Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 77 - Dave Brubeck at Oberlin
Story filed August 26, 2003

Dave Brubeck returns to Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel October 4th for a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the jazz pianist’s historic 1953 performance at Oberlin.

March 2, 1953 was a very unusual night at the Ohio school. Oberlin College, a school that had one of the most respected music programs in the country, did not recognize jazz. There were no jazz courses in the curriculum and very little support for, or interest in, jazz at Oberlin. But, a few jazz enthusiasts at the school decided to try to crack Oberlin’s classical music barrier. Student James Newman had heard Brubeck playing in San Francisco and said, "We used to get his records and play them on the jukebox in the student rec center." Newman and some others decided to take the revolutionary step of organizing a jazz concert at Oberlin. They booked the Brubeck Quartet to play and borrowed some money to pay the group in advance. Newman said he and others took trips to Cleveland to promote the concert and put posters around town. At the time, it was almost like presenting a rap group in the Mormon Tabernacle.

The concert had all the ingredients of a major disaster. Aside from Oberlin’s indifference toward jazz, Brubeck and his outstanding saxophonist, Paul Desmond, had just had an argument, bass player Ron Crotty had just been given his notice, and drummer Lloyd Davis was ill with the flu and had a 103-degree fever. Adding to the problems, when Brubeck arrived at Finney Chapel, he discovered the conservatory’s concert grand piano was kept under "lock and key." Said Brubeck later, "I was given a small, beat-up, barely playable old grand."

Despite the problems, there was a large crowd at Finney Chapel for the concert. Many of the classically-trained Oberlin Conservatory students slowly began to hear the devices Brubeck’s jazz group had borrowed from Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. The students also quickly warmed to the dry humor of the musicians -- such lines as Paul Desmond’s comment when he was asked about his reputation of dating beautiful fashion models. Desmond said the fashion models "will go out for awhile with a cat who’s scuffling, but they always seem to end up marrying a manufacturer from the Bronx. This is the way the world ends," said Desmond, playing on the words of poet T.S. Eliot, "not with a whim, but with a banker."

Brubeck later called the 1953 concert at Oberlin "the best thing we’ve ever done." Perhaps because of the general lack of enthusiasm for jazz at Oberlin and the other problems surrounding the concert, the Brubeck Quartet seemed much looser and freer with its improvisations, much more relaxed that it had been on its earlier recordings.

When Brubeck’s 1953 concert at Oberlin College ended, the crowd was on its feet crying for more. There was an almost immediate effect on the Oberlin campus. Students formed the Oberlin College Jazz Club and scheduled three more jazz concerts the following year, including a return engagement by the Brubeck Quartet. They also hosted concerts by Count Basie, Chet Baker and the Teddy Charles group with bassist Charlie Mingus. The Brubeck concert also had much wider effects.

The college radio station, WOBC, recorded the concert and later provided the tapes to Brubeck’s record company. Newman, who spear-headed the concert, wrote the album liner notes. The recording of Brubeck’s 1953 Jazz at Oberlin concert became one of the most popular jazz records of the 1950s. Brubeck later called the LP "a breakthrough album" for his quartet." It not only helped to build the enormous popularity of the Brubeck group, particularly among college students, it also helped establish jazz as a respected art form, prompted many other jazz artists to schedule college concerts, and to release recordings of live concerts instead of sometimes sterile studio recordings.

The Oberlin College Jazz Club, which was riding high after the 1953 Brubeck concert, has since disappeared. And, despite the historic Brubeck concert in 1953, Oberlin College did not incorporate jazz into its curriculum until 1972 – almost 20 years later. The school finally began offering a major in jazz studies in 1989. Today, the jazz department at Oberlin, headed by Wendell Logan, includes such well known and respected musician teachers as Gary Bartz, Marcus Belgrave, Kenny Davis, Peter Dominguez, Robin Eubanks, Bob Ferrazza, Billy Hart and Dan Wall.

The Dave Brubeck 50th anniversary concert is part of this season’s Oberlin Recital Series, which will also include concerts by the American Brass Quintet and the Cleveland Orchestra.

When Brubeck returns to the stage at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel October 4, I would be willing to bet that this time, he will be playing the best concert grand piano the college can provide.

Copyright 2003 Joe Mosbrook

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