When John Richmond got a call from the University of North Texas last spring, asking if he'd be interested in moving to Denton to head up its college of music, he already had 29 years of experience doing that exact thing at other major universities. In his shoes, another person might have thought, "I could do that in my sleep."
But when Richmond received the invitation, what he thought of was a university with 126 years of history, the second largest public university music program, and a 70-year-old jazz studies program, which made UNT the first in the U.S. to offer a degree in jazz. If he were to accept, he wouldn't come in guns blazing.
And accept he did, which meant leaving the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he'd spent the last 13 years. "That's a big ten university and a marvelous program, but there are few programs in the world like University of North Texas," he says.
UNT announced their new Dean of the College of Music May 23. He was moved into his new Denton abode within two months. "It was a quick move," he says. "Really fast; but it all worked out in a good way."
Richmond is a choral conductor — he makes what he calls "church music" — with an impressive pedigree. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and went on to get his bachelor's at William Jewell College, followed by a master's at University of Missouri at Kansas City, and a PhD in music education at Northwestern.
This week Richmond stopped by the Observer's offices to talk about his observations of UNT and Denton in his first year as dean, and his plans for the storied music program moving forward.
Dallas Observer: UNT's jazz program turns 70 years old this month. Anything big planned?
Richmond: We have this big set of recordings that we're going to release next month. So we're excited about that but it's far and away not the only thing we do.
We have two full symphony orchestras and a baroque orchestra, five choirs and on it goes ... wind bands and a marching band. The things that you'd expect to find but also other things like a West African drumming ensemble and a gamelan ensemble and a steel drum band and a percussion ensemble and all these other things. It's amazing.
I pledged when I came here to listen for a year. So that's what I've been doing, listening to folks talk to me about the history of the place, learning a lot about what goes on and trying to prepare myself to help the college accomplish what it says it wants to do.
We've had guests come in and talk about things that have happened at other places that are kind of like us and that are our peers. We've been doing some visioning. So that's a really thrilling part of this conversation. How do we continue to honor the traditions we've served so well while branching out into new areas of music expertise and performance and composition and arranging?
For example, yesterday we had on campus Bruce Broughton — he has more Emmys for music and television than anybody in history. More nominations than anyone in history. He's got an Oscar nominated film; many, many feature films that he's done. He writes music for theme parks. He's [done the] first orchestral score for a video game.
If it can be set to music, he can do it.
Well, that's exactly right. ... So we had him advising us about how we think about these possibilities. I discovered that we had a department of media arts [in the college liberal arts] ... they have a whole division devoted to game development. They do a lot of things. They have television shows that they're producing. Radio programs that they're producing. All that just begs for our collaboration.
So we've been exploring some of those possibilities, while at the same time making sure that we had the opportunity to hire two new jazz faculty because two of our most experienced, accomplished jazz faculty are about to retire.
As far as finding faculty for the jazz program, do you see it as an opportunity to bring in fresh blood or different kinds of instructors? Or is it challenging to attract the right talent?
That's such a good question. A lot of people were very interested to learn that we were going to be having these openings and so we sent out a formal notification to the world of professional music and we had a lot of applications come in.
Part of the challenge was then finding not only people with the musical expertise to do drum set teaching, or jazz guitar teaching but also people who have this breadth that we're talking about and who had teaching skills. You know, some musicians are magnificent musicians but not always the best teachers. They don't relate to young people well. They don't know how to break things down in manageable ways that students can then compartmentalize and practice and then reassemble for themselves.
So, we've already finished those searches and hired amazing people. We're bringing a young man, Davy Mooney from New Orleans, who had his undergraduate degree with us and then he went off to do a master's in New Orleans and a PhD in New York. So he has both these credentials but he's recorded with everybody and he's just got all these ... what musicians call "chops."
We found an American who was teaching drums in Canada but he had his career in the United States; first in Michigan and then in New York. Then he got recruited by this university in Canada but he wanted to come back to the States and he heard that North Texas was open. So he applied and we heard and persuaded him to move home. His name is Quincy Davis.
And we just hired a new Director of Opera who's going to be joining us from Pittsburgh. He's directed opera all around the world and is internationally known and celebrated. He has an affinity for and an enthusiasm for certain kinds of musical theater as well and we haven't done a whole lot of that in the past. And that has a broader audience and a broader relevance to American audiences and to Texas audiences.
What are your first impressions of the city of Denton? What has made it a good incubator for music?
There's a really welcoming spirit out there among the people. I just moved from the Midwest and Midwesterners pride themselves on their welcoming spirit. I've found that spirit transplanted into Denton.
