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Take Fifty: Jazz at Oberlin Celebrates Anniversary

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What becomes a legend most?

The Dave Brubeck Quartet at play: Dave Brubeck (piano), Bobby Militello (saxophone), Michael Moore (bass), and Randy Jones (drums). (photo by Roger Mastroianni)

For Dave Brubeck, on the weekend of October 3 through 5, 2003, it was an honorary doctor of music degree, the roar of a capacity crowd in Finney Chapel, and the chance to hear the newest generation of jazz musicians play just for him. Fitting tributes, these, for the man who changed the landscape of the jazz scene forever with a student-organized concert in Finney Chapel 50 years ago, and the landmark recording borne of it.

Fitting also were the words of Donald Byrd, visiting professor of jazz music, who presented Brubeck for the degree bestowed by President Nancy Dye: “Dave Brubeck is one of the titans of jazz music. He redirected the flow of music with his artistry and by demonstrating how unique rhythmic patterns and schemes could be used in jazz. …The stamp he has left is indelible and will never be eradicated.”

There were other tributes as well. The joyful presence of those at the Oberlin College Board of Trustees dinner, where Brubeck accepted his degree, and which was attended by mem- bers of Oberlin’s jazz faculty and their students—all eager to meet him.

The 17-minute sell-out of single tickets to the Jazz at Oberlin 50th anniversary concert, presented under the auspices of the Artist Recital Series, was a tribute, as was the overflow crowd of 200 who sat in Warner Concert Hall for a free, live video and audio feed of the Finney concert.

The media also paid homage: Cleveland radio stations WCLV-FM and WRMR-AM aired live broadcasts of the concert, simulcast on wclv.com. (One tribute came from a listener in The Netherlands via the WCLV-FM online forum: “I don’t know who to thank for this, but to feature a live concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet online is a stroke of genius. The Internet just validated its entire existence with this one broadcast.”) The Associated Press profiled Brubeck and the significance of the Jazz at Oberlin recording, the Plain Dealer gave the concert a rapturous review, and WVIZ-Channel 25 (Cleveland Public Television) devoted the entire half hour of its arts program Applause to a showcase of the event. Producer Elaine Falk said, “It really is a celebration of that Oberlin College spirit of adventure that started a movement and paved way for a legend.”

Returning alumni paid tribute, including many who were at the history-making 1953 concert. Jim Newman ’55, Anne Phillips ’56, and Jerry Abeles ’56, who set that history in motion by organizing the original concert, were also on hand, basking in the déja-vu and some much-deserved recognition. Vocalist Phillips even joined the quartet for In Your Own Sweet Way, with lyrics by Dave’s wife, Iola.

But it was perhaps the Oberlin students who played for Brubeck the day after the concert, with verve and style and complete musical purity, who provided the ultimate tribute. A combo that included trombonist Sam Kulik '04 performed one of Kulik’s compositions, Untitled for Dave Brubeck, to which Brubeck replied, “I liked the concept. I think I’ll use it.” And to which Kulik answered, with a touch of that Oberlin spirit of adventure, “As long as you send the royalties this way.”

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