You don't have to put on the funkalicious shades like Berklee College of Music President (and drummer) Roger Brown did to greet honorary degree recipient George Clinton the other day. It's easy to see with the naked eye that Berklee's impact has grown under Brown's tenure, which began in 2004.
The museums have been getting most of the ink lately when it comes to cultural impact around here, as the ICA makes itself felt in its new digs, the Museum of Fine Arts unveils its massive makeover, and the Gardner shows off its sleek addition. But despite its own changing profile and big expansion plans, Berklee hasn't gotten quite the same attention.
When I moved back to Mass. almost 15 years ago, the venerable music campus still had to remind us journos at times that it was a college now, not a school, even though that change had taken place back around 1970, when a relative of mine was taking classes there in big-band arranging. Jazz was still what people thought of when they thought of Berklee - the names most commonly mentioned were Pat Metheny and faculty member Gary Burton - as well as the Berklee Performance Center. Those in the neighborhood also knew it as the source of all those kids with instrument cases clogging the sidewalks around Tower Records.
The kids are still there, though Tower isn't. Berklee's student body seems to grow ever more talented and diverse, like this bluegrass fiddler from Prague. Now, though, folks like Clinton regularly pass through the campus, sometimes performing for the public, but almost always hanging and jamming with students. Students, alums and the occasional passing bigger name drop into the school's Cafe 939 to perform. Student and faculty ensembles pop up all over the city with (usually free) performances, especially in warmer weather and outdoors. And in September the Beantown Jazz Festival draws a hearteningly huge and diverse crowd to Columbus Ave as well as venues around the city. (Wish they'd called it something other than Beantown, but ....)
Berklee has long done well at the Grammys, but often with producer or songwriter credits that don't get much attention. Student-turned-faculty-member-turned-jazz-phenom Esperanza Spalding lives out of town now but did much to raise Berklee's image with that surprising 2011 Grammy win for best new artist. Spalding also appears on alum and percussion professor Terri Lyne Carrington's "The Mosaic Project," which followed her into the Grammy spotlight this year by winning best vocal jazz album.
Trey Parker of "South Park" and "Book of Mormon" fame and the brilliant singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi are also alums who were among Berklee's eight Grammy winners this year, as is songwriter Jeff Bhasker, who won best rap song for "All of the Lights" by Kanye West, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, and Fergie.
There are plenty of other signs that Berklee is hitting it right, but I'll name just one more: the Rethink Music conference, which Berklee runs with Reed Midem and Harvard's Berkman Center for Society and the Internet. Last year's event drew a full house of music business insiders to yak for two solid days about whatever the hell it is that's happened to the industry and where it goes next. There were endless podium and hallway debates about copyright and digital distribution and bands charting their own course in the increasingly chaotic field.
This year's event, featuring keynotes from the president of Pitchfork Media and the chief content officer for Spotify, is set for April 22-24 again at the Hynes Convention Center. I encourage Brown - no relation, by the way - to break out the shades, and maybe some nice stack heels too.
Photo of Clinton and Brown courtesy Berklee.
Two notable shows between now and Valentine's Day that you might have missed... Tickets are going fast for Danilo Perez and friends at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Friday night. This is a pretty smashing combination of the "Pan-American" jazz pianist and one of the most interesting performance spaces in the entire Boston area. This small, wood-and-glass performance hall offers great sound and a beautiful harbor view. Now, sure, it will be dark when the show begins at 8 p.m., but Perez will cast plenty of illumination anyway. Tix are $25-$35 and if you're interested, I'd call 978-546-7391 or go here right now. Bonus: The show is a benefit for the North Shore Jazz Project, whose All-Star band will open. Not a bad date night.
The other show is more directly Valentine-related. Three real-life couples, rootsy-folkie types all, will play Songs of Love at Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge, on Valentine's Day, aka Tuesday. Darol Anger and Emy Phelps, Lissa Schneckenberger and Corey DiMario, and Brittany Haas and Kai Welch will present what they're calling Sweetheartsâ Night Out, with originals and covers looking at romance from, well, both sides now and then some. The 8 p.m. show is $23 for Passim members and $25 for non-members.Â They can be purchased in advance here or at 617-492-7679.