The second thing I'd say is in our history. There was a guy who had my job decades ago, by the name of Wilfred Bain. Dean Bain had a real vision for this little place becoming a really important place for music. He just thought it was close enough to this big metroplex of Dallas-Fort Worth to be able to leverage the artistic heft of this community, but far enough away to allow students to be in that "incubator."
And that was before Dallas Fort Worth airport. Now, artists, prospective students and families easily come in from all around the world.
We have national merit finalists who are drawn to UNT in part because they want to study accounting, or they want to study pre-med — but they play the violin or they're a jazz trumpeter and they want to keep doing that. They don't want to stop at the end of high school, and we have the size and capacity to accommodate so many of those students. And they also want to come here for all the concerts and they want to hear the guest artists we bring to campus and they want to just be a part of that scene.
Now, those students graduate. Some of them do stay in the area but they keep making music because it's just central to their identity. So we have house concerts happening all over the city. As you walk around the square of Denton on any night, you hear live music on every edge of that square. It's a very magical place for people who love music.
You've said you're listening for a year before you come to any conclusions about what you would like your influence to be on the program. Can you share what some of your observations have been, even if you're not going to act on them yet?
What I found was a great benefit from this decision to listen ... conversations took place that hadn't taken place in a while, perhaps ever, in some instances. And people across this very big college with over 120 faculty and nearly 1500 students, they had shared enthusiasms they'd never talked about before. So I think that a certain part of our future will have to do with collaborations that we haven't seen before, within the college and among other colleges.
I'll give you an example. We have a new professor of music entrepreneurship and career development who has launched a new business plan writing course. She's had this competition to write plans and that's going to wrap up this weekend. There will be prizes — some of them as much as five figures. That's a lot, right, for a student to start a music business.
But lo and behold there's some business plan writing competition in the college of business and she reached out to and connected with the dean of that college. So that dean said, "Well your students are doing a very similar thing to our students in the college of business. Why don't you have your students apply and compete in our plan too. Maybe they would learn something from that experience?" Well they did learn and they had 10 finalists and three of those finalists are music students.
I already mentioned the one about game design and music for games and instruction in gaming. I'm sure that's going to be a part of our future.
We've also had a proud reputation for internationalization. We have a strong partnership with out counterparts in the Czech Republic. We have a lot of alumni working in Bangkok, Thailand. I was just there, dreaming with them about some fun things that we might do together. So we're going to be globally connected. But we also want to be more conspicuously present in Dallas and Fort Worth.
We're going to do a concert series in the Dallas City Performance Hall this year. And we're going to do some things in the parks downtown this year. We're going to be in Bass Hall again this year at Fort Worth. We're partnering with Arlington ISD; they're building a new performing arts center. We're going to help be a resource for the students and how they want to grow and also maybe do some shared concerts in those new spaces. We are the official higher education partner of the Dallas Cowboys; we're going to do some things at the Star this year.
So this blend of local engagement and service, coupled with international leadership. That's I think kind of the cornerstone of the directions we'll be heading.
You mentioned Thailand as a place that UNT's college of music might want to plant deeper roots. I know that there was also a recent Cuba program that was delayed or perhaps canceled.
No not canceled, just delayed
Were the reasons political?
No. Well, a little bit. Not chiefly. Before I arrived here I had learned that there was some enthusiasm on the part of our counterparts in Cuba to bring some of our student ensembles there and specifically they were interested in the symphonic band and our Latin jazz orchestra. A perfect fit, right. But that's 110 students.
So, I went down there in September to look at some venues and we found a venue that was a good one. It was their National Performance Hall and it was going to be about, I don't know, 600 seats. Perfect.
But we wanted to go down for a week, so we needed to find some additional venues. So we went to some other destinations and other venues, all of which were lovely and charming and too small. We had one indoor venue and several outdoor venues but that does not a weeklong concert tour support.
So we said, let's wait. Let's rethink our plan because perhaps our initiatives in Cuba, at least to start, should be with smaller groups. So maybe a marimba ensemble of 10. Or a chamber choir of 16. You could do piano trios and piano quartets and string quartets and woodwind quintets.
There was also a little bit of a change because the rhetoric that immediately followed the national election was a little more nationalistic in ways that were not quite so mutually inviting. So we wanted that to also kind of settle out and calm down. Now, the upside is, many American airlines are now servicing Cuba and you used to have to get charter planes to get there. So we think that the future there is very bright but we just have to do a little more homework.
Is there anything else that we haven't touched on that you want readers to know about UNT's College of Music?
If your readers ever kind of got an itch to come out, see what's going on, they can check out our calendar through our website. It's really easy to remember, it's music.unt.edu. Most of our things are free. A few of our things cost, but the most expensive things we do are 20 bucks. So, really affordable. Great value.
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