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Joel Forrester, OHIO alum and renowned pianist, donates compositions to University Libraries

Mimi Calhoun
September 15, 2023

Joel Forrester, an OHIO alum of ‘68 and a well-known pianist, returned to Athens County to donate his large archive of original jazz compositions to his alma mater and to University Libraries, as well as to play for the Athens community.

Forrester is a renowned musician who has, among other accomplishments, studied piano with Thelonious Monk and wrote the theme tune for NPR’s, “Fresh Air.” As a prolific composer, he also provided music for the early films of Andy Warhol, accompanied silent films at the Louvre and co-founded, recorded and toured with the Microscopic Septet.

Microscopic Septet poster showing the band in mid-performance
A poster advertising Forrester and a performance with the “Microscopic Septet.” The Microscopic Septet is a jazz septet founded in 1980 and best known for performing the theme song for NPR’s, “Fresh Air.”

Having grown up in a family of musicians, Forrester used to imitate his siblings as they practiced piano. At five years old, he began lessons for classical piano before moving into the jazz genre in middle school. In college, Forrester graduated from Ohio University in 1968 with a degree in journalism and studied music theory. He both practiced and composed in the School of Music while also meeting other student musicians and playing with them.

Forrester eventually moved to New York where he would do a few years of physical labor while his music gained traction, and he would be hired for gigs. In the mid-1970s, Forrester was introduced to American jazz pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk, by major jazz patron, Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter, who championed for Monk’s work in the U.S. Forrester would work with Monk even up until his death in 1988.

“He [Thelonious] wanted me to compose right in front of him,” Forrester said in an interview. “Having received his criticism, I felt that I could play in front of anyone.”

Through the years, Forrester has forged his own path and personal style of music that has well established his reputation as a pianist and musician today.

“I have always been rather strict about emphasizing my own music in public performance,” Forrester said. “I’ll play something by [Thelonious] Monk, only in my own way, but basically I play my own music.”

Photograph of Forrester's original sheet music displayed on a table
Forrester’s original sheet music including, “Mother’s Day,” “Serenade” and “The Visit,” are just a small sampling of his donated compositions.

University Libraries will now be the home to Forrester’s archive of thousands of original jazz compositions, recordings and writings. Forrester had mentioned that he had never cared about leaving a legacy and thought it was more important to continue his composition rather than deal with ones he had already composed. However, due to COVID-19, he thought it was a good time to make his pieces accessible for people in the future.

Carla Williams, University Libraries’ music and special projects librarian and curator of the collection, works collaboratively within the School of Music while working inside the Music and Dance Library located in Glidden Hall. On the fifth floor in 530, the Music and Dance Library allows intersection for OHIO’s schools of music, dance and interdisciplinary arts. Some of the collections housed within the Music and Dance Library include music and dance periodicals, music scores and recordings, similar to the ones of Forrester’s donation, among others.

Williams mentioned in an email that the donation will play a significant role for those that may be interested in Forrester’s work and jazz composition.

“Having his [Forrester’s] compositions donated to the University Libraries means that the collection will remain intact and will be accessible to [generations of] researchers and performers,” Williams wrote.

Photo of Forrester's donations of vinyl, tapes, and CDs staked behind a small post card sized advertisement
An advertisement for the Joel Forrester Trio stands alongside some of his donated audio recordings stored on formats that include reel-to-reel and cassette tapes.

“I’m a composer who tries to pay attention and take inspiration from the world,” Forrester said. “I offer my music as what I want us to be … [and am] constantly inspired by the best in humankind.”

For more information about the Joel Forrester Collection, contact Carla Williams, music and special projects librarian. Photos by Ohio University Libraries.