Faculty, Student Group to Perform at Clarksdale Festival, April 17

By
Allen Bush
April 14, 2010
The Berklee Mississippi Exchange Band is part of an initiative that brings Mississippi musicians and educators to Berklee, gives Berklee faculty and students the chance to perform and absorb the culture and history in the Delta, and awards summer scholarships to Mississippi teens. From left: Saxophonist Mario Castro, bassist Lenny Stallworth, drummer Taylor Gordon, and keyboardist Eric Finland.
Photo Phil Farnsworth

Three years ago, Berklee College of Music hatched a plan to build a bridge between its Boston campus and Mississippi. For more than 65 years, the world's largest college of contemporary music has had a curriculum with roots deeply planted in the fertile ground from which blues, country, rock, gospel, and folk music emerged. With the idea of bringing the music and culture closer to campus, a summer scholarship initiative began for students at the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, and the Robert Johnson Blues Museum, in Crystal Springs. To date, four recipients have made the trip to Berklee's Five-Week Summer Performance Program.

The bridge saw more traffic in recent months when Steven Johnson, vice president of the Johnson Blues Museum, lectured at Berklee on the legacy of his grandfather, Robert. Ben Payton, an acoustic blues player from Jackson, then made his Boston debut at a show devoted to American roots music at the Berklee Performance Center. A mutual educational exchange was born: Berklee students were getting a direct taste of Mississippi legacies and culture, while students from Mississippi experienced Berklee's world-class professors and curriculum during their summer studies.

The Berklee Mississippi Music Exchange, as the effort is now known, develops opportunities to exchange music, education, and culture between Berklee, the Mississippi Delta, and other parts of the state. 

On Saturday, April 17, the Berklee Mississippi Exchange Band performs at the Juke Joint Festival, in Clarksdale, at 3:30 p.m. on the Delta Blues Museum stage, and at 7:00 p.m. at the Ground Zero Blues Club, opening for the Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band and Super Chikan

This is the first time a Berklee group has appeared at the event. Ensemble professor and bassist Lenny Stallworth, a native of Moss Point, Mississippi, will lead the student group, while Africana Studies professor Bill Banfield, also a noted jazz guitarist and recording artist, provides commentary on the set's connections to Mississippi's sonic heritages. Special guests will be guitarist Travis Calvin, a former student of the Delta Blues Museum's Arts and Education Program and a current instructor who received a Berklee Mississippi summer scholarship in 2008; and vocalist Ashton Riker, who studies in Berklee's City Music Network program at the Stax Music Academy in Memphis. Both are expected to attend Berklee this fall.  

At 3:00 p.m., a presentation will be made to one of the recipients of this year's Berklee Mississippi Summer Scholarship on the Detla Blues Museum stage. Students from the Delta Blues Museum's Arts and Education Program will audition on Thursday for a full scholarship that will place them in Boston for five weeks this summer, July 10 through August 13, with 900 high school students from all over the world, sharpening their playing or singing skills in private lessons, ensembles, and concert performances. 

Another audition will take place in the Baptist Town section of Greenwood on Friday, with the students from the Robert Johnson Blues Museum. The scholarships are each worth more than $7,500. 

For the Berklee students traveling to perform at the Juke Joint Festival, a tour is planned of blues and civil rights sites in the Delta with Luther Brown of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University.