David Stull is not one you’d expect to wax poetic, but wax poetic he does about the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building. As dean of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, Stull was instrumental in bringing the new $24-million home for jazz, music history and theory to life.
Stull is standing on the rooftop deck of Kohl, looking down on a kind of plaza. The deck is perfect for outdoor concerts-particularly for patrons of the Sky Lounge, the sleek, minimalist gathering place on the third floor. The name evokes Lindsay’s Sky Bar, a Cleveland nightspot of the early ’50s where photographer Frank Kuchirchuk captured the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Anita O’Day as they passed through town. Kuchirchuk has donated his entire collection of nearly 200 jazz images to the Oberlin Conservatory.
Spaces like that flagstone plaza “were designed to allow all the students in the conservatory to interact with each other, to allow the faculty to interact with themselves and the students, and to invite the broader community into the building,” Stull says. “One of the things we wanted was to make sure the building would eliminate barriers between the making of music and the community that received it. The community loves the building. This is a community that tells you when they don’t like something.”
OBERLIN IS A TOWN OF ABOUT 8,600 that lies 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, and the college is its crown jewel: a famously cerebral institution of higher learning, and the first in the country to admit African-Americans as students. Kohl is surely a new source of pride, a stunning, three-story, ultramodern structure that houses a top-flight recording studio and offices for a remarkable group of professors, and is seeking the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification for a facility dedicated to music. In addition to the Kuchirchuk photos, Kohl also houses the Selch Collection of American Music History and the James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection, the latter of which is reputedly the largest privately held cache of jazz recordings in the country.
At the Kohl Building’s grand opening on April 30 and May 1, Bill Cosby delivered an evening show and Stevie Wonder performed. Wendell Logan, the head of the jazz studies department, came to bask in appreciation of the work he’d done developing and legitimizing jazz at Oberlin since he arrived there in the early ’70s. He also got a chance to visit the office he was to occupy this fall.
I was scheduled to interview Logan on June 13, but when I arrived, Stull told me Logan was in a coma. The Kohl Building is dedicated to Logan; its lobby is named after him. He died June 15 at age 69.
A LONG, RECTANGULAR BOX DISTINGUISHED BY A dynamic interplay of planes, the Kohl Building seems like a natural destination. It connects the college to the town with a view of Tappan Square and bridges beautifully to the conservatory’s original housing, three neo-Gothic buildings designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki.
Designed by Westlake Reed Leskosky, a Cleveland architectural firm, the 37,000-square-foot structure projects into the future but by no means abandons the past. The lead architect was Paul Westlake, who gives substantial credit to associate Jonathan Kurtz. Steven Litt, the highly discerning architecture critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is rarely effusive. Not in this case: “Simply put,” Litt wrote in June, “Kohl is one of the best new buildings in Northeast Ohio designed by any architecture firm-local or otherwise-in recent decades.”
It’s understandable why Litt gushed. A brief tour with Stull showcased sound-proofed staff offices with ceiling heating, housing all the equipment a teacher might need; three large, high-definition, wall-mounted TV monitors on each floor that are functional art, broadcasting images and other data throughout the day; a 24-channel recording studio of double-wall construction that also includes two high-definition cameras so sessions can be videotaped; and, perhaps foremost, an overall feeling of connectivity. And that’s not all: extensive use of glass; a dramatic staircase that narrows as it ascends; earthy, Brazilian Ipe hardwood siding harvested from sustainable forests; and special aluminum cladding that changes color according to natural light-all these elements blur lines between outside and inside, making the building a thrilling blend of the high-tech and the organic. “The building is absolutely beautiful,” says Peter Dominguez, professor of jazz studies and double bass at Oberlin and a regular in various jazz groups in Northeast Ohio. “The way it was put together was unique and very important, with a lot of support coming from David Stull and his administration. It shows you the loving hearts and deep pockets that Oberlin alumni have. All the donations were in the bank before October of 2008 hit.”
Until this year, the jazz studies department Logan developed was housed in the basement of Hales Gymnasium. “It was rundown, and I think the college had a policy that they weren’t going to put money into that facility. Our students were pretty active in voicing their opinions,” Dominguez says. Stewart Kohl, the son of Bertram and Judith Kohl, was key to securing this new home for jazz, jumpstarting the project in late 2005 with a $5 million donation. He is managing partner of the Riverside Company, a private equity firm in Cleveland. “I’m delighted,” says Kohl. “We had very high objectives: that the building should be aesthetically beautiful, that it should be highly functional and that it should be green.” Built on a former parking lot, the Kohl Building listens to acoustics, the environment and natural materials, thereby minimizing the carbon footprint. How the building will perform should become clear over time, but, as Kohl explains, it’s “already very much in demand.”
