Oberlin Blogs

On 20th-Century Oberlin History - Musically Speaking

May 21, 2011

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

Get ready, kids. I’ve turned over my blog to my dear friend Anna Ernst ‘10, who up until my senior year didn’t have a last name other than “Banana” in my head. In a perfect world (one in which Anna hadn’t been abroad loving the hell out of Spain, but then again, I would never want that to change), Anna and I would have looked for houses together junior year and spent our final year in Oberlin living together. I still consider her an honorary housemate-to-be.

ANYWAYS. Anna has written a veritable manifesto on her adventures in music, Oberlin history, and research. She was a musical studies major, with a ridiculously awesome senior project researching the history of jazz at Oberlin (it’s a great story!). But that’s just a tiny teaser! Read on for all of her adventures here in Oberlin…

Well, first of all, just in case you guys haven’t noticed this, Ma’ayan is awesome (sidenote from Ma’ayan: Thanks, darling!), and it is a great honor and joy to be guesting on the blog of such an illustrious Obie! She has been a dear Oberfriend ever since I met her when I plunged into the OSCA pool as a member of the Harkness dining co-operative my sophomore year - we sometimes ran around from event to event to event with each other on weekend nights - and I am eternally grateful to her and Harris for letting me stay at their house on my visits to Oberlin over the past 12 months. Also, if you ever get the chance to eat one of her delicious culinary presentations, you will definitely not be disappointed. Office of Communications, you are sure lucky she is gonna keep working for you! Thanks for offering me this opportunity, my dear.

I. Background - the Musical Studies major

Prospective, incoming, and currently major-less Obies who spent a large portion of ages 5-18 learning an instrument (lessons, multiple chamber groups and orchestras, the occasional gig at your cousin’s wedding, etc.) but who also like reading and writing and social justice and other things, my name is Anna Ernst, and I am one of you. (Except now I’ve graduated.)

If you haven’t figured this out yet, there are quite a few of us who are or were enrolled solely in the Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences. We love music, and one of the reasons we love (or will love) Oberlin is that we get to hear really, really good music every day, whether it’s from our talented and dedicated peers in the practice rooms or the world-famous artists who are brought in by both Conservatory and College faculty, staff, and student leaders. (I would also be remiss if I did not mention WOBC, Oberlin’s very wonderful independent radio station.)

But even though we love music, we don’t necessarily want to become professional musicians, or spend many hours practicing our instruments every day. We were looking for a liberal arts education when we found Oberlin. Some of us may have been double-degree at first, or just enrolled in the Conservatory, but realize after we get here that even though we still love making music, we don’t want it to be 24/7.

For some of us, this is where the Musical Studies major comes in. Clicking on the link will take you to the full description, but I’ll re-post the two sentences that I feel give the best description of the major here:

“Previously called the College Music Major, musical studies is a partnership between Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences and Conservatory of Music, offering students an interdivisional approach to musical study. Majors take courses in both divisions and earn a Bachelor of Arts degree with a focus on music.”

I came to Oberlin thinking that maybe I would be a psychology major because I liked AP Psych in high school and I wanted to work with people. (People, I just gotta say it - check with someone in the department and your Academic Ambassadors, but I would take the intro class again if I were you even if I took the AP class, and also, IT IS OKAY IF YOU DO NOT COME TO COLLEGE WITH YOUR MAJOR ALREADY DECIDED. Seriously!) I’ve been a violinist since I was 7, and I knew I wanted to keep taking lessons when I got to college, so I auditioned and was accepted to take secondary lessons for credit, which I did for my first two years at Oberlin. Though I missed my childhood teacher a lot at first, I grew to love working with my student teacher, Jenny; I learned a lot from her and was so happy to have her as a musical mentor. I also played in College-Community Strings and the Oberlin Orchestra during those first two years. (With regards to the Musical Studies major, the requirements are two years/four semesters of secondary private lessons for credit and participation in at least two ensembles.)

The short story is that the psych major didn’t happen, but lucky for me, because of my persistent questions about musical opportunities for college students (which eventually led to this), I got to know and become an advisee of Dean Ellen Sayles, one of the leaders of the Musical Studies committee and a really great person. She told me about the Musical Studies major, and I thought it sounded like a good deal. In the essay I submitted in the fall of my junior year (fall 2008) in my application to the major, I declared my concentration to be “American Music History,” and wrote, among others, the following sentences:

“In the course of my Musical Studies major at Oberlin, my goals are (1) to continue to develop my musicality and musical skills with secondary violin lessons and performances, as well as dedication to my music theory and history classes, and (2) to research the music intertwined within the history and social movements associated with the creation and development of the town of Oberlin and Oberlin College… I have grown to love and care about Oberlin so much… I hope that when I complete my (senior) capstone project, I will have a historical resource that the college and community will be able to use to learn about and take pride in the music that shaped Oberlin.”

