instructor Joseph Klein says it attracts students from a variety of disciplines, not just music majors. The concert, which is free and open to the public, affords student musos the opportunity to share the Zappa experience with a couple of guys who've actually been there and done that. Fans who shelled out to see Zappa Plays Zappa at Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie a few seasons back might want to consider making the trek up to li'l D.