Dr. Wendell Logan: Musical Mentor Remembered

Editor’s note: Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine was fortunate to interview Dr. Wendell Logan weeks before his untimely death on June 15. We express our condolences to Dr. Logan’s family and the Oberlin College community.

Oberlin College in northeast Ohio recently celebrated the opening of its new $24 million jazz and music studies building. The two-day event featured lectures and performances by actor and Oberlin alum Avery Brooks, comedian Bill Cosby and music legend Stevie Wonder.

But to many in attendance, the real star of the show was Dr. Wendell Logan, chair of jazz studies at the school’s Conservatory of Music and a music professor who built the jazz program over nearly four decades of “blood, sweat and tears.” His leadership led to the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, which incorporates a state-of-the-art recording studio, storage space for about 700 instruments and the largest privately held jazz recording collection in the country.

The building’s commons area is named after Logan, who came to Oberlin in the 1970s when jazz was just an extracurricular activity. He has received more than a dozen awards, endowments and grants — including four from the National Endowment for the Arts, more than a dozen ASCAP awards and the Guggenheim Fellowship. The 69-year-old soprano saxophonist and composer has produced multiple recordings and compositions and performed all over the world.

“I am appreciative. Some of us are just lucky,” Logan said of the naming honor, which came as a surprise to him. “The students are the reason I stayed for so long [at Oberlin]. They are very bright and highly motivated.”

One of those talented musicians is Nina Moffitt, a professional singer who graduated from Oberlin last year and sang during a 3½-hour concert at the celebration headlined by Wonder. Moffitt, 23, spent all four years in the jazz ensemble.

“First of all, there is no jazz voice program at Oberlin. Wendell let me come in and study music with the instrumentalists, which is not the most conventional way for vocalists to study music. He is the reason I have become more exposed to music from the 1940s and ’50s and understand how it coincides with today’s music,” says Moffitt, who received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology but now performs in her native New York.

Students say Logan, whom Oberlin has honored with an endowed scholarship in his name, taught his classes with tough love.

“There was never one time he told me I was playing [the bass] right, but for him to constantly work with me made me better,” says Leon Dorsey, coordinator of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Dorsey and another former student of Logan’s, James McBride, a composer and author of Miracle at St. Anna and The Color of Water, helped create a scholarship for jazz studies students.

When Logan was hired at Oberlin as a jazz music instructor, students could not major in jazz. It did not become an official major until 1989.

The school’s jazz studies department had nearly 70 undergraduate students this past spring. About 90 are expected to enroll in the fall. “That was a lot of work, but we got it done,” Logan said.

As a child growing up in Thomson, Ga., Logan gained an early appreciation for the value of education.

His mom taught third grade and disabled children, and his father worked as an agricultural scientist instructing farmers on how to locate crops and vaccinate animals. Logan received a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music and trumpet from Florida A&M University, a master’s degree in composition from Southern Illinois University and a doctorate from the University of Iowa.

Logan said he remembered purchasing his first record by Lester Young, a jazz artist who played the saxophone and clarinet and played with Count Basie in the 1930s. Most recently, Logan counted legendary rap artist KRS-One, known for political and socially conscious lyrics in the 1980s and ’90s with Boogie Down Productions, as one of his favorites.

Logan was “just an unlimited source of information. That’s what makes him a great and extraordinary musical mentor,” says Dorsey. “The [Kohl] building is 37 years worth of work, mainly from Professor Logan.”