Surrounded by Friends, Joni Mitchell Receives an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee
Berklee awarded Joni Mitchell an honorary doctorate degree Tuesday evening in recognition of her incalculable contribution to music. Known for her complex harmonies and soul-baring lyrics, Mitchell helped shape the sound of not just her own generation, but of those to come.
“Since her debut in the late 1960s, Joni has been a force for change in the industry, blazing the trail for women in music with an unwavering commitment to achieving the status rightfully due her as one of the world’s great musical artists,” Berklee President Erica Muhl said at the event, held at a private residence in Santa Monica, California.
In addition to honoring Mitchell’s exceptional contribution to music, the event was an opportunity, Muhl said, “to highlight Joni’s important work as an activist and champion for women in music through a collaboration tonight with the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, an organization that has done pioneering work in this same area.”
Well, luckily I'm too old to get a swelled head. [This is] a beautiful event. Words can't describe it.
Upon receiving the doctorate, Mitchell thought back to a childhood piano teacher who used to scold her for not following the sheet music. She said, quoting the teacher, “‘Why would you want to play by ear when you can have the masters under your fingertips!’ And she whacked me across the knuckles with her ruler.” Mitchell laughed at the memory and continued: “So I said to her, ‘But the masters had to play by ear to come up with that stuff.’ And she whacked me again. I wonder if she saw any of this [tonight]. It’s my moment of revenge.”
It must have been sweet. Many admirers from around the world sent in video clips, telling Mitchell what she means to them. In her clip, Annie Lennox ’13H said, “Hi Joni, I guess it must be hard to imagine just how many people you have influenced and inspired over so many years…. I’d never have thought about becoming a singer-songwriter if I’d never heard Court and Spark and all the beautiful, beautiful pieces of work that you have created over your lifetime.”
"Well, luckily I'm too old to get a swelled head,” Mitchell said of receiving the honorary doctorate. "It's a beautiful event. Words can't describe it. I've got my good friends here with me," she added, referencing Wayne Shorter ’99H, who was seated to her left, and Herbie Hancock ’86H, who was on her right. But there were two others Mitchell would have liked to share the moment with: "I wish my parents were alive. My mother in particular would be really proud of this because she wanted me to go to college. I went to art school and I quit after a year. She thinks of me as a quitter. So to see this achievement would be very impressive to her. I wish I could share it with her.”
But Mitchell has turned out quite a few impressive achievements over the course of her six-decade career, with the honorary doctorate being the latest addition to a long list of awards. Last year, at a ceremony attended by President Joe Biden, she was given a Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to American culture, and this year the MusiCares Foundation, the Recording Academy’s charitable organization, named Mitchell its Person of the Year. She’s been recognized in her native Canada with four Juno Awards. In addition, she’s won nine Grammys and has been nominated for seven others. And, in 2002, the Recording Academy gave her its Lifetime Achievement Award.
However, none of these Grammys were for the album many consider her best, Blue. It’s this record that Rolling Stone ranked third on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “Blue was the sound of a woman availing herself of the romantic and sexual freedom that was, until then, an exclusively male province in rock,” the magazine wrote. NPR holds the record in equal regard: In 2017, it called Blue the best album made by a woman.
We at Berklee are simply joining the whole world in celebrating Joni Mitchell’s impact on music and women everywhere, and on anyone who was forever changed after their first experience with her music—which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us.
Blue came out the year after her back-to-back releases of Cloud and Ladies of the Canyon. The former earned Michell her first Grammy, and the latter, which contained the generation-defining songs “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” was Mitchell’s first album to be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
But Mitchell’s influence extends far beyond that which can be measured by record sales, radio play, and awards. Innumerable artists—from Bob Dylan to Prince to Brandi Carlile—cite her as an inspiration. Last year, David Crosby, who helped discover Mitchell in 1967, called her “arguably the best singer-songwriter of our time.” Young musicians sing similar praise. In 2019, Harry Styles told Rolling Stone that he considers Blue to be one of the two best albums ever made in terms of songwriting and melody.
In her remarks, Muhl spoke of Mitchell’s wide-ranging influence: “In truth, we at Berklee are simply joining the whole world in celebrating Joni Mitchell’s impact on music and women everywhere, and on anyone who was forever changed after their first experience with her music—which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us.”
Terri Lyne Carrington, the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, had noticed years ago that Mitchell had not yet received a doctorate and then spearheaded the effort at Berklee to award her the honor. “Jazz musicians love Joni Mitchell and there’s a reason for that,” she said.
Further expanding on the connection between Mitchell and the jazz institute, Aja Burrell Wood, its managing director, said, “We see our work at the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice as a fitting companion to this tribute to Joni—excuse me, Dr. Joni—whose career has inspired so many young artists in the worlds of folk, jazz, songwriting, and more. Our mission is to support and sustain a cultural transformation in jazz by promoting opportunities for women and nonbinary musicians in the jazz field, and ultimately change hearts and minds about the soul and future of jazz and music more broadly.”
Among the women in jazz paying tribute to Mitchell Tuesday evening were the vocalists of säje, who arranged an engaging medley of Mitchell’s songs; Dianne Reeves ’03H, who delivered powerful renditions of “River” and “Both Sides Now;” and esperanza spalding B.M. ’05 ’18H, who treated guests to exceptional adaptations of “The Wolf that Lives In Lindsey” and “Love.” Berklee student musicians joined spalding for the last song of her set, “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.”
As the women sang, Mitchell often broke into song herself, at times swaying in her seat and clapping the table. At the end of one tune she called out, “Oh, it’s beautiful!” At one point, she briefly wept.