History of Jazz at Oberlin

With the landmark album Jazz at Oberlin, released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1953, “jazz” and “Oberlin” became linked in the public consciousness. Recorded live in Finney Chapel when the group played to a full house on March 2 of that year, the album was a huge success for Brubeck, helping not only to launch his career but also to change the way jazz was experienced as an art form.

Then Professor of African American Music and Chair of the Jazz Studies Program Wendell Logan called the Oberlin-Brubeck 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.”

The Brubeck concert and album presented an audience largely uneducated in jazz with some of the genre’s finest players, all performing at the top of their games. “I always considered Jazz at Oberlin a breakthrough album for the quartet,” Brubeck said in an interview with Oberlin about the 50th anniversary of the recording. “It caught [Paul] Desmond and me in the early days when we were beginning the concept of ‘jazz goes to college’ as a concert performance.”

While a jazz concert played to a full house is a regular occurrence at Oberlin today, such was not the case in 1953, when its concert halls were filled with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, not with Basie or Baker. In 1953, most music schools and conservatories across the country were dedicated exclusively to classical music. Jazz was played clandestinely; its following was underground.

There was no jazz department at Oberlin in the 1950s. Students such as James Newman ’55, who were instrumental in bringing the Dave Brubeck Quartet to Oberlin, listened to jazz records on a jukebox in the student recreation center. The concert’s success inspired them to form the Oberlin College Jazz Club, which brought Brubeck back to campus the following year, and hosted concerts by other jazz greats, among them Count Basie, Chet Baker, and Teddy Charles in a group that featured Charles Mingus on bass.

Another James Neumann, Class of 1958, hosted a jazz program on the college’s radio station, WOBC. During the course of his lifetime, he would come to amass the largest privately held jazz record collection in the United States. He and his wife, Susan, have since given Oberlin that collection, which also includes posters, ephemera, and historical iconography. The James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection is useful to scholars and aficionados alike, and is housed in the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, which became the home of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Program in 2010, as well as its Divisions of Music History and Music Theory.

Wendell Logan launched the study of jazz at Oberlin in 1973, the year the art form was first incorporated into the curriculum. The following year he founded the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble (OJE). Composed of classical performance majors as well as jazz majors, the OJE made an extended tour of major cities in Brazil at the invitation of the United States Information Agency and performed to acclaim in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The OJE also appeared at collegiate festivals throughout the United States. The OJE received numerous outstanding performance awards at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival and Cleveland’s Tri-C Jazz Festival. It issued a CD in 1998 featuring works by such legends as Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, and Duke Ellington.

Oberlin’s four-year curriculum in jazz studies became an official major in 1989, which leads to a Bachelor of Music with majors in jazz performance and jazz composition.