The Instrumentalist

Articles June 2019

Eldon Janzen and the University of Arkansas Band Program


"Janzen had a unique way of accomplishing things while using few words and without raising his voice."

     In February of 1975, my three best friends and I made the seven-hour drive from Waxahachie, Texas to Fayetteville, Arkansas. We were high school seniors considering a degree in music and were on our way to the University of Arkansas to audition. We arrived in Fayetteville in time to attend the winter band concert.
     Prior to the performance, we were escorted backstage to meet the Director of Bands, Eldon Janzen. I don’t recall what I was expecting, but I will never forget walking into his dressing room. Mr. Janzen was seated next to a stereotypical dressing-room mirror, the type outlined with bright lightbulbs. When he stood to greet us, I was shocked at his physical stature. I wasn’t expecting someone over six feet tall and built like an NFL tight end. His voice was pleasant, strong, and confident. Janzen wasn’t threatening in any manner, but I had the immediate impression that he was definitely “the man” – and he was.
     I made the decision to write an article about Mr. Janzen after I retired from my 31-year career as a band director. At first, I was mainly interested in composing an article that answered how Eldon Janzen transformed the University of Arkansas Band Program from what it was in 1970 to what it had become in 1975. How could such drastic improvements be accomplished in a university band program in only four years? When I heard the mention of hate letters, crosses burning in the Janzen’s front yard, and death threats, it was apparent to me that this project would deal with much more than music.

    Born March 21, 1928, Janzen grew up in Medford, Oklahoma, about 120 miles north of Oklahoma City and barely 13 miles from the Kansas-Oklahoma state line. He began his music career when Medford’s new band director, Jack Norman, came to Eldon’s sixth-grade classroom to administer a music aptitude exam. Norman was not an instrumentalist. He earned a music degree from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma as a vocal major. Norman was there to select students for the beginning band program. Norman arrived with Medford’s full inventory of band instruments: a trombone that had become available when the local preacher’s son left town to attend the University of Oklahoma, and an alto clarinet. His friend John took the alto clarinet, so Eldon selected the trombone. In the eighth grade, he was provided with a new trombone that was purchased with funds raised by a bake sale. While attending Medford High School, Janzen and band director Delvis B. Roberts traveled to Chenowith and Green Music Company in Enid, Oklahoma. Eldon was shocked when Roberts offered him a loan of $108 to purchase a reconditioned Conn trombone. He repaid the loan by the end of the summer.

    Janzen also played a major role in Medford High School’s state championship – not in band, but as a member of Medford’s 1945 football team. Eldon, who played defensive end and receiver and was also the team’s place kicker, was selected as a member the Oklahoma All-State Football team by Oklahoma sports writers. The 184-pound star for the Medford Cardinals was invited to play on the north squad in Oklahoma’s annual all-star game. He was eventually offered a full athletic scholarship to Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State University). Eldon declined the athletic scholarship and opted to accept a less lucrative scholarship, one that would allow him to pursue a degree in music. Janzen graduated from Oklahoma A&M in 1950 and returned to Medford, where he resumed his old job sacking groceries at the grocery store. Eldon’s former high school football coach informed him that Medford High School needed a band director and asked Janzen if he was interested in taking the job. Band directing sounded better than sacking groceries, so Janzen took the job and began his career as a public-school band director at the salary of $200 per month.
    One year later, Eldon was drafted into the military and sent to the Red River Arsenal at Texarkana for basic training as a rifleman. However, while stationed in temporary barracks and surrounded by eight inches of snowfall, he developed a severe ear infection and was transported to the Army-Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs. The infection caused hearing damage that would continue to be a problem throughout his career. While recuperating in the hospital, Janzen’s unit was deployed to Korea. Upon his release from the hospital, Eldon accepted a part-time position as a church organist. There, he met a young lady by the name of Nelda S. Routon. They began seeing each other regularly and were married on July 7, 1951 in Texarkana.
    Janzen was honorably discharged from the military in 1953 and entered North Texas State College (now The University of North Texas), where he was a graduate assistant to Maurice McAdow. Janzen graduated with his master’s degree in music education in 1953 and accepted an offer to be the band director at New Boston High School, where he taught from 1954-1959. Janzen moved on to Greenville High School from 1959-1962, and then to Irving High School, where he was the band director from 1962-1966 and the district’s director of fine arts from 1967-1970.

