By Charlie Landsman
The Kohl Building Celebration Concert, with a special guest performance by international superstar Stevie Wonder, added to the magnitude of the opening of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building. Though Wonder topped the bill, the night really belonged to Wendell Logan, Chair of the Jazz Studies Department and Professor of African American Music. Logan founded the Jazz department in 1973 and has been instrumental in establishing its repute among classical musicians. Many distinguished graduates and professional musicians toasted his accomplishments on Saturday in Finney Chapel.
The first group of alumni performers included best-selling author and Oberlin graduate James McBride, who studied under Logan during his time at Oberlin. McBride thanked Logan on his work before launching into Logan’s composition “Howl for Albert Ayler.”
The second quintetof the evening, also consisting of five Oberlin graduates performed the song “Skylark”, which they dedicated to two recently deceased Conservatory professors, Donald Walden and Neal Creque. The song had a slow, sullen melody and sweet, heartfelt solos, especially from trumpeter Farnell Newton ’99.
Next up was a saucy performance of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” This song highlighted the vocal talent of 2009 graduate Nina Moffitt and got the audience tapping their toes. The song was well chosen and the saucy solos from the four instrumentalists were a definite high point.
The performance that followed featured several recent graduates. Theo Croker ’07, Sullivan Fortner Jr. ’08, Christopher Mees ’09 and Kassa Overall ’05 performed a rendition of “My Funny Valentine”, a jazz standard. Theo Croker exhibited fluid improvisation and was a pleasure to listen to throughout, though I would have liked to hear more from the rest of the band.
For ’83 graduate Allen Farnham to perform his composition “Foot Prince”, two additional pianos were wheeled on stage. Farnham was joined by fellow pianists Allen Baker ’00 and Ted Baker ’83. The song was very complex and featured very little improvisation. After a few minutes, Baker stood up and finished the piece on drums.
The last song before intermission was another three piano arrangement called “Star Monk: 3 Regenerations” written by Wendell Logan. Before the song, master of ceremonies Bobby Jackson referred to Logan the “conductor of the underground space train that runagate beyond the loniussphere where ‘many thousand go.’” The tune was very funny and was well received by the audience.
After the intermission, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble took over the show. Joined by singer Lamont O’Neil ’91, the ensemble kicked their set off with a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.” The song began slowly, and then kicked into high gear toward the endexciting the crowd.
OJE then launched their tribute to Stevie Wonder with an arrangement of his song “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” For their third song, OJE called on stunning vocalist Joanna Lemle ‘10 to sing Wonder’s “All In Love Is Fair.” Then the ensemble, accompanied by a large string section, delved into a Stevie Wonder medley that included instrumental versions of “Higher Ground”, “I Wish”, “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Sir Duke” and more.
After over two hours of incredible music, Stevie Wonder took the stage, welcomed by a standing ovation and applause. He spoke humbly, thanking the crowd often and thanking God even more. His tone then shifted to humor. “People ask me, ‘how do you feel about the first African American President?’ And I say, ‘Well, I can’t see him but I’m happy about it anyway!’”
Stevie introduced his first song by saying, “My heart must be a polygamist because I think you’re all ‘My One and Only Love.’” He continued with renditions of “Send One Your Love” and “All I Do (Is Think About You).”
Several faculty members joined Wonder onstage for a raucous performance of “Superstition” which was definitely the climax of the night. Finney Chapel was on its feet. He closed the night with song he wrote for Michael Jackson entitled “I Can’t Help It.”
To express Oberlin’s gratitude for Wonder’s charitable performance, Dean of the Conservatory David Stull announced that one of the piano practice rooms in the new building would be dedicated to Stevie Wonder. Because his 60th birthday was only a few days away, Nina Moffitt and Joanna Lemle presented Wonder with a birthday cake and started the audience in the chorus of his song “Happy Birthday.”
The Kohl Building Celebration Concert was the biggest show Oberlin is likely to ever see, with overflow seating in both The Apollo and Warner Concert Hall. With almost three hours of spectacular performances, the concert was a world-class salute to a world-class building.