Little did I know what was coming.

II. (How I got to) The Senior Capstone Project - “(Why) Jazz Came to Oberlin: The Unique Life of Frank ‘Count’ Williams and the Early Years of the African-American Music Program”

In the spring of 2008, I stumbled into the second semester of legendary Professor Wendell Logan’s “African American Music” history class. The past fall, I had taken the legendary Professor Charles McGuire’s “Intro to Music History” course, loved doing my homework for that class, and was definitely beginning to lean towards declaring a Musical Studies major. But none of the other music history classes really appealed to me at the time, and so even though I knew that “African-American Music” was a 2-semester course, I decided to register for the second half, because I naively thought that I would be okay to just focus on the 20th-century stuff. Important point: though my research did end up being 20th-century based, you have to know how people learned to crawl before they learned how to fly, and so I did later take the first semester; I would definitely advise people interested in the class to take it for the whole year.

Fortunately, Professor Logan tolerated me that spring. “African-American Music” is a class that attracts an interesting group of students - jazz studies majors are required to take it, but African-American Studies, Musical Studies, TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts), Composition, and Music History majors also take it. (Plus, probably, other people who don’t fall into any of those categories.) Though we all probably did not always realize it at the time, being in the same classroom with Wendell Logan and listening to him speak was a privilege, and something in me clicked that spring when he said, “Music is experience transformed into sound.”

That fall, I finished up my application to the Musical Studies major on the plane ride to my semester of studying abroad in Córdoba, Spain (that’s a whole other story), then came back in the spring of 2009, continued with music theory and took the first of the three upper-level concentration classes that Musical Studies majors have to plan on taking when they write their major proposal. (Though you do have to choose the three classes when you submit your application to the major, the Musical Studies committee does allow for changes if necessary.) This first class was “American Social Movements (1960-1980),” cross-listed in the Comparative American Studies and History departments, with Professor Shelley Lee. I also took my required 200-level Ethnomusicology class, “Music and the Politics of Identity,” with Professor Jennifer Fraser.

In the fall of 2009, I took my remaining two upper-level classes; “Intro to Music Research and Writing” with Professor Steven Plank, and “Oberlin History as American History” with Professor Carol Lasser (sidenote from Ma’ayan: THIS class should be required of all Oberlin students). I also took the first half of “African-American Music.” This big new jazz building was going up in the parking lot behind Lorenzo’s, and eventually I realized that, for my senior capstone project on Oberlin’s music history, I wanted to do some sort of research about jazz at Oberlin. But something still felt missing.

I found whatever was missing in Professor Lasser’s office one November afternoon. As I wondered out loud how exactly I was going to narrow down the topic “jazz at Oberlin,” she typed “jazz” into the search feature of the online WWII-era Oberlin newspaper index, and an article came up with the headline, “Holy Smokes! Jazz Concert in Chapel.” Fascinated, we read on to discover that on Friday, October 6th, 1944, the Frank Williams Combo was to perform “the first jazz concert in Oberlin’s long musical history” in Finney Chapel, which is one of Oberlin’s prime-time venues.

I couldn’t find too much more about the concert immediately, though an article very similar to “Holy Smokes!” appeared in the microfilmed archives of the Oberlin Review, or in the months to come. But as I began to research the name Frank Williams more and more, I stumbled across his name in an article from the June 28, 1982, edition of Jet magazine called “Man, 64, gets degree after waiting 36 years.” I began to realize I had another story on my hands - not a story about a concert, but about a remarkable life. (More on that in a few paragraphs.)

During my final semester at Oberlin, I took “American Art Music” with Professor Colin Roust (who is now teaching in Chicago). This was a wonderful class where we studied one volume a week from the series “Music in the United States of America” and completed individual research projects on Oberlin’s music history. I was also starting my senior capstone research project under the mentoring of Professor Brian Alegant, and after some more research and conversations with both of these professors, things eventually fell into place, and so it was that I ended up researching the life of Frank “Count” Williams and the early years of the African-American music program for my senior capstone project. (I presented just the research about Mr. Williams’ life for Professor Roust’s final, and did a final presentation on both parts for the culmination of my senior capstone project.)

To tell you a little bit about what I learned, I want to tell you how I got there.

III. Methods, Places, Old Papers (a), and Presentations (b)

a. To conduct my research, I used…

  • materials from previous classes. I re-read my notes and parts of books from my African-American Music class (one book that was particularly influential was *Blues People: Negro Music in White America*), and was so glad that I had had my training in my other Conservatory music history classes about the most effective ways to use the Conservatory library and conduct music history research.

