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Legendary Brubeck Album Jazz at Oberlin was Recorded Fifty Years Ago—March 2, 1953

By Jonah Berman '03




March 2, 2003—The phrase “jazz at Oberlin” has been part of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s lexicon since 1972, when jazz was officially incorporated into the curriculum. It is shorthand reference to the Conservatory’s renowned department and the many jazz concerts presented annually by its acclaimed faculty and outstanding young student musicians. But “jazz at Oberlin” has also had, since March 2, 1953, another connotation. Jazz at Oberlin, the landmark album by the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet, was recorded live in Finney Chapel on that date.

Oberlin will celebrate this auspicious anniversary next fall by welcoming Dave Brubeck and his quartet back to Oberlin for a concert Saturday, October 4, 2003 at Finney Chapel, the venue where it all began.

The performance will be sponsored by Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series with the support of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Friends of the Artist Recital Series. The Conservatory’s web site will post additional concert information as it becomes available.

“We are pleased to have played a part in the history of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and we are proud to acknowledge their role in our own history,” says Dean of the Conservatory Robert K. Dodson.

Jazz at Oberlin was an extremely popular record for Brubeck’s quartet and a smashing success in the Oberlin community. The concert and album presented an audience largely uneducated in jazz with some of the genres finest players, all performing at the top of their game. And while a successful jazz concert at Oberlin these days is a regular occurrence, such was not the case in 1953, when the concert halls at Oberlin were filled with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms — and occasionally Bartök — but not with Basie or Baker. In 1953, most music schools across the country were dedicated exclusively to the study of classical music. Jazz was played clandestinely and had only an underground following.

“There definitely was no jazz department in the Conservatory, and no interest in having a jazz department at the time,” recalls James Newman ’55, who was instrumental in bringing the Dave Brubeck Quartet to Oberlin.

“We used to get records and play them on a jukebox in the student rec center. There were a few interested people, some students and some town people. We would just hang out and listen,” he says.

Despite the climate on campus, the aspirations of Newman and a few forward-looking students gave way to what would become an important historical event.

“I had met Brubeck in 1951 when I was a student at Stanford,” says Newman. “I would go to the Black Hawk in San Francisco where he often played, sometimes with a trio, and on Sundays with an octet featuring Paul Desmond. We were trying to arrange some sort of performance at Stanford, which never materialized. After I transferred to Oberlin, the idea of bringing him here came up. I made an arrangement with his booking agent, and by that time he had formed his quartet and was doing some touring. We agreed on a fee, and I was able to arrange for Finney Chapel. An ad hoc group of people borrowed some money to pay the group in advance, and we got one of the piano teachers in the Conservatory to serve as a faculty sponsor. We took some trips to Cleveland to promote the concert, and we put posters around town.”

By all accounts, the concert was a hit.

“It was a very exciting event, and as you can tell from the recording, the response was extraordinary,” Newman says.

The cheers from the crowd are well documented on the album. On all tracks—“These Foolish Things,” “Perdido,” “Stardust,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “How High the Moon”—the groups swings effortlessly. Paul Desmond’s airy alto sound floats, and Brubeck remains firmly locked in with bassist Ron Crotty and drummer Lloyd Davis. Jazz critic Gary Giddins has written that the album would “make many short lists of the decade’s outstanding albums.”

Engineers from WOBC, the College’s radio station, recorded the concert, and Brubeck’s label, Fantasy, later obtained the tapes and produced the album, which is considered by many to have been a catalyst for an extraordinarily successful and lasting career.

Wendell Logan, Professor of African American Music and Chair of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Department, calls Brubeck’s Oberlin concert “the watershed event that signaled the change of performance space for jazz from the nightclub to the concert hall.”

“Nationally known jazz bands had come to Oberlin before, but mainly to play at dances. The trend of going to a jazz concert simply to listen was a novel idea, and the Brubeck concert was a major factor in starting that trend,” he says.

“I always considered Jazz at Oberlin a breakthrough album for the Quartet,” says Brubeck, “because it caught Desmond and me in the early days when we were beginning the concept of ‘jazz goes to college’ as a concert performance.”

As a result of the Finney concert’s success, Newman and several other students formed the Oberlin College Jazz Club. The club brought Brubeck back to campus the following year, and it hosted concerts by such other jazz greats such as Count Basie, Chet Baker, and Teddy Charles in a group that featured Charles Mingus on bass.

While the club has since dissolved, Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Department has assumed its role in providing the campus with student and professional jazz concerts throughout the year—and offering a premier undergraduate course of study that prepares students for careers as professional jazz musicians and for advanced study in jazz. The jazz studies faculty at Oberlin includes composers and performers who, in addition to teaching lessons and coaching ensembles, maintain active performing careers throughout the world.

[Ed. Note: Frank Modica and Sutton Artists are the exclusive agents of Dave Brubeck.]

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