    By spring of 1970, Janzen had gained the reputation as a successful young band director dedicated to old-style discipline and fundamental instruction. Janzen’s Irving High School Band was viewed by colleagues as a top-tier performing group and one of the best band programs in Texas. He had also assumed an additional leadership role as president of the Texas Bandmasters Association. Janzen’s fast-track rise to this position was the result of the unexpected retirement of other TBA board members who had been in line ahead of him for the presidency. However, within days of becoming the leader of the largest bandmaster organization in the country, Janzen made the decision to move to northwest Arkansas. His last official responsibility as the president of the Texas Bandmasters Association would be to preside over the annual convention traditionally held in San Antonio.
    Janzen’s journey from Texas to Arkansas began when he was hired to serve on a panel of judges for a band contest in southern Arkansas. The other judges on the panel were Francis McBeth from Ouachita Baptist University and Robert Bright from Arkansas Tech. The contest provided ample time for the three men to become good friends and discover their common dedication to high musical standards, a strong work ethic, and the belief that establishing personal discipline was a necessary prerequisite to attaining a significant level of achievement. McBeth, a prolific composer, was already a well-known figure in music education. Janzen discovered that McBeth already knew of his success in Irving because McBeth was a graduate of Irving High School. Their mutual respect resulted in a strong and long-lasting friendship.
    Robert Bright played an even more integral part in Janzen’s journey to Arkansas. Prior to accepting a position at the University of Arkansas, Bright was known as the architect of the Arkansas Tech brass department, which, under his guidance, was considered one of the best in the country. He and his friend Irby Martin, who was in his first year as band director at Fayetteville High School after serving 12 successful years as the band director at McGehee High School, would meet often for coffee and discussions. Bright and Martin came to Fayetteville the same year, and their opinions regarding the concepts of instrumental and ensemble sound and instruction were similar. In addition to both being new to Fayetteville, Bright and Martin had something else in common – Arkansas Tech. Irby received his music degree from Tech which was, beyond question, the school in Arkansas for future band directors, especially brass players.
    When it was announced that the University of Arkansas Director of Bands position was officially open, both Bright and Martin knew who the struggling Arkansas program needed. Rebuilding the Arkansas band program was not expected to be easy. The new director had to be someone who could establish discipline within the organization and increase the size and quality of the band by reaching out beyond state borders to recruit talented students. The new director needed to be a solid fundamentals teacher who could also develop the advanced skills of musicianship in students who were already at the university level. It was a monumental task that must be accomplished while winning the hearts and minds of the students, the university, and residents of the state of Arkansas.
    As Bright would say when interviewed, “We knew that Janzen was the guy who, as the old saying goes, could turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” When asked if he had any prior knowledge of the University of Arkansas or the reputation of the Razorback Band, Janzen recounted his first impression:

    “My band from New Boston High School was invited to the Cotton Bowl game to perform in their annual pregame extravaganza back when Harry Barton was organizing it. Harry would traditionally invite five bands that he felt were the best in Texas to perform the pregame ceremonies. The tradition was that after your band had participated in the Cotton Bowl pregame, and all went well, you would continue to be invited back. There was one year when I conducted the pregame show at the Cotton Bowl. Arkansas was playing Nebraska on New Year’s Day. During the pregame, the Arkansas band came on, and with them were some students pulling this giant bass drum. It was like a bunch of clowns out there. That was my first impression of the Arkansas band and I still remember watching those guys pulling that bass drum around and seeing it fall.”

Closing the Deal
    Knowing that there needed to be other recommendations to support his candidate, Bright made the necessary calls to those he knew could attest to Eldon Janzen’s qualifications and his ability to accomplish what would be a complete overhaul of the University of Arkansas band program. The contacts that Bright called were young men who were establishing their reputations by building great high school and university band programs. Today, they are viewed as icons in the band world, prolific composers, and master educators.
    Bright first contacted Francis McBeth and then Dean Killion, the Director of Bands at Texas Tech University. Bright also contacted James Sudduth, a young high school director from west Texas. Each person had good comments about Janzen and encouraged Bright to continue his pursuit of Janzen as Arkansas’s next director. Dean Killion added that he had even gone as far as securing copies of videos and comment sheets of Janzen’s marching drills for use in teaching future band directors.
    With the groundwork complete, Bright now had the proof to convince university officials of Eldon Janzen’s qualifications as a fundamental teacher and one who was capable of establishing the disciplinary skills necessary to turn around the struggling Arkansas band program. Bright was certain that Janzen was not only the right person for the job but perhaps the only person capable of producing that “silk purse.”
    Janzen’s decision to accept the offer and become the next Director of Bands for the University of Arkansas seemed to be the logical next step in his career as a music educator. He was in his third year as the chief administrator for the band program in Irving, Texas, a district which now had over 25,000 students, and, tiring of administration, he was ready for a change. The opportunity to move back into a classroom and  work with college students seemed to be a logical next step. When asked what finally convinced him to accept the position at Arkansas, Janzen explained:

    “I had been in administration for three years, had identified the problem areas within the band program, and solved all of the problems that I was able to solve. I was also growing tired of being in administration. I missed making music, working with students, and seeing the improvement that takes place during rehearsal. The opportunity that Arkansas provided appealed to me and seemed like a logical move to make.”

