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Arts and Entertainment


Jazz at Oberlin graduates from a decrepit gymnasium to a 24 million dollar building
Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby will be on hand for the grand opening of the Bertram and Judith Kohl building
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN


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Vivian Goodman
 
The Kohl building is 37,000 square feet on three floors and there's a glass enclosed Sky Bar coffee shop overlooking Tappan Square.
Courtesy of Kevin Reeves
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The Oberlin Conservatory is the oldest music conservatory in the nation and among the first to offer jazz studies. A landmark concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1953 was the genesis of the program but it wasn't officially offered until 1973 when African American Music Professor and renowned composer Wendell Logan founded the Jazz Studies department. It has been housed until now in the basement of Hales Gymnasium on the Oberlin campus. But this weekend marks the grand opening of its 24 million dollar new home, the Bertram and Judith Kohl building, and the beginning of a whole new way of teaching jazz.
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By Vivian Goodman and Alex Cox

The new home of Oberlin Conservatory’s Jazz Studies officially opens on Saturday. The 37,000-square-foot  Bertram and Judith Kohl Building utilizes cutting edge acoustic and environmental technology, and promises to radically transform the way jazz is taught at Oberlin – and likely elsewhere.
For more than three decades, the jazz department has been using Hales Gymnasium; it has been there  ever since the athletics department moved out. The aging complex stands some distance from Tappan Square and the conservatory on the western edge of campus. In warm weather, it’s not uncommon to see jazz students practicing outside of the gym because the inside is so cluttered.
Drummer Alex Morris, one of 76 jazz majors, has to climb over amps, keyboards, and instrument cases to get to his kit squeezed against a basement wall.
 I mean look around, holes in the walls, smells of soil,” he said. “The greatest jazz musicians of past generations and these generations teach here. Robin Eubanks, Billy Hart, those are two of the most influential players on the scene in the world today and they teach in the basement of a decrepit gymnasium. It shouldn’t be like that, and it’s not gonna be like that for very much longer.”
That’s because the  $24 million Kohl Building is about to open. The three-story  aluminum structure with its sleek sides and curves and sharp edges was designed by Cleveland architects Westlake Reed Leskosky. The firm’s aim was to achieve acoustic excellence in the most environmentally sound music building to date. The building has earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – or LEEDS -- Gold Rating.
The exterior is made largely of sustainable Brazilian hardwood. The many windows and glass paneling reduce the need for artificial lighting, while thick walls and geothermal heating and cooling systems reduce energy usage and eliminate mechanical noise.
Conservatory Dean David Stull believes that the new building’s high tech improvements will fuel creativity and revolutionize the teaching of jazz.
He points to a practice room.  “Not only is it fully sound-proofed and acoustically designed for jazz performance but every room is equipped with its own recording and playback materials.
“ So you can be playing with your trio in that room and you can record everything you’re doing and you can play it back. Then you can turn around and you could go to the archive and you can say, ‘How did Miles (Davis) do this? Or how did Miles play this recording?’ ”
Besides the Selch Collection of instruments, and the Kuchirchuk Collection of jazz photography, the facility boasts the Neumann Collection of 100,000 jazz recordings. All were donated once the Kohl Building became a reality.
The building, like the jazz buzzing inside, is open to interpretation.
“ People say that the windows look syncopated and there’s a certain rhythm to them and the way light hits the spaces and enters the building,” said lead architect Jonathan Kurtz .
 While designing the building, Kurtz immersed himself in jazz music to find inspiration. He said it took some getting used to. “When we first got the project, I’ll admit I did the Ken Burns jazz, listened to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane, which are the more conventional ones. I tried to listen to others as well.”  
Cleveland financier and Oberlin alumnus Stewart Kohl put up $5 million for the project. He wanted to give his alma mater a world-class building befitting the luminaries of its jazz faculty. The donation, made in 2005, was the largest private gift for jazz education at a U.S college.
Stewart Kohl is pleased with the results. “We  took it literally out of the basement of a gymnasium, … kind of from ‘worst to first’ in terms of quality of facility.”
Will anyone miss the old Hales Gymnasium?
 Guitar professor Bobby Ferraza admits that he’ll be slightly nostalgic. “Oh, man we’ve had so many memories here. McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Mulgrew Miller, just to quote some who’ve been here in the past few years. Stefan Harris, Buster Williams. I mean, really. It’s really rich.”
 Oberlin is America’s oldest conservatory, and one of the first to teach jazz. Julliard didn’t introduce it until about ten years ago and the Cleveland Institute of Music has never had a jazz program.
The dedication of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building will take place in the conservatory's Warner Concert Hall at 11 a.m. on May 1.

Related Links & Resources
Oberlin Conservatory website


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