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Wendell Logan, Legendary Founder of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Department, Dies at 69

Jun. 17, 2010

Marci Janas ’91

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Professor of African American Music Wendell Logan
Photo credit: Kevin G. Reeves

Wendell Logan, who arrived at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1973 to build, from the ground up, one of the most respected jazz studies programs in the United States, died on Tuesday, June 15, 2010, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was 69 years old.

Logan was Professor of African American Music and Chair of Oberlin’s Jazz Studies Department, which he founded. An exponent of both jazz and art music, he was an important compositional presence within his musical generation. Throughout his distinguished career as composer, performer, and educator, he received numerous commissions and won many awards, including four from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a dozen or so ASCAP awards, three Ohio Arts Council grants, and, in 1991, the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and the Cleveland Arts Prize in Music. In 1994, he was a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy. His instrument was the soprano saxophone, and he performed in Africa and the Caribbean, in Europe, and throughout the United States.

"This is a tremendous loss to our community and the world of music,” says Dean of the Conservatory David H. Stull. “Wendell Logan’s profound impact on our lives, and his work as an artist and teacher, will continue to influence generations of young musicians. He leaves a legacy of courage, accomplishment, artistry, and humanity that will be a permanent inspiration for us all.”

Logan’s passing occurred just six weeks after the dedication of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, Oberlin’s new home for jazz studies, during which the lobby was named in his honor. He presented Stevie Wonder for an honorary doctorate in music, and conducted a celebratory concert that featured Wonder, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble, members of Oberlin’s jazz studies faculty, and returning alumni. The spotlight was on Logan and the program that he founded in the weeks leading up to and following the dedication; a profile about him appeared in the Plain Dealer on May 30.

Bassist Leon Lee Dorsey ’81, a professor and coordinator of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, was in Oberlin for the dedication of the Kohl Building, serving as music director for the concert, at which he also performed. “Professor Logan was one-hundred percent selfless, and gave freely of his scholarship, musicianship, and wisdom,” says Dorsey. “His students have been the beneficiaries of his vast knowledge, and I am honored to say I was fortunate to have been under his tutelage. Truly, he left the world a better place.”

Throughout  37 years of Logan’s extraordinary leadership, Oberlin’s jazz studies department has prepared undergraduates for careers as professional jazz musicians and for advanced studies in jazz. The premiere performance education that jazz studies students acquire at Oberlin is grounded in the history and theory of both jazz and classical music, and that was Logan’s doing. His teaching formed the foundation of numerous jazz careers. Author and composer James McBride ’79, another of his former students, also performed at the celebration concert. McBride says:

“Wendell had everything to do with my successful career as an author and musician. He knew more about African American music, and the history of African American music, than anyone I've ever worked with, and that includes my three-year stint with Quincy Jones. He taught me that music is a lifelong learning process. I left Oberlin humble, with an open mind, feeling capable, yet knowing that if I did not continue to exploit my capabilities and potential, my dreams would not amount to much more than a cup of coffee. I can recall several times calling him from the road while working as a professional saxophonist to ask for advice on how to improve. In New York City, the mecca of the jazz world, I see his former students all over, and many rank with the best jazz players in the world. They loved and admired him not only as a teacher and composer, but as a man of deep moral principle, honesty, and truth.”

Indeed. When asked once for the three words that best described him, Logan himself replied: “Fair, honest, compassionate.” He also revealed what inspired him to become a musician, and what kept him inspired on discouraging days:

“The spirits came and got me. On discouraging days I know that things will always be better. Bettah Days are Comin,’ as the spiritual goes.”

Wendell Morris Logan was born in Thomson, Georgia, on November 24, 1940. He grew up in that small town and first studied music with his father, a professional musician. At an early age, Logan was exposed to the Southern cultural milieu of spirituals, the blues, jazz, and gospel music. He also heard performances by touring musicians and groups such as James Brown, “Fats” Domino, and “Little Richard” Penniman. As a boy, he enjoyed playing with Tinker Toys and Erector Sets, which fueled his interest in “putting pieces together,” as he says. Later encouraged by his music theory teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Lee, he finally chose composition as his musical path.

In his second year of studies at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he eventually earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1962, Logan heard Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and was exposed to 12-tone music for the first time. Realizing the exquisite craftsmanship behind Firebird, he then earnestly committed to becoming a composer. In pursuit of this goal, he studied with Olly Wilson and Johnnie V. Lee at Florida A&M, and then began graduate work in composition at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he studied with Will Gay Bottje.

Logan earned a Master of Music degree from the university in 1964, all the while playing the trumpet with jazz groups and concert bands and arranging music for both. He has composed more than 200 works that have been performed on three continents. In 2001, Logan’s large, operatic composition, Doxology Opera: The Doxy Canticles, premiered in Chicago; Paul Carter Harrison was librettist. The work was a synthesis of Logan’s early influences, including the long-meter hymns and chants of the African American church, jazz, blues, and the Euro-American classical tradition. His work has been recorded on the Orion, Golden Crest, University of Michigan Press, Morehouse College Press, and RPM labels, among others.

Logan founded several ensembles at Oberlin. The Oberlin Jazz Ensemble (OJE) brought together classical performance majors as well as jazz majors; in 1985 the OJE made an extended tour of major cities in Brazil at the invitation of the United States Information Agency. More recently, they performed to acclaim in the U.S. Virgin islands, and frequently appear at collegiate festivals throughout the United States. The Oberlin Jazz Septet, featuring the best Oberlin students, has been featured at such venues as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Detroit Jazz Festival. The Oberlin Jazz Faculty Octet was twice featured at conferences of the International Association of Jazz Educators, and in the 1990s the group released Hear and Now, an album of original compositions by Logan, Associate Professor of Jazz Guitar Robert Ferrazza, and the late pianist Neal Creque. In 2007, Logan collaborated with his colleagues on the jazz studies faculty to produce Beauty Surrounds Us on the conservatory’s music label, Oberlin Music. Two of Logan’s compositions, "Shoo Fly" and "Remembrances," can be heard on the album.

Prior to teaching composition, African American music, and jazz ensemble at Oberlin, Logan served on the faculties of Florida A&M University, Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana), and Western Illinois University (Macomb).

His wife, Bettye Logan, with whom he celebrated 48 years of marriage on May 26, survives him, along with two children, four grandchildren, and two brothers.

Gifts in memory of Wendell Logan may be made to either the Wendell Logan Conservatory Jazz Studies Scholarship or the Wendell Logan and Michael R. Rosen Jazz and Classical Percussion Endowed Scholarship Fund. For more information please contact Oberlin College’s Office of Stewardship, Bosworth Hall, 50 West Lorain Street, Oberlin, Ohio, 44074, or call 440-775-8569.

Arrangements, which are being handled by Carter Funeral Home in Lorain, Ohio, are private. A memorial service is planned for fall 2010 at Oberlin College. More information will be released as it becomes available.

Students, faculty, staff, and alumni who would like to share their memories of Wendell Logan are invited to send them to communications@oberlin.edu. They will be collected and posted on the website at a later date.



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