The two-day celebration dedicating Oberlin's new building for jazz studies, music history, and music theory included performances by three legendary artists in stage, music, and film. Bill Cosby got the celebration off to a rip-roaring start by bringing his one-man comedy routine to an enthusiastic crowd in Finney Chapel on Friday, April 30. Opening the performance was composer and pianist Stanley Cowell '62, a Cosby favorite. The comedian, who has built a career on family-style humor, touched on such topics as his first-time experiences with jazz music and the amazing acrobatics involved in the dances couples performed when he was growing up. "When I was 6 there was no TV. I don't mean in my house. There was no TV anywhere. People who said one day you'll be able to see pictures in your house, they put those people away," he joked.
Like many who attended, Kassa Overall '05 got a kick out of the comedian's homespun humor. "Hearing Bill Cosby speak is a gift and I got to experience that," he said. "I love Oberlin." Tyler Grice '12 agreed, and said, "That was the most engaging human experience I've ever had." Promptly after Cosby's show, alumni and students entertained members of the Oberlin community in the ‘Sco with a late-night jazz jam session.
The following day, the public was invited to a one-on-one with actor Avery Brooks '70 and Caroline Jackson Smith, professor of theater and African American studies. In his unmistakable baritone voice, Brooks spoke about the convergence of music, dance, and spoken word in his life as an actor and artist.
Describing Oberlin's programs related to jazz music and culture, Brooks said, "I don't know of any other place that exists that celebrates the history, the lineage, of arguably the other classical music in the world."
Rounding out the celebration was a momentous concert in Finney Chapel on Saturday, May 1, with special guest Stevie Wonder. Conservatory Dean David Stull '89 welcomed the audience with a special message he was asked to relay to the Oberlin community by President Barack Obama when accepting the National Medal of the Arts earlier this year: "Tell your team you're doing a great job." Stull also lauded Wendell Logan, the chair of Oberlin's jazz studies program, for his important role in building the program. "We should let Wendell Logan know what he means to us," he said. The audience responded with thunderous applause.
Wonder performed such pop masterpieces as "I Can't Help It" and "Superstition," while musicians such as James McBride '79, Farnell Newton '99, Theo Croker '07, Stanley Cowell '62, Jon Jang '78, and Leon Dorsey '81 (who also served as artistic director) kept audience members on the edges of their seats—and some dancing in the aisles. Overflow seating for the concert was provided at Warner Concert Hall and the Apollo Theatre, which reached full capacity. The Oberlin Jazz Ensemble provided backup and stepped out on its own with a full-force medley of some of Wonder's best-loved songs.
Students from the Oberlin City Schools and their parents were treated to a special concert by Stevie Wonder, and accompanied by members of the Oberlin Orchestra and conductor Bridget-Michaele Reischl. Audience members responded with a standing ovation as Wonder took the stage on Friday, April 30, and launched into Sketches of a Life, the composition he premiered in February 2009, when he received the Library of Congress's second Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He began writing the song in 1976 and completed it the day Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, Wonder told spectators. After he and the orchestra completed the piece, which included crowd-pleasing sounds of the artist's iconic harmonica, he playfully confessed, "I messed up the beginning. I lost my music earlier. I wasn't looking at what I was doing." The audience replied with laughter.
Although time was running short and Wonder was expected on Tappan Square for the honorary degree ceremony, he responded to calls for more: "I'm not really supposed to do this, but…" and as the first notes of "My Cherie Amour" rang from his keyboard, "I only play this song for special occasions." Sophia Warren, a fourth-grader at Oberlin's Prospect Elementary School, counts "My Cherie Amour" and "Superstition" among her favorites. "I was excited because I didn't know he was going to play my favorite song," she said. "I felt happy that playing for us was a special occasion for him."
The formal dedication of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building began with the sounds of live jazz in Warner Concert Hall and a dramatic delivery by Avery Brooks '70 of the Henry Dumas poem "Play Ebony, Play Ivory." The dedication concluded with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a champagne toast in the Bert and Judy Kohl Garden that extends from the building's third floor. Several members of the Oberlin community made remarks, as did architect Jonathan Kurtz of the firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, who emphasized how the excellence and determination of the people with whom he had worked at Oberlin inspired the entire team. He described his task as creating "a socially dynamic place to bring together people for whom excellence is just a habit."