    I was also inspired to learn more about Oberlin students of the late ’60s and early ’70s organizing to bring Black Studies to Oberlin when I remembered learning about the movement to bring Ethnic Studies to UC-Berkeley around the same time from the reading and discussions in my “American Social Movements” class. Of course, “Oberlin History as American History” equipped me with the important background to research 20th-century Oberlinian Frank “Count” Williams’ life; also, team research projects about Oberlin women’s history from the 1960s-1980s (which we worked on in teams with students from an Oberlin High School history class) both provided me with an example of how to conduct oral histories (interviews!) and got me excited about the opportunity to research Oberlin’s history while working with Oberlin’s residents.

  • Oral histories. I can’t express enough how extremely fortunate I feel that I got to have a one-on-one conversation with Wendell Logan about his time at Oberlin. I did not record the conversation so all I have from it is some scribbled notes, but, as he always did during our conversations, he challenged and motivated me, in addition to providing me with honest insight about his early years at Oberlin that I was glad he felt comfortable sharing with me. I will always remember when he said the words that I included in my final paper:

    “The spirit of the music prevailed… We were educated to break down barriers no matter where they existed…it fell upon me to do that. I feel blessed that I was the one that was chosen to do that - I hope that I have made a little difference to pay back those people that gave me so much… We are here to teach a language.”

    Professor Logan also gave me the names of some alumni who worked closely with him during the early years, and I was able to look them up on ObieWeb (Oberlin’s online alumni database) and interview a few of them over the phone or via email. As the research process continued, I got to meet more and more people (such as Oberlin alumni who had moved back to live in town, and lifelong Oberlin residents) who had known “Count” Williams, and talk with them about their memories of him. (I learned early on that Mr. Williams’ joyful performing style got him the nickname “Count,” after nationally known jazz pianist William “Count” Basie.)

  • Mudd Library/the Oberlin College Archives. I spent a lot of time looking for information about the 1944 concert through the archives of Oberlin newspapers on microfilm, which can be found on the first floor of Mudd next to the bathrooms. (The microfilm machines may be kind of loud, but they are very fun to use!) I also spent a lot of time in the treasure trove that is the 4th floor of Mudd Library - the Oberlin College Archives.

    With the help of the Oberlin College Archivist Ken Grossi, and the archives staff, I got to go through folders with news clippings, programs, meeting notes, student and faculty proposals, etc., regarding the reasons for bringing African-American Studies and African-American Music/Jazz Studies to Oberlin. I even got to look through Frank Williams’ student folder and read, among other things, his original application to the Conservatory from 1944 and all of the newspaper articles that were written about him around the time when he graduated with a piano performance degree from the Conservatory at the age of 64 in 1982, becoming the oldest graduate of the Oberlin College and Conservatory.

  • Conservatory Library. In addition to checking out some extra books related to jazz history at the Conservatory library, I received a lot of wonderful counsel from Conservatory reference librarian Kathleen Abromeit, who made it possible for me to get a great recording from an Oberlin Jazz Ensemble performance that featured Mr. Williams as a soloist to use in my presentations.

  • Downtown Oberlin. It’s kind of amazing what you can learn from just being downtown in Oberlin. I believe it was Pat Holzworth at the Oberlin Heritage Center who provided me with the census information about Mr. Williams, as well as the location of his grave in Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery. Though I ultimately did not end up using the Oberlin Public Library (OPL) a ton for research purposes, I did find young Frank in the Oberlin High School yearbooks in the local history room. (I would strongly recommend that future Oberlin, Lorain County, and/or Ohio historians spend some time there.)

    In February, I went to a program at the OPL sponsored by the Oberlin African-American History and Genealogy Group about the history of steelworkers in Lorain County, because I knew that Mr. Williams had been involved in some sort of industrial work. Though I didn’t necessarily find out anything specific about jazz or Mr. Williams, I learned a lot and really enjoyed the presentation, and I made a connection that eventually led me to meet Karren Washington, Frank “Count” Williams’ daughter.

    Connections started happening almost daily; one day, as May and my presentations were getting closer, I went into Ratsy’s when I was just hanging out downtown one day and happened to find Mr. Williams’ picture in an Oberlin college yearbook from the early ’40s, before he had to drop out to begin his 30-year term of work at Elyria’s Harshaw Chemical Company to support his wife and two children.

b. I gave three public presentations in May 2010:

  • 1. Meeting of the Oberlin African-American History and Genealogy Group at 167 S. Pleasant Street on May 1.

    This group, led by Phyllis Yarber Hogan, allowed me to share what I had learned about the 1944 concert and Mr. Williams’ life. At the time that I presented to them, I had not yet found any proof that the concert existed because, strangely, there hadn’t been any big articles about the event written after it was over. I eventually found that proof in a tiny mention of the concert in a column in an issue of the Review, but I was still able to say to the group, “I may have discovered that a group of local African-American musicians were the first group to perform jazz in Finney Chapel.” I got chills up and down my spine when they started clapping for me as I said that. Then I got to share a fun fellowship time and delicious potluck lunch with the group.

