Viscounts Recognized After 50 Years
Sometime after dinosaurs, and before jazz became the important part of the UNC Music School it is today, there was a four-year period of jazz in the form of a 17-piece big band known as the Viscounts at CSC.
The Music Department during this period actually discouraged participation in “dance bands,” swing, or popular music of the day, emphasizing the history and great works of the masters. There are many documented stories dating back to 1951 of music majors that were warned by the head of the department against participating in weekend dance jobs. Even in short lectures at recitals, names such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Barbra Streisand were disparaged because they didn’t follow the rules of “legitimate” standards.
CSC was a big supporter of the popular icons of the period. The main social events were the Christmas Ball and the Spring Formal. These events featured famous bands such as Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (with Frank Sinatra Jr.), Les Elgart, Woody Herman, Glen Miller (under the direction of Tex Beneke), Billy May, Stan Kenton, Si Zentner. Concerts featuring the Four Freshman, Harry Bellefonte, and many others were very popular events for the student body, and emphasized the disparity between the legitimate standards of the Music Department and the wildly popular attractions of the day.
In the fall of 1958, a senior music major named Jon Wiegardt formed the first 17 piece big band at CSC, called the Viscounts. Helz-a-bruin was its first performance, and was composed of volunteer students, both music majors and non-music majors who readily gave up their time to rehearse and perform in a “Big Band” featuring improvisation and the contagious swing style of the day.
The only member of the Viscounts to participate all four years with the Viscounts, was Gary Browning, who was also a local band leader. We fast forward to 1961-62, where enthusiasm for the Viscounts was at its peak. As in past years, Dr. William Gower was a secret supporter of these student efforts, and made arrangements for the Viscounts to rehearse weekly in the band room. Although Dr. Gower never participated in the rehearsals, he always made arrangements for the rehearsal space. Evidently, in the fall of 1961, CSC tightened the rules for use of the property, so Dr. Gower was forced to legitimize the rehearsal space by adding another “ensemble” to his class load, and offering one-hour credit per quarter, thus creating the first “Jazz Ensemble” for college credit.
Fifty years ago, most of the members of the 1961-62 Viscounts were music majors, and most were seniors. Under the direction of Gary Browning, they performed at high school assemblies in the area, some CSC dances, and most notably played the two biggest social events, the Christmas Ball with guest artist Buddy DeFranco, and the Spring Prom with guest artist Terry Gibbs. These events were met with great approval from the student body, and the excellence and quality of these musicians were recorded live, and are available on CD.
These outstanding members were:
Paul Schneider – Alto
Don Smith – Alto
Fred Martinez – Tenor
Larry Nathan – Tenor
Jim Moorehouse – Bari
James Bragg – Piano
Tom Sepulveda – Bass
Frank Baca – Drums
The members of the 1961-62 Viscounts deserve special recognition, not only for their time and effort for pursuing excellence, but for being pioneers of the CSC Jazz program. After graduation, some became professional musicians, and most became outstanding band directors. Their contributions in their new communities inspired local jazz programs, and many of their students had the opportunity to participate in the current Jazz Department at UNC and other universities under far more favorable circumstances.
Efforts are under way to contact all former Viscount members from 1958-1962 for the purpose of reunion, and possibly a performance.
To order a Viscount CD for $9.99, or to relay contact information as a former Viscount,
email Gary Browning at email@example.com
You may also relay contact information as a former Viscount to Jon Wiegardt at firstname.lastname@example.org.