Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Still Hot, Still Cool

Jim Neumann cleared the way for jazz at Oberlin as a student in the 1950s. Seven decades later, he’s delivering once again.

January 24, 2023

Erich Burnett

Neumann holds an LP, Dizzy in Greece. Behind him is an endless shelf filled to the ceiling with labelled boxes.
Jim Neumann’s Chicago home reveals nothing of his lifelong musical love—until you get to the basement, which is home to shelf after shelf of meticulously categorized jazz CDs, books, autographs, framed art, and more. 
Photo credit: Nathaniel Smith

In some ways, Jim Neumann ’58 still pictures Oberlin as he did in the mid-1950s, back when he was an undergrad studying science and obsessing over jazz on a campus that, at least outwardly, greeted such music rather coolly.

To some, jazz signaled a decadent departure from the European masters who had inspired the work of conservatory faculty and students for more than a century. But there were also students smitten by the form, and there was a student organization empowered to deliver jazz greats to Oberlin’s stages, much as the Oberlin Jazz Society does today.

Among those leading the charge was Neumann, a suburban Chicago kid who toted his ever-expanding record collection to campus and spun them on “Jazz Hot and Cool!” the WOBC radio program he hosted from the third floor of Wilder Hall.

I’m a passionate collector. It’s a problem I have.

Neumann himself doesn’t remember exactly how it all started, but it happened sometime around high school. That’s when a throughline of jazz took hold and hasn’t eased up in the seven decades that have followed.

“My folks were very disappointed that I was interested in jazz,” he says, still the slightest bit sheepish about the topic. Neumann went on to a career managing the family metalcraft business, but his unyielding passion persisted. With his wife, Susan, he amassed a cache of recordings and memorabilia that is widely considered the largest privately owned jazz collection in the world. “I’m a passionate collector,” he notes with a wry smile. “It’s a problem I have. You have people that don’t and people that do. I was obsessive. Let’s put it that way.”

In 2011, he established the James R. and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection at Oberlin, made up of some 100,000-plus LP records, as well as photographs, books, posters, autographs, and more—an exaustive archive of jazz history, housed in the conservatory’s Kohl Building and placed at the fingertips of Oberlin researchers. Thousands of additional artifacts—most notably Neumann’s similarly voluminous CD collection—remain in Chicago for now, awaiting their journey to Oberlin.

Neumann shows a poster in the collection.
Neumann shares a favorite Thelonious Monk poster from his collection. Photo credit: Nathaniel Smith

But the Neumanns’ largesse has taken on a considerable new dimension.

In early 2022, they further amplified the awesome potential of jazz study at Oberlin with a gift of $1.6 million that provides for the ongoing appointment of a postdoctoral fellow in jazz history. It’s the first role of its kind at Oberlin, a sort of key to unlock the boundless potential of the Neumann Collection.

The first Neumann Postdoctoral Fellow is John Petrucelli, a saxophonist, composer, and educator whose two-year appointment began in fall 2022. Honored in 2019 by the Jazz Education Network for outstanding contributions to the profession, Petrucelli arrived with big plans for the Neumann Collection. His research here includes a deep dive into Bee Hive Records, the label Neumann founded with his wife in the mid-1970s, which will serve as a case study for the influence of small American record labels on the global jazz tradition. Petrucelli has devised two courses, including Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections at Oberlin, through which students research and curate public exhibitions using artifacts from the collection.

Beehive Session album cover.
LP recording from Jim Neumann's Bee Hive Records label. (image courtesy of the Neumann Collection)

“I feel as though I'm coming to Oberlin College and Conservatory with a blank slate,” says Petrucelli. “What is most intriguing about this opportunity is the ability to collaborate with world-class faculty across the college and conservatory while pursuing new avenues in my research, pedagogy, and performance practice that will be inspired through the Neumann Collection.”

The Neumanns’ endowment of the fellowship coincides with news of a newly developed minor in African American music, created in tandem with the conservatory and the College of Arts and Sciences. Last spring, musicologist Courtney-Savali Andrews was appointed to a new tenure-track faculty position in African American and African diasporic music.

When it comes to jazz, Oberlin has long since lost its resemblance to the campus Neumann knew as a student. And Neumann himself is delighted to see his lifelong love now stoking the passion of new generations.

“The fact that Oberlin has embraced this the way it has, it’s been an incredible inspiration to know this stuff will live on past me,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. It’s something you just can’t put into words.”

Four simple lines would carry Jim Neumann through the moment. Just four simple lines he had painstakingly committed to memory.

As head of Oberlin’s student jazz club, a young Neumann had been instrumental in bringing a who’s-who of jazz luminaries to campus—a roster that included Dave Brubeck, Woody Herman, Count Basie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Duke Ellington, and Stan Kenton.

But no fish was bigger than famed trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who had just returned with his orchestra from a tour of South America. And Neumann was determined to introduce the act himself on the evening of October 11, 1957, from the stage of a packed-to-the-rafters Finney Chapel.

A jazz fanatic the likes of which Oberlin likely hadn’t seen before, Neumann knew this moment was coming. And so, in the days leading up to the concert, he penned a greeting of four tidy sentences, and he set about the task of memorizing them. With proper planning, he figured, it would all be over before his butterflies swallowed him whole.

As the pews of Finney swelled to capacity, the fourth-year student took the stage, cleared his throat, and …

“I couldn’t remember a thing.”

An excruciating silence fell over the room as Neumann’s butterflies flitted about.

“I remember my roommate in the crowd mouthing the words, ‘Say something!’ And I couldn’t,” he recalls today. He also remembers the flash of cameras from the newspaper photographers who had come from as far as Pittsburgh, seemingly to immortalize his meltdown.

After a few moments that unfolded like years, Gillespie himself emerged from the backstage door, to the right of the silent emcee.

“Dizzy came out and put his arm around me, and he wouldn’t let me off the stage,” Neumann says. “I wanted to die. I felt so humiliated. But he happened to be a very nice person. He was exceptionally warm and engaging.” The jazz master himself had defused Neumann’s bomb, and the evening could proceed at last.

After the show, Gillespie proved to be exceptionally accommodating once again: When Neumann produced a copy of the new record Dizzy in Greece, the bandleader and his fellow musicians happily signed it. One of the earliest pieces of Neumann’s collection, it also remains one of his most beloved (see page 11).

“I was overcome by fright and embarrassment,” he remembers, “but Dizzy saved the day.”

The postdoctoral fellowship in jazz history continues Oberlin’s ongoing efforts to expand curricular diversity and support inclusion. Learn more at the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity website. 

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