    Janzen knew that the University of Arkansas job would not be an easy one. The Razorback band was not known for their performance quality. Indeed, the 1970 Sugar Bowl performance, which was witnessed by millions on national television, was not only an embarrassment to the University of Arkansas but also to many residents of the state. This humiliating performance was attributed to the band students’ poor behavior the prior evening. With little or no established disciplinary standard, many Razorback band members were permitted to roam freely through the streets and bars of New Orleans.
    A former member of the Arkansas band who participated in that performance stated:

    “I can still remember marching the show at halftime and making a wrong turn that was impossible for anyone to miss. When I made that wrong turn, it caused a chain reaction with those around me. So many were either hung over or still drunk from the previous evening’s activities. It had to be the worst performance of a university band that you could possibly imagine – and it was on national television.”

    The two largest newspapers in the state, the Northwest Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Gazette, published articles that referred to the Arkansas band as The Stumbling 100. There would be many more nationally televised games to come and the moniker demonstrated to the university that changes were necessary.
    Robert Bright had been hired during the summer prior to the 1969-1970 school year. A graduate of Northwestern University, Bright had built the brass department at Arkansas Tech and also was assistant band director to Gene Witherspoon. John Cowell, the chairman of the music department at the time, had hired Bright the previous year. Cowell was receptive to improving the band program. “I was hired to clean up that mess,” Bright recalls Cowell telling him. Cowell knew that the culture of the Arkansas band program had to be changed. Bright was adamant with Cowell about the need to recruit high-quality students. He stated, “We must recruit. If schools like Eastman, Michigan, Juilliard, Indiana, North Texas State, and other schools in that caliber had to recruit, then Arkansas had to recruit. I told him that if I couldn’t get that done in three years, he wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of firing me because I’d quit.” Robert Bright recalls the condition of the band during his first year on campus during the 1969-70 school year:

    “The national championship game against Texas was on national television, and we knew that President Nixon was going to be attending. The director was arranging how the band was to sit in the stands. There were twelve sousaphones in the marching band, so he said, ‘Okay, those of you who have a mouthpiece and a set of bits and actually play, I’d like to have you seated over here, and those of you who don’t play sit over there.’ Ten out of the twelve sousaphone players sat with the other students who were not actually playing. There were only two students who played. The other ten didn’t even have mouthpieces or bits."

    This dire situation was the one into which Janzen entered when he accepted the University of Arkansas position. Reality began to settle in for Janzen after he moved into his new office in the University of Arkansas band room. He began to realize that conditions were worse than he had anticipated, and that Robert Bright, the person who had devoted so much time and effort in bringing Janzen to Fayetteville, would be his most valuable asset. Indeed, Bright would play a major role in Janzen’s success as the new director.
    Janzen learned that a few Arkansas high school directors resented him because they believed they were qualified for the position. Janzen discovered that he was the only candidate considered for the job, which was interpreted as a slap in the face to some who viewed the University of Arkansas as the premier university in the state. There were also directors who were upset that an outsider from Texas was awarded the title of Director of Bands at their state university without someone from Arkansas even being considered for the job. Janzen shared that it took several years to overcome the hard feelings to the point that he and a few of his colleagues could engage in a civil conversation.

Building the Band Program
    To improve the band, Janzen realized that he had to make major changes. One change that Janzen implemented was stricter rehearsal expectations, an abrupt shock for the returning members of the Razorback Band. Compared to rehearsals under the former director, the atmosphere was now like that of a military organization. Perhaps the most significant change of all was in the marching style. In previous years, the Arkansas Band espoused the marching style like the Big Ten Conference schools, incorporating high knee-lifts and eight-to-five marching steps. Janzen implemented a six-to-five marching style more characteristic of military bands. The new style was crisp and regal—a style that was uncomfortable for most of the returning band members. But because of Janzen’s discipline, the structure, and intensity of his rehearsals, and his detailed planning, the band looked good, and people noticed. Describing the students’ initial reaction, Janzen recalls:

    “The most drastic change was with the marching style. In addition, I insisted that they memorize the music and play it off. Once the students realized that they were getting better, it worked and became easier after that.”

