A Home for Oberlin Jazz
Stewart and Donna Kohl commit $5 million for new jazz studies facility.

by Kelly Viancourt

Performing for the Kohls in November was the Oberlin Jazz Septet, one of the student ensembles that will benefit from the new space.

The December holidays arrived a month early at Oberlin, or so it seemed, given the festive air across campus and particularly in the Conservatory of Music. It was late November when President Nancy S. Dye announced Oberlin’s acceptance of a $5 million commitment earmarked for the construction of a new, much-needed facility for the Jazz Studies Program. The gift, which comes from Cleveland businessman Stewart Kohl ’77 and his wife, Donna, is believed to be the largest donation ever made specifically for the support of jazz education in the United States.

“This is a tremendously generous commitment for a program that is truly deserving of support,” Dye says. “It is a testament to Stewart and Donna’s belief in the collaborative value of higher education and the arts.”

Preliminary plans call for the facility to be connected to the south wing of the Conservatory, extending east from Robertson Hall, where a parking lot now sits. Student rehearsal space will be a most welcome part of the project, finally allowing jazz students to move out of their cramped practice rooms in the basement of Hales Gymnasium. Faculty studios, plus a library and a music laboratory for arranging and editing, are also being considered. The Kohls’ gift is expected to fund about half of the total construction costs, says Dye.

“This is a transformative event for Oberlin,” says Dean of the Conservatory David Stull. “The jazz program has never had adequate space. Our students and faculty are excellent, but Hales Gymnasium is not an acoustically appropriate space for this department. Stewart and Donna have not only launched a project to address this need, but have also invested in the education of future generations of Oberlin students.”

Kohl, who sits on Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, is a managing partner of The Riverside Company, a private equity firm in Cleveland. A regular benefactor of Oberlin projects, he says his reasons for making this gift are several, ranging from the personal to the practical. “Although neither Donna nor I are musicians—as a student I rarely set foot in the Conservatory—we do enjoy music as patrons, and we believe in its powerful civilizing role,” he says. “Since joining the Board of Trustees, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of the Conservatory. It’s a jewel in the crown of Oberlin College and a main contributor to the Oberlin experience.”


Mel Litoff, Donna Kohl, and Stewart Kohl (l to r) visited campus in November for the announcement of the Kohls’ gift.

So why jazz, specifically? “Jazz as an art form is a gift from America to the world,” he says. “Although jazz is revered in many places, it remains a stepchild at home in America. At Oberlin, however, under the leadership of Wendell Logan, jazz thrives; it contributes significantly to the richness and diversity of the Conservatory and the overall campus.”

A more personal inspiration for the gift comes from the Kohls’ longtime friendship with jazz vocalist Phyllis Weisbart Litoff, in whose memory the building will be named. Phyllis and her husband, Mel Litoff, were owners of the renowned Sweet Basil Jazz Club in Greenwich Village and founders of the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival. They later became the artistic directors and producers of the Belleayre Music Festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Phyllis died of brain cancer in 2002, and the Kohls were moved to search for a way to honor her memory.

“The personal loss of Phyllis really inspired this gift,” Kohl says. “I believe she would be so pleased to see the quality of education and of the musicians being trained in this building.”

During a visit to campus in early December, the Kohls and Mel Litoff were the guests of honor at performances by the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Septet. Litoff was particularly touched by the chance to meet student jazz musician Theo Croker ’07, whose grandfather, Doc Cheatham, was a much-loved trumpeter and bandleader who starred at Sweet Basil’s world-famous Sunday Jazz Brunch for more than 10 years.

Wendell Logan, chair of the Jazz Studies Program, and his wife, Bettye Logan, are greeted by the Kohls.

The Kohls, meanwhile, spoke passionately about their dedication to Oberlin and their hope of inspiring other alumni to follow their lead. Stewart, along with his business partner, Bela Szigethy ’77, are the primary backers of Oberlin’s Business Scholars Pro-gram, a popular, multi-location winter-term program that introduces students to the fields of finance and consulting. He and Donna also provided a gift of a neuroscience teaching laboratory several years ago in honor of Stewart’s parents.

“I believe the world needs Oberlin as much today as it did in the 1800s when it accepted students of color and granted the first undergraduate degrees to three young women,” he says. “Oberlin provides an outstanding education and produces leaders in the most important fields of human endeavor.”

But to play its role, he says, the College needs a larger endowment and more support from board members and alumni. “Oberlin graduates do change the world. But many of them do not focus on building wealth in the way that alumni of other top schools do. So it is incumbent on each of us to do all that we can.”

The Kohls also admit to a slightly selfish reason for giving generously early in their lives, simply that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. “We will be able to meet and hear the young musicians who pass through this building, and we hope to follow their achievements and accomplishments throughout their careers.”

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