    May 1, 2010, was also the day that the Kohl Building was being dedicated, and unknown to me, at the same time that I was presenting to the OAAGHG, President Krislov was mentioning my research during his remarks in the dedication of the opening of the building. I was thrilled to later learn that he had said, “[The research] shows that jazz had deep roots in this community, and that jazz created a connection between the students and the town.” How cool that jazz was creating a connection between me, the student, and venerable Oberlin residents, at that very moment.

  • 2. Musical Studies Senior Research Presentation in Bibbins Wing of the Oberlin Conservatory on May 15.

    At this presentation, I shared both my research about Mr. Williams’ life and what I had learned about the early years of the African-American music program at Oberlin, both from my research on African-American student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s to bring African-American studies to Oberlin and from the interviews I had conducted with alumni. My awesome parents were there to see me present, as were my friends from both school and town (sidenote from Ma’ayan: I was there! It was eye-opening!), and I met Karren (Mr. Williams’ daughter) for the first time. Afterwards we had a reception in the brand spankin’ new “Sky Bar” in the Kohl building.
  • 3. “American Art Music” class presentation, with help from the Oberlin Heritage Center in Heiser Auditorium at Kendal at Oberlin on May 16.

    I shared just my research about Mr. Williams’ life as part of a class presentation of our individual research projects about Oberlin’s music history, to about 50 Kendal residents. Afterwards we had pizza at Professor Roust’s house! You can read about everyone else’s topics, which ranged from the Oberlin Glee Club (two former members were in the audience!), to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on Cape Cod, to the history of the classical saxophone department.

    A copy of the script that I read from for my May 15 presentation is now in the Oberlin College Archives for anyone who wants to to read and use for research. I was again thrilled and honored when Kristin Ohlson referenced it in the recent Oberlin Alumni Magazine story Before & After Jazz at Oberlin.

IV. Next?

Since this past August, I have been serving as a member of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Omaha, NE. I serve two Lutheran churches out here as their Community Outreach Associate, working on connecting (and finding new ways to connect) the congregations to the neighborhoods and communities outside their church doors. It’s been a tough, wonderful job.

My year of service ends in early August, and as I write, I’m not entirely sure where I’m going next. Unless things radically change, I do know that I’m going back to the Washington, DC, area for awhile…though I still have some unanswered questions about what I’m going to do once I get there. But I know I want jazz history back in my life - I’m determined to work on getting the research about Frank “Count” Williams’ life into an article form and submitting it to a scholarly music journal. Even if it doesn’t get accepted, getting the research to the point where I will feel good about submitting it for some “grown-ups” other than my professors, family, and friends to see is important to me. Also, a big hope right now is to get a music internship in jazz research at the National Museum of American History for this fall… so we’ll see.

I was incredibly lucky to get to use so many different resources and talk to so many different people while I was doing this research, and I think the main point I want to leave you with is that, whatever your major and/or passion, there is so much you can do at Oberlin if you find classes that you love and keep your curiosity bubbling inside you. GO OUT, both into the different academic fields that you can explore in both the college and the conservatory and into the ever-wonderful, ever-surprising city of Oberlin, explore new places that you wouldn’t really have thought to go while you were growing up, get to know new people, and don’t be afraid to ask those questions that are burning inside of you. In return, you will get joy.

Another thing Wendell used to say was, “It’s about the music.” Even those of you who aren’t musicians have some sort of spark in you that comes out when you do what you love. That spark, whatever its nature, is what your friends, your family, Oberlin, the world, wants and needs you to keep going. It’s about the music, that spark in you; even when things get really, really tough, just remember the music and the spark, and keep it going.

Good luck to prospies; new Obies, you’ve got a wonderful journey ahead of you; current Obies, I know sometimes it gets really busy and overwhelming but you worked really hard this semester so have a good summer and you’re doing great; alumni Obies and everyone, thank you for reading! And a special thanks again to Ma’ayan for this opportunity and, more importantly, your friendship.

Please feel free to email me at anna [dot] r [dor] ernst [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any questions about the Musical Studies major, my research, or anything else that you might think of as you read. It’s difficult to convey in words how much I love Oberlin, so just know that I’d be thrilled to correspond with you about anything related to it.

So, I received this beautiful post of enthusiasm and Oberlin history, but surprisingly, the whole reason I asked Anna to write this post didn’t end up in her writing. This past April, Anna returned to Oberlin to accept the Community Historian Award at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Oberlin Heritage Center, due to her extensive research on Oberlin’s jazz history. The award is “for an individual who adds to the knowledge of the history of our community through research, writing and/or educating others.” And as you can tell, Anna embodies that fully.

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