    Janzen had a unique way of accomplishing things while using few words and without raising his voice. Perhaps it had more to do with the sound of his voice. Irby Martin, the band director at Fayetteville High School at the time, recalled a rehearsal one day prior to Arkansas’s opening game with Stanford. Martin rated the students’ energy level during the rehearsal as somewhat sluggish. As the end of the rehearsal grew closer, Janzen calmly took two steps down his ladder, folded his arms across the top of the ladder, and almost sympathetically said, “That’s okay boys and girls. You’re not on national television until tomorrow afternoon.” The pace of the rehearsal picked up instantly.

    Janzen also had help from Robert Bright. As he had been at Arkansas a year longer than Janzen, Bright was the person disgruntled students came to when upset with Janzen’s new way of doing things. He knew that Bright would take the time to listen to the student and then explain his reasoning. Bright would point out the importance of patience and the need to look around and see how the band was rapidly improving as a result of Janzen’s methods.
    By August 1, Janzen’s first performance with the Razorback band was approaching quickly. It would be a nationally televised game between Arkansas and Stanford at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. The game, which was promoted by ABC as the kickoff game of the 1970 NCAA football season, was to be played ten days prior to the first day of classes on the Arkansas campus. Preparations were made for the first rehearsal and letters were sent to the 180 students that were on the list that former assistant director David Pittmon had provided Janzen. At that initial rehearsal, instead of the 180 band students Janzen was expecting, only about 80 students showed up – and some of these were twirlers. As Janzen explained, “It was a phantom band. We realized that there were never 180 students planning to attend. The list was simply made up. If students happened to ask a question, they were asked to write their name on the list. At some point, the list turned into a list of students who had committed to being part of the Razorback Band.” After the rehearsal, Janzen was, in his words, “down in the dumps.” He commented:

    “That first marching band rehearsal was a real eye-opener for me. Then Bright said, ‘Let’s go back to your office.’ Bright grabbed the list of students and started making phone calls. Several students indicated that they had been promised full scholarships, which, at that time, was about $200 per semester.
    “People generally don’t know how bad it was. Most of the area band directors would avoid sending their students to the university unless the student wanted to come here for engineering or something like that. Bob Bright was really the key. He was able to get me in the door and he paved the way in building relationships with directors around the state and convinced them of the positive direction the University of Arkansas band program was moving.”

    Bright’s efforts generated an additional 20 to 30 more students. By the time the band took the field for their first performance, there would be 126 marchers, 96 of whom were freshmen.
    The halftime performance of that game was the first time that the Razorback band marched six to five. The show included Karl King’s Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite. Janzen later learned that Karl King was watching Arkansas’s game with Stanford on television. During the days immediately following the game, Eldon opened his mail to find a conductor’s score to Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite autographed by King himself. The score is still on display in Janzen’s Fayetteville home.
    Janzen and Bright spent countless hours on the road visiting schools and band directors. When there wasn’t a pregame pep rally on campus that required them to remain in Fayetteville, they went on the road every Friday night, attending high school football games and visiting with band directors. “Bob would sometimes select a school that we would visit, and sometimes we would just go to any school that would have us,” recalls Janzen. Janzen’s first marching clinic in Arkansas was at Gravette High School. Jerry Ratzlaff, the director at Gravette, was so popular in his community that he could have been elected mayor. He extended the invitation for Bright and Janzen to visit and promised them a good steak dinner after the clinic. The band from Siloam Springs also attended, and Bright and Janzen certainly didn’t mention any expectation of payment. Janzen recalls the greeting:

    “Almost immediately, two guys with money aprons came to us and said, ‘That’ll be $5 each.’ I asked what was going on, and they said, ‘We have two university professors coming into the clinic and we’re charging everyone five dollars admission.’ I said, ‘We are the professors.’ That was just the beginning. The band was not well-prepared musically, so I got involved in trying to teach them the music and memorize it. I was working at one end of the stadium and after a while, I noticed that parents were driving up. They soon started flashing the headlights of their cars. I thought that was odd, but it turned out my watch had stopped, and it was almost two hours later than I thought.”

    The recruiting visits were the most important part of building the Arkansas band program, especially because they were in competition with Arkansas Tech and its director, Gene Witherspoon, who was “Mr. Band.” To compete with Arkansas Tech and improve their chances of generating future Razorback band members, Robert Bright organized and started the University of Arkansas Summer Music Camp. The camp attracted many students from Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The camp was successful, but only after Bright eventually agreed to pay an additional portion of the camp’s revenue to the band directors of participating students. Each year, music camp students would cast votes to honor two outstanding music students.
    Janzen also praised Chalon Ragsdale for his contributions to the development of the Razorback Band. Ragsdale joined the Arkansas band staff in the fall of 1975 and immediately added to the level of instruction. Excellent teachers with traditional values, Ragsdale and Janzen made the perfect team. Janzen spoke of his loyalty and how he and Ragsdale were always on the same page regarding their performance expectations and their approach to solving problems. Ragsdale was also valued for his ability to produce excellent marching arrangements and fine transcriptions for concert band.

