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.