Wendell Logan, Composer, 1940–2010


Like other youths who awakened to the world of music in Thompson, Georgia, in the 1950s, Wendell Morris Logan (born in 1940) was exposed to the sounds of Antoine “Fats” Domino, James Brown, “Little Richard” Penniman and Silas Green from New Orleans, who all appeared at the community center Logan's father operated; he was also steeped, of course, in the jazz, the blues, the transcendent spirituals and joyous gospel music of his African-American heritage. But it was hearing an orchestra for the first time when he was 18 that opened the door for him onto his particular path.

In his second year at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, he heard Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and was later introduced to the intriguing possibilities of 12-tone music. A tremendous hunger welled up in him—to compose his own music. Having initially studied with his father, Samuel Morris Logan, who created the first instrumental music program in Thompson’s public schools, he now delved hungrily into the fascinating realm of concert music under the tutelage of the distinguished African-American composers Olly Wilson and William Foster and music theory teacher Mrs. Johnnie V. Lee.  It was she who encouraged Logan to become a composer.

After earning his B.A. from Florida A&M in 1962, he completed requirements for a master’s in music at Southern Illinois University (1964) and a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa (1968) while playing trumpet and working as an arranger with marching bands, concert bands and jazz combos. Though Logan was to compose many works in the jazz idiom, such as The Eye of the Sparrow (for flute, tenor sax, trumpet, double bass, piano and drums), Ballad for P.J. and Doin’ the Do, he would write many others for “classical” forces, sometimes even incorporating electronic elements. Among the later are his moving In Memoriam: Malcolm X for choir and magnetic tape and From Hell to Breakfast, a mixed-media piece that employed dancers, pre-recorded tapes, speakers and synchronized lighting.

By 1969 Logan’s compositions were not only being performed, but recorded. In the years that followed, (multiple) grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Martha Baird Rockefeller and H.H. Powers funds, along with a dozen ASCAP awards and a Guggenheim, recognized both Logan’s talent and his versatility.  If some of his compositions bore formal titles like Proportions for Nine Players and Conductor (1969), Music for Brasses (1973) and Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (1979), there were also obviously black-culture-inspired pieces such as Variations on a Motive by John Coltrane (1975) and Song of the Witchdoktor (1976) for flute, violin, piano and percussion.

Logan was drawn, almost from the beginning, to setting the words of African-American writers. Songs of Our Time (1969) was inspired by the words of LeRoi Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks and W. E. B. DuBois; while Ice and Fire (1975) was an affecting duet for soprano and baritone with piano accompaniment consisting of two poems by Mari Evans, “If There Be Sorrow” and “Marrow of My Bone.”

If there be sorrow
let it be
 for things undone
to these add one
love withheld

The great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes provided the texts for Hughes Set for three male voices (1978) and Ask Your Mama*, which was premiered at Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church by the Jazz Heritage Orchestra and soloists in 2002 as part of the Tri-C Jazz Festival.

But Logan does not merely set moving words to music; he re-imagines and weaves them into an unfolding drama of sounds and textures that could only be described as audacious, multi-layered, electrifying. In Songs of Our Time, wrote New York Times music critic Donal Henahan, the chorus “hissed, laughed, babbled, whispered, snapped fingers and wah-wahed (by flapping a hand over the mouth).” The “pop-tinged” Brasstacs (1990) for solo trumpet, said The Chicago Tribune, required “deep-blues phrasings, expert plunger-mute work . . . unusually slow and expressive vibrato” and the soloist’s lowering his horn periodically to chant key riffs.

In 1974 Logan, who had already held faculty appointments at Florida A&M, Ball State and Western Illinois universities, was invited to develop a program in African American Music at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he held the positions of chair of Jazz Studies and Professor of African-American Music until his death in 2010. Logan’s music has been performed in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, though many pieces, such as 1981’s poignant Requiem for Charles Christopher “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) for orchestra, chorus and soloists, were given their first airings before enthusiastic Oberlin audiences. Logan’s Gullah Island Suite was performed by the Oberlin Jazz Faculty Octet in Severance Hall’s Reinberger Chamber Hall in 1991, the year the composer was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize. The prestigious Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters was to follow seven years later.

Works by the composer available on CD include: Roots, Branches, Shapes, and Shades (of Green), a one-movement piano concerto written for Neal Creque, who performs it here with Edwin London conducting the nationally recognized Cleveland Chamber Symphony (The New American Scene II: Five Distinguished African American Composers); Shoo-Fly and Remembrances (on the CD Beauty Surrounds Us); and Moments for clarinet, violin, cello, flute and percussion (with the Thamyris ensemble led by Tania Leon on A City Called Heaven).

An “eerie evocation of a slave’s race for freedom” was the way Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich described Runagate, Runagate (the cry that announced an escaping slave) when it was performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall following its successful debut at Lincoln Center. Its text, a selection of poems by the gifted African-American poet Robert Hayden, written in the first person, “overflows with horrifying images, such as the hungry bloodhounds who pursue the runaway slave,” said Reich, “and the music, a nightmarish blend of dissonant chord-clusters and chilling drum rolls, underscores the frenzied atmosphere.”  Both the original 1989 version for soloist and full orchestra, which was given its U.S. premiere by the Savannah Symphony in 1994, and the chamber version Logan made for Atlanta’s 1990 Black Arts Festival are available: the former on the CD Paul Freeman Introduces. . . (with Freeman leading the Czech National Symphony Orchestra); the latter on CRI’s A La Par (with Leon directing the Lawrence Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble). Tenor William Brown, for whom the work was written, recreates his acclaimed performance on both.

Perhaps Logan’s most ambitious work to date, 2001’s Doxology Opera: The Doxy Canticles, which chronicles the travails of “an unabashedly hedonistic” Doxy, a “foxy lady of the boulevard . . . on her journey from sin to redemption,” composer Steve Reich wrote after attending the work’s world premiere at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art by the New Black Music Ensemble, the main performance group of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. It was, he said, “a vast contemplation [of] the battles of the sexes, the races and various mortals and immortals” whose “free-wheeling” score “embraces both European classical and African-American musical idioms. The passages in which gospel harmony, blues melody and classical instrumentation eloquently merge could only have come from Logan’s pen.”  With a libretto by black playwright Paul Carter Harrison, Doxy had drawn from Logan “some of the most inspired music of his career,” said Reich.  “As a melodist, he has few peers among American composers.”

Logan also contributed articles on aspects of African American music to several journals and authored a Primer for Keyboard Improvisation in the Jazz/Rock Idiom.  Most of his published scores can be obtained from MuziMu Music in Oberlin, Ohio.

—Dennis Dooley

To hear samples of Wendell Logan’s music visit  www.oberlin.edu/oberlinmusic/catalog/beauty

*Subtitled  “12 Moods for Jazz,” Ask Your Mama seems actually to have been intended for such a treatment as Logan’s. “The traditional folk melody of the ‘Hesitation Blues’ is the leitmotif for this poem. In and around it, along with other recognizable melodies employed,” wrote Hughes in his brief introduction to this 12-poem cycle (which includes endnotes and marginal notes suggesting musical treatment), “there is room for spontaneous jazz improvisation, particularly between verses, where the voice pauses. The musical figurine after each ‘Ask your mama’ line may incorporate the impudent little melody of the old break, ‘Shave and a haircut, fifteen cents.’”


—excerpt from “Runagate Runagate”, Collected Poems of Robert Hayden (Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, London 1980) Copyright 1985 by Erma Hayden

—excerpt from Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz by Langston Hughes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961)

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