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News and Media

A Day in the Musical Life

Dec. 12, 2012

Erich Burnett

Yvette Chen

Like the music that will flow from the place within the hour, the crowd shuffling into the Cat in the Cream at Friday midday arrives at its own measured pace: At first it’s just the hurried prep of the day’s musicians setting up their instruments. They’re joined by the rote bustle of staffers cueing up new pots of coffee and baking fresh cookies—the Cat’s sole menu item and its beloved calling card.

But by the time the first notes are struck at around 12:20, dozens of sturdy wooden chairs have been filled, leaving a steady stream of latecomers to scrounge for scraps of space at the far corners of the room.

If there is one thing taken for granted at Oberlin, it could be the almost inconceivable wealth of musicianship that cascades across each concert room and recital hall here. Perhaps most unassuming of all are the Jazz Forums held on Fridays during the noon hour at the Cat in the Cream, the spartan coffeehouse adjoining the bowling alley on the western fringe of campus.

“It’s the perfect way to experience Friday,” says fourth-year student Scout Kerensky Coodley, as she stirs the batter that will become this afternoon’s enormous chocolate chip cookies. A WOBC DJ specializing in Americana and bluegrass, she came to campus with little clue of jazz’s countless charms. But she’s been working at the Cat for two years now, and she always volunteers for Jazz Forum. “Oberlin’s such a great place for music,” she says, “and this is the best part of my week.”

 

A BRIDGE TO REALITY

One of the best parts of any Oberlin week, Jazz Forums date back at least to the mid-1990s, though their roots can be traced further still—to the father of jazz study at Oberlin, late Professor Wendell Logan. For years, performances took place in Hales Memorial Gymnasium, the longtime home of the Conservatory’s Jazz Studies department; there, student ensembles would hold court in the humble space affectionately known as “Studio A.”

“It was a big scene in Hales, because there was always Jazzercise going on and we would be competing with them,” remembers Professor Peter Dominguez, an architect of the forums as they exist today. “But soon it caught on, and a lot of students would bring their lunch to our shows. Eventually, Jazz Forum became an event.”

Over time, a need for additional space prompted some shows to be staged next door at the Cat. By the late 2000s, as the Jazz Studies department prepared to move into a breathtaking new building across campus, Jazz Forum—and virtually all of the department’s other performances—was moved to the Cat permanently.

What many on campus don’t realize is that Jazz Forum is not simply a celebration of Oberlin jazz in all its forms; it’s an academic requirement for students in the Jazz Studies small-group program, which is coached by numerous faculty members, including Dominguez and Director of Jazz Studies Bobby Ferrazza.

“The most important thing is the culture the forum creates,” says Ferrazza, who likens the shows to rehearsals brought to fruition. “It’s an essential microcosm of the larger world. It’s not quite reality, though—it’s a good bridge to that; the students benefit from the experience with each other and the support of one another.”

Much of that support comes from an audience feedback session that follows each  set. Often that means praise for a standout performer or a particular drum solo—confidence builders for sometimes-tentative musicians who may be getting their first dose of life onstage. But the key to any group’s success, says Dominguez, lies in its ability to play together.

“It really is an ensemble class,” he says. “The objective is that we’re trying to create something greater than ourselves.”

 

TWO SHOWS FOR THE PRICE OF NONE

The first of a recent forum’s two ensembles—a traditional-leaning troupe made up of four students—launches into its first piece in unassuming fashion, just a sudden interplay of piano and bass that imparts a hush over the room. No introduction, no words, just music—a spritely blast that starkly contrasts with the dingy autumn skies outside.

Across the Cat, onlookers fumble blindly for shards of cookie or grasp at sandwiches as if reading Braille, their eyes trained intently on the stage. In recent weeks, visitors have included groups from Murray Ridge Center, an area institution that offers lifelong services to citizens with developmental disabilities, and Lake Ridge Academy, a local private high school. Prospective Conservatory students are invited to campus for auditions on Friday afternoons—and the timing is no coincidence; they are first escorted to the Cat to witness a Jazz Forum.

“I love this group. I can feel your soul,” an audience member intones at the start of the first feedback session. A moment later, she launches into an insightful critique—try experimenting more with volume and dynamics, maybe vary the set a bit—that is typical of even the most accomplished performances. And like all forum participants, the ensemble takes the praise and the criticism fully in stride.

“We have a certain amount of decorum that’s required,” says Dominguez. “The music has to be memorized, the students have to be cordial to the audience, and they have to discuss the music they’re playing.” The audience must be cordial to the players too; after all, next week could be their turn onstage.

The day’s second group—a more bombastic, experimental trio whose stage presence is punctuated by the manic dance of a vibraphone player—earns the more vociferous response. Incredibly, both ensembles have played together only for the two months of fall semester, though they jell for their 20 minutes as if they’d shared a stage all their lives.

As the second band completes its set and feedback session, the din of conversation and equipment breakdown envelops the room. Cookie plates are returned to the counter, backpacks are gathered up, and students and townsfolk gradually file back to the lives they had parked outside the door an hour ago. They leave nourished by their time spent amid otherworldly talent, and fortified by another dose of the ever-shifting soundtrack that serenades each day at Oberlin.


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