The recording studio is an extraordinarily functional space that will yield beautiful music, says the 1977 Oberlin graduate. “We challenged the architectural firm to come up with something very innovative and do it cost effectively,” Kohl says, tipping his hat to “a brilliant young architect named Jonathan Kurtz.”
“They learned about jazz,” Kohl explains, “about the conservatory, the college, the town of Oberlin. All of that is reflected in the building.”
Since Wendell Morris Logan passed, Oberlin has posted a video on its Web site that includes his comments on the Kohl Building. Were it not for his efforts, it would not exist. In the clip, Logan says, “A building has to have a soul.” Logan is Kohl’s soul.
A native of Thomson, Ga., a rural community some two hours south of Atlanta, Logan arrived in Oberlin in 1973, when jazz was an extracurricular activity. In 1989, after he designed a jazz curriculum, it became a major. Now, the jazz faculty boasts eight professors including Dominguez, guitarist Bobby Ferrazza, legendary drummer Billy Hart and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.
Bassist Leon Dorsey graduated in 1981, the first Oberlin student to earn a jazz degree. He was artistic director for Stevie Wonder’s concert at the grand opening. He suggests that Logan, who arranged several Wonder songs for that concert, stuck around long enough to see the building. “Maybe something keeps you here until you’re supposed to see it,” he says. “He got to see his office and all the practice rooms.”
Belgrave, a storied horn man featured on recordings by Ray Charles and Was (Not Was), is looking forward to his new office, “a studio with my name on it,” equipped with a small grand piano and cutting-edge electronic gear. “All I need to fulfill my job,” he says.
Clearly the faculty is eager to work in Kohl. But there’s a bigger picture. “I think in the 21st century, you’re going to see music that’s a product of so many influences,” says Stull. “In an age where you have YouTube, iTunes, all of the media outlets that provide for sharing of music around the globe, you’re going to be able to hear music immediately upon its release.”
No need to visit Tower Records; in fact, no more Tower Records, the dean notes: “Now you can be in the middle of Nebraska and have access to a recording made in Berlin the same day someone in the New York Times reviews it. Consequently, if you think about how composers are going to write music now, you want to create an environment which encourages that kind of mutation and experimentation.”
The Kohl Building is a contemporary agora, a digital-age marketplace of musical ideas and a storehouse for an amazing collection, the Neumann. Not only will those flat-screen monitors on each floor display digitized versions of the Neumann collection’s posters and other jazz paraphernalia, but the cache of about 100,000 recordings will be digitized, too, says Stull. That means students will be able to call up any material from a unique collection-reputedly the largest outside the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.-at any time. And it’s material you won’t be able to find online otherwise, he says.
Neumann, who heads New Metal Crafts, a lighting products company based in Chicago, says he wanted a permanent home for his collection. A 1958 Oberlin graduate who majored in biology and chemistry, Neumann became smitten with jazz in the ’50s. His business travels enabled him to get in touch with European jazz critics, and he amassed a huge number of recordings, many of them monaural, abroad and domestically. All will be housed in the Kohl Building in a transfer that should take at least half a year, he says. “The collection is far greater than recordings,” he adds. “I have a massive amount of historical material, from letters to photographs to menus, posters and lobby cards, some very rare things that I’m very keen on-as well as concert material, a lot of it autographed.”
His most memorable jazz experience involved Dizzy Gillespie, whose big band he introduced at Oberlin in 1957. “I developed stage fright and forgot everything I was supposed to say, and I stood on Finney Chapel stage waiting for something to happen and everyone began to laugh,” Neumann recalls. “I thought they were laughing at me. They were laughing at Dizzy. He was doing one of his dances behind me. Then he came over and hugged me. I managed to get some introduction off at that point. He was trying to get me off the hook.”
Neumann is curious about everyone from Sidney Bechet to such ’60s avant-gardists as Carla Bley and musicians who recorded on ESP-Disk’, though he’s not “particularly an authority on what’s going on now,” he says. He’d been looking for a home for his collection for a long time.
At Oberlin, the full academic ticket-tuition, room and board, books and fees-costs about $50,000 a year, and 90 percent of conservatory students enjoy some degree of financial aid, Stull says. The conservatory gets more than 1,400 applications but admits about 137 undergraduate spots, making the applicant-to-matriculation rate about 10 to 1. “When you study at this level, the discipline it requires, the focus that’s expected, are extraordinary,” Stull says. “This is something that transforms the way a person thinks, the way they approach any problem.”
And the Kohl Building will put jazz in its rightful place at Oberlin: at the heart of the conservatory. Says bass professor Dominguez, “This can only help us nourish the program. I think things will blossom, and gaining that recording studio component will help the department and be an outlet for students to go the next step in production, composition and producing their own performances.
“What the Kohl Building does is put things central to the conservatory,” continues Dominguez, who until now worked at Hales Gymnasium, three blocks from the conservatory core. “Putting us smack dab in the middle of the conservatory, jazz can only blossom.”