"Music is a fundamental part of the Oberlin experience–not just for conservatory students, but for a large majority of arts and sciences students as well," remarked Robert Lemle '75, chair of Oberlin's Board of Trustees. "The Kohl Building literally embodies the idea that music is vital to life at Oberlin."
Touched by the celebration, Donna Kohl, wife of Oberlin trustee Stewart Kohl '77, teared up as she thanked those involved. "I never thought the building would be so spectacular," she said. The Kohls gave the lead gift—$5 million—for the building in memory of Stewart's parents, Bertram and Judith Kohl.
Stewart Kohl's remarks followed those of his wife. He predicted: "The Kohl Building is going to outperform even its own hype." Noting that Oberlin did not allow the jazz piano pioneer Dave Brubeck to use its best Steinway for his now-legendary 1953 concert, conservatory Dean David Stull '89 asked, "How do you get from there to here?" The answer, he said, was Wendell Logan, professor of African American music and jazz studies chair. Stull then announced that the building's commons area would be named for the revered professor. Logan ended the ceremony with advice: "Make sure the focus is on the music."
Students got a sneak peek the day before, dodging "wet paint" signs and construction workers who were still adding finishing touches to the building. "This is the coolest thing ever," said viola performance and religion major Mandy Hogan '13. "The vibe, feel of it, and the colors, are so jazz." The building's new state-of-the-art recording studio—a wood-encased, two-story room connected to a cutting-edge control center featuring digital and analog recording equipment—garnered some of the most awed student reactions. Said one student upon entering: "Epic."
"Oberlin is a remarkable place. And even by Oberlin's high standards, these are exciting times," noted Robert Lemle '75, chair of Oberlin's Board of Trustees, as he welcomed the large crowd that filled Tappan Square on the afternoon of Friday, April 30. "We are here to confer Oberlin's highest honor upon three exceptional individuals—Drs. William and Camille Cosby and Stevie Wonder. Unswerving dedication to excellence, and the relentless determination to help others are the hallmarks of their lives and work."
"Like true Oberlinians, Bill and Camille Cosby and Stevie Wonder believe that education empowers," said President Marvin Krislov. An eruption of cheers ensued. "On this glorious day we at Oberlin can say Dr. Cosby, Dr. Cosby, Dr. Wonder, you have brought sunshine into our lives," Krislov concluded. While conferring honorary Doctorate of Humanities degrees to the Cosbys, Johnnetta Betsch Cole '57 recognized the couple for their immense contributions as artists, educators, and philanthropists. Thanks to their efforts, 26 students at Oberlin have benefited through the Bill and Camille Cosby Family Scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to needy and worthy African American students. Professor Wendell Logan, who conferred Wonder with an honorary Doctorate of Music degree, recognized the artist for his distinguished career as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, as well as for his humanitarian efforts and philanthropic leadership. "[All of us] must understand that we have the responsibility being on this planet to love, and love, and love, for as long as we live," he told the crowd.
The James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection, now part of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, was unveiled during a ceremony in Kulas Recital Hall. Neumann's collection, considered to be the largest privately held jazz collection in the country, contains more than 100,000 recordings, memorabilia, letters, posters, and autographs from some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century. "I was into the minutiae of jazz," the 1958 Oberlin graduate said. "I wanted to get everything [the musicians] ever produced. For instance, there's a recording of [jazz trumpeter] Kenny Dorham playing at a high school in Brooklyn and [jazz clarinet player] Buddy DeFranco with the National Guard playing in Arizona."
During the presentation, Neumann took a moment to bring to the podium James Newman who, as a student in 1953, was instrumental in bringing Dave Brubeck to Oberlin for a concert that became the groundbreaking Jazz at Oberlin LP, though he did so without institutional support. "They weren't eager to recognize jazz as a legitimate musical form," said Newman. With the opening of the $24 million Kohl Building, it's safe to say things have changed.