Sunday, July 4, 2010

Remembering Wendell

Eighteen years ago I began my college education at Oberlin as a jazz saxophone major. Wendell Logan was on sabbatical. During my sophomore year, after Wendell returned, I switched to jazz composition in order to study with Wendell during the rest of my time at school. He immediately struck me as the most serious teacher in the jazz department, and the person from whom I would undoubtedly learn the most. I still believed myself to be a saxophonist first and foremost, but I wanted to learn from this man. I don't know how many jazz composition majors he had before he passed away last month, but at the time we were only three (me, Dave Zoffer, and Scotty Vercoe). One of my proudest accomplishments, to this day, is the fact that I completed the program with Wendell as my private instructor.

Wendell was an amazing teacher. He was also one of the most intimidating people I ever met ... and I don't get intimidated too easily. He had no time whatsoever for bullshit. His bullshit detector was beyond compare. This man's knowledge was so incredibly vast and deep, and his bullshit detector so intense, that he had a tendency to alienate wide-eyed Oberlin undergrads. Learning to navigate the FORCE of Wendell was an education in itself. My heart still races when I think about going to knock on his door to show him the compositions I'd been working on. Or when I think of the poor (other) souls who would show up late for Afro-American Music History class, AFTER he'd locked the door. (Try again next time, pal.) That class, by the way, continues to teach me. The only class from which I saved my notes. I realize now, but I didn't then, what an unusual thing it would be to learn about not just Congo Square, James P. Johnson and James Reese Europe, sure, but Nathaniel Dett, Williams & Walker, William Grant Still.

Composition lessons with Wendell usually went like this. He would generally ask me to compose something for a specific instrumentation. That was about it. I would come the following week to show him a few pages. He would circle two bars and tell me to work on those--and throw out the rest. "The trash can is your best friend." If I played him something that I'd composed outside of lessons, especially if I was shooting for something avant-garde or experimental, he would immediately identify some precedents to shoot down my pretensions of originality. He had me study a number of compositions, which now seem quite an assortment. "Sippin at Bells." "The Three Marias." Oliver Lake's "Rocket."

I remember fondly his criticisms. Leading the big band through a chart of mine, he stopped at the end: "I ran out of paper!" (Write an ending, you idiot!) But when Wendell gave you a compliment, he meant it. He wasn't one for the empty words and platitudes professors sometimes offer students now to avoid hurting their feelings. The fact of the matter is that music is a brutal profession. Students in college are fortunate to have time and freedom to experiment and grow. But they also need to have thick skins for what awaits them. For Wendell, college was still part of the real world; even if that college might be a bubble for some students, it wouldn't be for his. He encouraged students to teach at Cuyahoga Community College. He brought the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble to the prison, reminding us that anyone of us could be in there one day. This also meant that he really treated us like adults. And at this point, it was hard to realize how much he had worked to carve out a space for jazz at Oberlin ... almost singlehandedly, it seemed. He loved his students and simply demanded as much from us as, now I realize, we demanded of him. Some of my best college memories are of the yearly Bar-B-Q's at his house, where we all relaxed and just enjoyed our community.

I was so happy to see Wendell a few years ago at a conference on Black music in Chicago. I had been hearing about some of his health problems and we had emailed a bit, and he looked good. I'm so glad that I had the experience of working with him and that I have so many rich memories.

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