Berklee Today

Springtime Visit by Yellowjackets Creates a Buzz

  Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs
  Yellowjackets cofounder, pianist, and composer Russell Ferrante conducted workshops and performed in April.
  Photo by Mitch Haupers

During the week of April 4, Berklee hosted members of the Grammy-Award winning band Yellowjackets as Herb Alpert Visiting Professors. Yellowjackets keyboardist, composer, and cofounder Russell Ferrante and drummer Marcus Baylor spent the week in classroom visits, clinics, master classes, and performances focusing on the Yellowjackets' vocal repertoire. The visit received additional support from Keyboard magazine and the Yamaha, Sabian, and Pro Mark companies.

According to Ferrante, it was the first time members of the Yellowjackets have served as visiting professors and the first time they have been officially recognized for their work with a number of top vocalists. A grant from Wild Whip Records, (operated by alumna Kate Schutt) provided funding for vocalist Jean Baylor, wife of Marcus Baylor, to come to the campus as well. Jean Baylor is a gifted singer, songwriter and clinician in her own right and appears on the three latest Yellowjackets releases.

All three visiting artists adapted to the wide variety of classroom situations, working with students in jazz composition and harmony classes, advanced vocal and drum labs, and gospel choir rehearsals. Ferrante lectured on such topics as synth techniques for live performance and the compositional techniques he employs in his own writing. Ferrante also performed as a vocal accompanist and, together with Marcus Baylor, played in a trio setting for an improvisation concepts workshop.

Baylor coached a group of drummers in a fusion drum styles lab and was later joined by his wife and Ferrante in an advanced vocal writing course for a discussion of writing and recording techniques for a cappella vocal groups. The trio performed with student bassist Bryan Ladd in a clinic on vocal accompaniment and then attended an open rehearsal with Professor Dave Weigert's Yellowjackets Tribute Ensemble in preparation for the week's final concert.

The Berklee community was treated to an afternoon concert on April 6 featuring Ferrante and Baylor with faculty members Mick Goodrick (guitar) and John Lockwood (bass) in a program of standards. The quartet, playing together for the first time, explored such chestnuts as "Falling Grace," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Emily," "Moose the Mooch," and a straight-ahead blues. Ferrante told the students that listening to one another respectfully is a great starting point for creating music together.

The Yellowjackets Concert Ensemble, an all-star student group assembled and rehearsed by Berklee professors Scott deOgburn and Mitch Haupers expressly for the final concert of the Yellowjackets' music, was joined by vocalists Jean Baylor, Christy Bluhm '04, and Jeremy Ragsdale '05 as well as Dennis Montgomery, III and his gospel choir, Overjoyed.

Russell Ferrante summarized the week's events as a "stimulating and soul-satisfying experience." Both Baylors, expecting primarily to share their experiences during the visit, were pleasantly surprised to find that they also learned a great deal. Ferrante predicted that the experience will create a profound shift in his approach to music making.