Umbria Jazz Clinics Turns 25

By 
Bob Blumenthal
September 16, 2010
In Umbria, Berklee awards its newest honorary doctorates to Stefano Bollani, Renzo Arbore, and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez.
Berklee president Roger H. Brown, right, talks with Carlo Pagnotta, founder of the Umbria Jazz Festival.
Giovanni Tommaso, director of Berklee's Umbria Jazz Clinics, introduces his band.
The Giovanni Tommaso quintet performs at the 25th anniversary of Berklee's Umbria Jazz Clinics.
Photo by Giancarlo Belfiore
Photo by Giancarlo Belfiore
Photo by Giancarlo Belfiore
Photo by Giancarlo Belfiore

In many important respects, little has changed between this summer's 25th-anniversary session of the Berklee Summer School at Umbria Jazz Clinics and my first visit to Perugia 15 years ago. The physical site has moved four times since the program shared space in the city's music conservatory, where air conditioning was nonexistent and numerous sonic conflicts drove some classes into unused churches.

The 2010 home for the clinics was the Ariodante Fabretti Elementary School, which boasted a spectacular view of the Umbrian countryside, loads of classroom space, and some now-expected problems.

"No air conditioning here, either," said Jim Kelly, a Berklee faculty member who has been one of the clinic's guitar instructors for most of the program's life. "And, like every one of the three other schools we've used in the recent past, we have those little wooden desks with a writing-surface arm. Not the ideal seat for playing an instrument."

Beyond the seating and the heat, however, there were few complaints from the 250 students, roughly one third from countries other than Italy, who attended the intense 12-day program this July. With three sessions of instrumental/vocal instruction and theory in the morning, plus a pair for ensembles and the Gospel Choir each afternoon, students were immersed in music six hours a day, six days a week. Most hung around and jammed until sunset on the outdoor stage that hosted master classes from visiting artists like Giovanni Hidalgo and new Berklee honorary doctor of music Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, as well as the student recitals at session's end.

According to Berklee assistant director of admissions Gojko Damjanic, half of the students attend in hopes of securing one of three dozen awards, which this year included 11 partial Berklee College scholarships and five full scholarships to the Five-Week Summer Performance Program. The attendees didn't have far to look for inspiration, as several of the interpreters assigned to each of the visiting instructors were Berklee alumni who have returned to Italy to perform and teach. Some, like Stefania Rava, a vocalist who interpreted this year for faculty member Donna McElroy, got their start in Perugia.

"I've been at the Umbria school for 16 years," Rava explained, "as a student in '87 and '89 and then, after graduating from Berklee, as an interpreter. I'm from a small town, Parma, which had no information about jazz when I was growing up, so coming here was like heaven. I just loved the teachers and their educational approach. You're among musicians all day, then you hear the masters at night."

Nicola Cordisco did not attend Berklee, but has been an interpreter for 12 years and worked with guitar professor Jon Damian this summer. A founder of the Thelonious Monk jazz school in his native Campobasso, Cordisco viewed the clinics as a holiday, and struck a common theme when he noted that "the first thing you notice here is the atmosphere of no rivalry, no behind-the-back criticism. It is really impressive to sit with a teacher like Jon and watch how he makes the class work for every player."

Trumpeter David Boato, who won a Berklee scholarship in 1988 and has interpreted since '92, also runs a small school in his hometown of Mogliano, and was proud that 10 of his students have won scholarships. He reported, "Coming to Berklee is great for both the experience and the professionalism it gives you . . . and the chance to get comfortable speaking English, which is part of the jazz thing."

These sentiments explained the excitement of the clinics' final morning, when the awards were announced after the Gospel Choir had made a joyful noise over the Umbrian countryside. Alessandra Bosco, an $8,000 scholarship–winning vocalist from Pessaro, noted that "the people here are so beautiful, and display no envy. . . . Everyone only wants to do their best. And the holistic approach of the teachers is a huge difference between what we are used to. Italian teaching is not as open, while at Berklee being open is a way of life." Bosco planned on attending Berklee next year after completing her degree in the science of communication.

One of two winners of the top $12,000 scholarship, Eamon Dilworth turned everyone's head with his impressive trumpet solos. The Australian native was already on a two-month scholarship in London when he saw an ad for the clinics and decided that jamming and hanging would be more satisfying in Perugia. "Studying at Berklee is a farfetched idea for Australians," he admitted. "We have great musicians, but we're so small and so far removed. The scholarship alone is not enough to cover a year of study at an American college, but it gives me a great foundation when I audition for supplemental funds."

Dilworth hoped to join such Berklee College/Umbria Clinics alumni as alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani (who headlined his own Umbria Jazz concert this summer), bassist Matthew Garrison, vocalist Chiara Civello, and pianist Salvatore Bonafede in making the Perugia/Berklee/wider jazz world connection.