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UNT’s claim to Norah Jones is trivial, at best

UNT’s claim to Norah Jones is trivial, at best

Norah Jones performs in front of hundreds for Oaktopia Fest 2016 Sept. 23 in Denton. Jones attended a Q&A for UNT music students and staff the day before. Kyle Martin

UNT’s claim to Norah Jones is trivial, at best
October 13
14:36 2016

In case you weren’t aware, Norah Jones, the brilliant and acclaimed jazz singer, musician and Texas native, is a UNT alumna.

She attended UNT for a short time to study jazz in 1997, leaving Texas for New York City in 1999. By 2003, she won Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Performance for her single “Don’t Know Why,” written by American singer-songwriter Jesse Harris. Jones met Harris during her time at UNT after giving him and a few of his band members a ride in her 1971 Cadillac.

From there, her career took off and she became everything that she is today, with her roots firmly grounded in Texas. But is she really as grounded in the university as she is played out to be?

When she was in town for Oaktopia, I covered her closely. I saw her interactions with UNT administrators, the press and locals closer than most people that weekend.

The same week, she was invited back to campus and attended a lecture in the room 301 of the main music building. The packed, standing room only recital hall was filled with students and faculty who got some of Jones’s insight on her time in the music industry. She also discussed what it means to be a musician, her influences as she rose to fame and even a little about her time at UNT.

At the event, President Neal Smatresk presented her with the Presidential Medal of Honor, the most prestigious award he can give. All its esteem, the only other recipient of the award is George Dunham, a 1988 graduate who worked in radio broadcasting and commentary for sports and the Mean Green Radio Network from 1994 to 2014. He has had heavy involvement in UNT affairs and dedicated himself to his work for the university.

The same cannot be said for Norah Jones, however, which says more about the value of the award to the university than anything else.  It seems as if it’s all just a publicity stunt. It was an attempt, by the administrators, to capitalize on Jones’ success.

Why would UNT give a Presidential Medal of Honor to a student who didn’t even graduate from UNT and left at the first opportunity she could? Though Norah Jones has a notable career, it can be said that not much of her success is UNT-based.

Are there not other students and alumni more deserving of such an award? What about the school’s engineering students who built storage space for Habitat for Humanity in 2009? Or Dr. Cheng Yu, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, for his book and research regarding cold-formed steel construction? Or the students who competed (and won) in a NASA fall 2015 design challenge? What about awarding any of the philanthropy work done for the Denton community by Greek organizations on campus?

The arguable point up for thought is that UNT is quick to siphon off fame and publicity by using Norah Jones’s name; be it on their “Notable and Famous Alumni” page in the campus publication The North Texan, her photo in the Kerr Dining Hall or with the UNT’s sudden involvement in Oaktopia this year. UNT was more than ready to jump on the publicity once Norah Jones’s name hit the ticket. So if you try to find instances of Jones venerating her time at UNT, it’s not easy.

“Waiting for inspiration isn’t always ideal because sometimes you’ll be waiting for a while,” Jones said to students and faculty that September afternoon during her guest lecture. “Find what works for you. Everyone is different.”

Jones didn’t wait around in Denton for inspiration, which is evident in her sudden uprooting to New York.

Objectively, there’s a lot of gray area in regards to her time spent at UNT. She was an attendee for two years, and she allegedly learned a lot. This is probably true since UNT has a Grammy Award-winning jazz program and other music concentrations with an abundance of accolades. Despite that, Jones was meant for a different world of music outside of her Denton endeavors. In reality, she was to move on to bigger and better things that she wouldn’t find in Denton.

“I try to just stay excited about music and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish,” Jones told the recital hall.

Mentions of UNT are short-lived in many interviews with Jones, from a 2003 interview with Oprah for O Magazine, to her recent interview with the Texas Monthly, published this month, UNT is no large part of her inspirations.