Achieving Success
    Janzen’s efforts paid off. By the 1975-76 school year, the Razorback Band was recognized as a high-quality university band, not only for the marching band but also for the size and quality of the concert band program and the wind studies department. To build the concert band program and prepare his students for a profession in which new literature was being introduced at a rapidly increasing rate, Janzen added contemporary music and taught students about newer sounding harmonies. For this type of music with this level of complexity to be accepted by the public, Janzen also realized that they must provide some music education. One such performance that featured the Symphony for Band by Paul Hindemith provided Janzen with the opportunity to introduce his audience to 20th century compositional practices in a way that promoted understanding and enjoyment. In describing this performance, Janzen stated:

    “We performed a concert in the Arkansas Student Union ballroom that included the third movement of the Hindemith Symphony for Band. I’m sure that it was the most contemporary piece ever performed for the local audiences. Instead of a traditional concert performance, we presented a lecture that was designed to explain the structure of composition to the audience, many of whom had never experienced that level of compositional sophistication. We used sections of the band to demonstrate the various melodies in the final movement and how they were combined during the final moments. I knew that the Hindemith would not be received very well by the audience and I really loved the piece. I felt that they might appreciate the piece if they understood more about it.”

    Janzen received an invitation to perform at the 1976 National Educator’s Music Conference in Atlantic City, a national convention that would attract the leading figures in music education. This performance would be for the most prestigious performance audience for which an Arkansas music ensemble had ever performed. Following their performance at the 1976 National MENC convention in Atlantic City, invitations to other regional and national conventions began coming in on a routine basis. Janzen’s bands, along with Robert Bright’s brass choir, performed at numerous CBDNA conventions including those held in Kansas City, Wichita, and Norman, Oklahoma. The University of Arkansas also hosted the convention in Fayetteville, where the featured guest conductors were William Revelli and John Paynter. The band would also take many tours that resulted in more talented students wanting to be part of the Razorback Band Program. Janzen credits his success to his students. “When we performed at area schools, that put some pressure on the band to raise the performance level because they were playing for people their age and wanted to impress them.”

The Keys to Success
    Janzen would continue redirecting the credit for his success to those around him. However, Robert Bright said:

    “Let me tell you why Eldon did such a good job pulling this program together, and I’ll just give you one example. It was the last band rehearsal the night before the game with Stanford in Little Rock. The game was scheduled ten days before the start of classes. He had told the band that there would be a military inspection in ranks, which was unheard of. He said to me, ‘Bright, pick up a yellow pad and follow me.’  He said, ‘Just follow me and I’ll tell you what to write.’
    “As we went through the band ranks, we came upon a male student who had long, bushy hair down to his waist. Janzen said, ‘Son, do you like playing in the Razorback Band?’ The student replied, ‘Yes sir!’ Eldon said to him, ‘Well, if you plan on being in the band, you will have your hair trimmed so that it doesn’t touch your shirt collar or your ears, and if you don’t get this done, there is no reason for you to show up tomorrow.’ The next day, the boy’s hair was cut above his collar and didn’t touch his ears.
    “Three days later Janzen received a letter in the mail from David Mullins, the university president. The short note said, ‘Thank you, Eldon, for taking care of something that I’ve been trying to do for the last five years. Have a great season.’ The young man with the long, bushy hair was the son of the university president.”

    Janzen’s belief in students, use of discipline,  and leadership made his bands successful. During his career, Eldon Janzen became an influential figure in the band world. He held the highest positions of leadership in some of the nation’s most prestigious professional music organizations, including serving as International President for the bandmaster’s fraternity, Phi Beta Mu. His dedication to students and the profession are surpassed only by his dedication to his family. Regardless of whether he realized it at the time, Eldon Janzen’s influence on his students extended well beyond the band hall or the marching field. He inspired us to be better people. He did this, without fail, every day that he came to work.


Benjamin Davis

    Benjamin Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Arkansas and a master’s degree in music education and conducting from Baylor University. He taught at middle and high schools in Texas, and his bands performed at TMEA, the Midwest Clinic, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Carnegie Hall. Davis remains active as a UIL judge for both marching and concert band, and he maintains a private trumpet studio.


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