A Profile of Berklee's International Man: Larry Monroe

By
Mark Small
January 5, 2009
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Anyone who passes by Larry Monroe's office before 9:00 a.m. will hear him practicing the saxophone. Monroe, who currently serves as vice president for Academic Affairs/Berklee Valencia, has worn many different hats during his four decades at Berklee, but first and foremost, he's an alto saxophonist. "I come in at 7:30 everyday, except Sunday, and I practice," he says. "I don't do it because I think that Herbie Hancock is going to call. I do it because it's one thing in life that has been a constant for me. Virtually nothing I believed about life, truth, art, beauty, love, war, politics, or relationships has remained the same. But the alto saxophone is the same every day. To me, it represents the only geometrically good deal you can make in life. If you work hard and practice hard, you get better."

As a grade school student in rural Vermont, Monroe, took up the clarinet and later the alto saxophone. From the start, he dreamt of becoming a jazz musician. "I'm the one jazz musician who raves about the support he got from his parents," Monroe says. "My father was not a musician but loved jazz and was perfectly happy about me becoming a jazz musician. . . . He had a tremendous record collection of all the jazz greats of the swing era and that provided me with an awareness of the music that was vital to my musical growth. Also, I was fortunate to have, in a small remote town, a good woodwind teacher with an affinity for jazz."

Still, there was a divide between Monroe and his jazz aspirations. "I had a very difficult period for about six months after graduating from high school," he says. "I'd known about Berklee since I was a kid, but there was no money for me to go to college. I didn't feel I could just sit around, so I took a job in a small-town woodworking factory." Feeling he was going nowhere, Monroe arranged to audition for a military band. His plan was to serve four years, earn G.I. benefits, and attend Berklee. He was devastated when his weak sight-reading skills sank his audition. With determination, Monroe practiced hard and auditioned again three months later. Following advice from the recruiter and mentoring from a clarinet-playing sergeant, Monroe's reading improved and he was in.

After serving his hitch in the U.S. Air Force, Monroe enrolled at Berklee in 1962. During his senior year, he was offered a job teaching a full class load while he continued his own studies part time. After receiving his degree, Monroe served as a full-time Berklee faculty member throughout the seventies and eighties, a period of growth for the college that enabled Monroe to make significant contributions. To this day, his work at the college has given him numerous opportunities to play saxophone with jazz greats.

Early on, Berklee president and founder Lawrence Berk and others in the administration noted Monroe's many capabilities and strong work ethic. They promoted him to head both the Performance and Ear Training departments and produce Berklee concerts—simultaneously. Together with former executive vice president and vibist Gary Burton, Monroe established the Berklee on the Road program in 1985 to present clinics and performances with Berklee faculty members first in Japan, and later in Spain, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Greece, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.

"The on the Road program was Berklee's first international outreach," Monroe says. "We gave scholarships to students everywhere we went, and that program continues to this day." By 1992, Monroe was the first dean of Berklee's Performance Division, but felt he needed to strike a balance between his on-campus duties and his travels abroad. Then-president Lee Eliot Berk and Monroe concluded that he could best serve as vice president for a new Office of International Programs that would develop the Berklee International Network of contemporary music schools. Monroe began traveling even more extensively and established partnerships with contemporary music schools in Paris, Athens, Barcelona, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Dublin, Kobe, Seoul, Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Freiburg, Nancy, Mexico City, and Quito. Currently, the network schools participate in credit transfer programs that annually enable dozens of their students to complete their college education at Berklee.

After years of world travel, Monroe's focus is now the opening of Berklee's first international campus in Valencia, Spain. 

Recently appointed as vice president for Academic Affairs/Berklee Valencia, Monroe is currently overseeing the development of facilities and a Berklee-designed curriculum with undergraduate and graduate degrees in writing for integrated media, global music business, electronic production and design, symphonic band studies, and mediterranean music. Fully implemented, Berklee in Valencia will accommodate 1,000 students, with 200 seats reserved for Berklee Boston students wishing to study abroad. All classes will be taught in English. For students from Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East, Berklee in Valencia will provide educational opportunities not easily found in those regions and help fulfill Berklee's strategy to be educationally influential in the global music community

The opportunities Berklee in Valencia will offer students from remote parts of the world is an aspect of the venture that resonates deeply with Monroe given his beginnings in rural New England and the break he was given. A military recruiter extended a helping hand to Monroe as he was envisioning his dreams evaporating following a weak audition. That break became the gateway for Monroe to an unusual and fulfilling career as a jazz musician and educator. "That guy saved my life," Monroe says reflectively. "He gave me a break. Often in music, someone's gotta give you a break. I always think of that."