Berklee Today

Commencement 2004 Honors Cosby and Berk and Marks a New Era

Commencement marshalls
Commencement marshalls return from the dais after leading the 730 graduates into the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center.
Lee Berk and Bill Cosby with their Honorary Doctorates
President Lee Eliot Berk (left) and Bill Cosby after receiving honorary doctor of music degrees at Berklee's 2004 Commencement Exercises on May 8
Farnsworth Blalock Photos

The May 8, 2004 commencement marked the end of an era for a record-setting 730 graduates and the beginning of a new era. It marked the last commencement at which President Lee Eliot Berk will preside after his 38 years of service to the college and the beginning of a new chapter in the college's history. Receiving degrees along with the graduates were President Berk and comedian Bill Cosby, who were each awarded Berklee honorary doctor of music degrees.

Before presenting the degree to President Berk, Board of Trustees Chair Allan T. McLean said, "It has been my personal pleasure to know Lee Berk for the better part of 30 years. He has guided Berklee during this period of rapid growth. His numerous accomplishments during a quarter-century as president have positioned Berkee as a leader in music education and altered the way other institutions view contemporary forms of American music."

After receiving the degree, Berk said, "Nothing could be closer to my heart than receiving this honorary recognition from the community that has been such a part of my life. It is very gratifying to look back and see how I have helped to carry forward my father's vision, to have continued the entrepreneurial history of the college with new majors, new technologies, community and international outreach, and to have seen so many of our alumni receiving the highest levels of recognition from the music industry and beyond. In his recent visit to Berklee this spring, Quincy Jones encouraged all of us to dream big and to work with people we love. My life has permitted me to do both. I am very grateful."

Bill Cosby speaking
Honoree Bill Cosby told the graduates not to doubt themselves.

Before bestowing the degree upon Bill Cosby, McLean described the comedian as someone with enough Emmys, People's Choice Awards, and Golden Globes to start his own solar system. He also spoke of Cosby's deep love and support of music and education and how Cosby attributes the evolution of his style of comedy to emulation of the early masters of jazz. Like them, Cosby would take an idea and continually find new ways to develop it.

Kamaria Ousley singing
Kamaria Ousley belts out the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" at the commencement concert.

In his address to the graduates, Bill Cosby chronicled his start as a comedian during the 1960s. He related a pertinent experience at his first important comedy club appearance in Chicago when he suddenly lost his confidence before taking the stage. He told the graduates that they have been well prepared and not to listen to the negative internal voices that erode confidence. "When you go for an audition, you show up - not that doubting person, not the unprepared person, not the one that you send with excuses, not the one who's hoping people will just rescue them - you show up," Cosby said. "I want you to believe every professor who ever said 'You're good' as you sat there doubting yourself. Give your professor's words and judgment a chance. Go flat-out. See how good you are. For anyone who's ever been prepared and for anyone who's ever walked into anything to face a challenge of knowing his or her stuff, you know there's no better high on the face of this earth."

The commencement weekend began with the traditional concert in the Berklee Performance Center on May 7, the night before the graduation ceremony. However, given the sheer number of performers and the range of music presented, this concert was grander in scale than any commencement concert in recent memory. Assembled for the occasion were the 30 singers and instrumentalists of the Berklee Jazz/Rock Ensemble (BJRE), the 20-piece Berklee Rainbow Band led by Phil Wilson, vocal quartet Syncopation, and the 55 members of the Berklee Reverence Gospel Ensemble led by Dennis Montgomery III. Special alumni guest stars, bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr. '72 and vocalist Lalah Hathaway '90, added further dimension to the evening.

Gospel choir singing  
Dennis Montgomery III leads the Berklee Reverence Gospel Ensemble in a medley by Andraé Crouch.  

After opening with Charlie Parker's "Anthropology," vocalist Kamaria Ousley took the stage for an r&b rendition of the Beatles classic "We Can Work it Out." Christie Bluhm served up a swinging version of Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry" before yielding the stage to Natalie Stovall who sang John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery." The Rainbow Band played the Phil Wilson original "The Future's in Your Hands" and a romping version of "Cherokee" sung by Syncopation. The BJRE then returned with four television themes associated with Bill Cosby. Abraham Laboriel, Sr. took the stage for "Guidum," a folk-like song written by his father and his own "Anunciao." Lalah Hathaway came out to sing Gershwin's "Summertime" and Joe Sample's "Street Life."

Dennis Montgomery III and company sang a pair of tunes penned by gospel star Andraé Crouch and the concert closer "Musical Fortress (Lee Berk Tribute)" cowritten by Montgomery and Al Kooper. By the song's end, all performers (as well as Lee and Susan Berk) were onstage dancing and singing in an ecstatic celebration of the graduating class, the Berks, and the joy of music.