UNT has a world-renowned music program, as is shown by our history of awards and the accomplishments of a more-than-capable faculty. There are great reasons to come to UNT, reasons just as great to study music here. However, what can be argued is that moving to New York City and collaborating with renowned artists like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others — as well as being raised by parents like American concert producer Sue Jones and famous musician Rahvi Shankar — must have had a more significant influence than her abbreviated UNT stay.

As a reporter, it is good practice to stay around after coverage of an event and get input and dialogue from whatever subjects you are covering. So, as a journalist, I stayed after to interview Jones and her band after her Oaktopia performance on Sept. 23. While I waited around for half-an-hour outside of her backstage trailer for her to come out, shmoozing her tour manager and kicking rocks, I couldn’t help but be excited.  I couldn’t wait to interview the famous Norah Jones that I’d heard on the radio, seen on TV and just watched live onstage, not even 20 feet from me. This was to be one of my most memorable interviews of my student media career.

And so it was. All 30 seconds of it.

Understandably, Jones was headed to wherever Norah Jones goes to after a music festival performance, and she was rushed, by her entourage and just by a want to leave. I thought for sure though, being that this was such a massive welcoming back for her to the town she once stayed, she’d want to talk to her old university paper.

As she was walking away, she assured me one question. I asked three. This was my exchange, after introducing myself as student media:

Me: “What did you think about the fest and how was your time here?”

Jones: “It was super fun and I love it.”

Me: “That’s awesome.”

Jones: “Yeah.”

Me: “And you got that medallion, what do you feel about that?”

Jones: “I did. It was fun but, you know, mostly it’s just fun to hang out.”

Me: “Awesome. What are you going to do with the rest of the time you’re here?”

Annoyed entourage: “That’s three questions you’ve asked now!”

Jones: “Answer one more question and then turn my brain off.”

And that was the end of the exchange.

The fact of the matter is that the life and career of Norah Jones had little to do with UNT, but UNT makes a large claim to her anyways.

All of this taken into account, what she did find during her time in Denton and at UNT was her connection to the music industry through Jesse Harris. This could be the redeeming part of her entire UNT affiliation, but arguably, this alone could not be enough to make such a significant claim to her name. She was involved with performing acts in the music program and had her own musical groups she was a part of, but otherwise, Jones didn’t have too much involvement with the school.

Perhaps the most trivial part of this entire ordeal is that UNT treated her time back in Denton as some massive “homecoming,” but did Jones really feel as though this was actually coming home? Onstage for Oaktopia, she performed beautifully and mesmerized hundreds in attendance. However, this may speak more on her talent as a world-famous musician and performer, and less on her excitement to be back in Denton.

Featured Video: MissMayy.

Featured Image: Norah Jones performs in front of hundreds for Denton’s Oaktopia Fest on Sept. 23, 2016. Jones attended a Q&A for UNT music students and staff the day before. Kyle Martin

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Kyle Martin

Kyle Martin

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2 Comments

  1. Jetset
    Jetset October 13, 18:29

    Kyle,
    You might look at your college days differently in 15-20 years, after you’ve gone on to live life and have a career, and begin to raise a family. This is your perspective now, without being able to understand where Norah Jones has come from in order to make it back to UNT, even for several days.

    The entire UNT community was excited about having someone like Norah Jones come back. UNT is always mentioned in any biographies as being the university she went to. So yeah, it is a big deal. The President knows that, the administration & alumni know that, the student body knows that and the Denton area knows that too.

    You may be taking it too seriously because it’s very simple. Norah Jones, with 9 Grammy awards, over 50 million records sold worldwide, and Billboard’s Jazz Artist of the entire 2000-2009 decade, returned to visit and perform at her school, the University of North Texas, where she majored in Jazz Piano and sang with the UNT Jazz Singers. It’s that simple and that’s worth everything it was made out to be.

    So let’s be proud of her and let’s hope more students and alumni of UNT can have similar successes in a difficult, demanding and very competitive world out there. Peace.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Stanton brasher
    Stanton brasher October 14, 09:40

    “Anyway” is never plural.

    Reply to this comment

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