Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 132 - Jazz at Oberlin

Story filed October 28, 2010

It took many years, but jazz has finally become a respected part of the musical landscape at Oberlin College.

For decades, most people believed there was no jazz at Oberlin College until 1953 when some students of the Oberlin Conservatory, world famous for its classical music, organized a jazz concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Finney Chapel. A recording of that concert became one of the best-selling jazz records of the 1950s. But, years later, Brubeck remembered the classical music-oriented school had refused to let him play one of its better pianos. He recalled, "I was given a small, beat-up, barely playable old grand."

Despite Oberlinís long history of indifference toward jazz, there had been several earlier connections with jazz. Will Marion Cook, who studied at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1880s, was the first musician to introduce the saxophone to popular music. Cook also wrote and produced a Broadway musical called Clorindy. It was the first example of performers singing and dancing simultaneously on the Broadway stage and paved the way for later Broadway musicals. He also helped form the group that eventually became the musiciansí union. In 1919, when Cook was leading a band called The Southern Syncopated Orchestra, he hired a young musician named Sidney Bechet to play improvised saxophone solos with his band. Bechet became the first jazz master of the soprano saxophone. In the 1920s, Cook was one of Duke Ellingtonís few teachers. Ellington later recalled, "Cook gave me lectures on fundamentals of writing and arranging that he had learned at Oberlin."

Even with this early history, the Oberlin Conservatory continued for years to look down on jazz. But, thanks to research by Oberlin student Anna Ernst, we have learned there was actually a jazz concert at Oberlin as early as 1944, nine years before the Brubeck concert. A jazz combo led by pianist Frank Williams played a student-organized concert at Finney Chapel. Announcing the concert, the Oberlin News-Tribune exclaimed in a headline, "Holy Smokes! Jazz Concert in Chapel!"

Frank "Count" Williams was born in Ripley, Ohio 27 years earlier, in 1917. His family moved to Oberlin when he was three years old and he graduated from Oberlin High School in 1936. Before World War II, he played piano with various dance bands in Cleveland. After serving in the wartime Army, he worked at the Lorain shipyards and continued playing.

During that October 1944 jazz concert at Oberlin, Williams was joined by trumpeter Wilbert Thompson, guitarist Eugene Robinson, saxophonist Al Price, drummer Donald Scott, and a singer named Leroy Dixon. Included in the music they played at Finney Chapel were Cole Porterís "Night and Day," Bunny Beriganís "I Canít Get Started," and Mercer Ellingtonís "Things Ainít What They Used to Be."

Two years later, in 1946, Williams enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory under the G.I. Bill and completed two years before dropping out because he had to support his wife and two children. He took a job at Harshaw Chemical Company in Elyria where he worked for 30 years. During much of that period, he played piano with the Red Carmen Quartet.

Meanwhile, in 1953, a group of students brought Brubeck to Oberlin for a concert the school long hailed as the first Oberlin jazz concert. It was almost a decade after the Williams concert.

In the early 1960s, Williams went to New York to record an album called The First Time Out. The recording featured singer Ann Williams, the former wife of the editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune. Other musicians on that now rare album included bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeter Clark Terry.

When Williams retired from Harshaw in 1979, he went back to the Oberlin Conservatory to get his degree. At the age of 64, he was the oldest person ever to earn an undergraduate degree at Oberlin. Williams died in 1985 at the age of 70.

Despite the interest generated by the 1944 Williams concert and the 1953 Brubeck concert, Oberlin College did not incorporate jazz into its curriculum until 1972 when it hired Wendell Logan to design a jazz education program and assemble a jazz faculty. Logan later admitted the school "had no intent of establishing a jazz major." That did not happen until 17 years later, in 1989.

Wendell Logan

Then, in April of 2009, after receiving a huge donation, Oberlin College celebrated the grand opening of its new, $24 million jazz facility, the Kohl Building. With Bill Cosby and Stevie Wonder taking part in the ceremonies, Logan said, "This is beyond my wildest dreams." Jazz had finally become a respected part of the world-famous conservatory.

Six weeks after the dedication, Wendell Logan, the man who finally built a jazz program at Oberlin, died at the age of 69. In his 37 years at the school, he had created the jazz education program from almost nothing.

Kohl Building

Copyright 2010 Joe Mosbrook

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