Berklee Today

Opening Day and Convocation Events Connect Berklee's Past and Future

  Honorary Dr. Branford Marsalis '80 (left) with Berklee President Roger H. Brown
  Photography by Phil Farnsworth

On September 8, Berklee held its first Opening Day celebration in conjunction with its annual Entering Student Convocation. On hand for the festivities was Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis '80, who spoke before the Berklee community twice. In the morning, Woodwind Department Chair Bill Pierce interviewed Marsalis on the Performance Center (BPC) stage. That evening, Marsalis returned to the BPC to receive an honorary doctor of music degree.

A community breakfast for faculty and staff members was the first order of the day. Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lawrence J. Simpson welcomed the crowd of 600 gathered at the Sheraton Boston Hotel's Grand Ballroom. In addition to Simpson's remarks and an address by Berklee student Matthew Witek, the new video, titled Higher Teaching was shown. Its series of interviews with members of the Berklee community underscored the significance of various types of mentors in the lives of young people. President Roger H. Brown was the concluding speaker at the breakfast and presented ideas under discussion for the future expansion of Berklee's facilities.

Berklee students, faculty, and staff members mingle at the Opening Day Barbecue in the Fens.  

At 11:00 a.m., Marsalis sat for an interview with Bill Pierce before a live audience. Their half-hour discussion touched on Marsalis's student experiences, music education and learning the jazz language, the Marsalis Music record label, and more. At one point, Pierce asked Marsalis about his recent return to playing classical music. "I got back into it because I needed something to break me out of a rut," Marsalis said. "In jazz, you play ideas that are comfortable to you. In classical music, when you tackle a piece like the Ibert Concertino, none of it is comfortable, and you have to play the notes. You're out of your comfort zone. Playing that kind of music forces you away from limited ways of thinking."

Following the interview, faculty member and guitarist Dave Fiuczynski and the Heavy Groove Ensemble took the stage for a mini-concert featuring tunes by Meshell Ndegeocello and a Fiuczynski original. After the last number, the crowd headed to a noontime barbecue at Mother's Rest Park in the Fens. More than 1,600 students, faculty and staff members ate lunch together to the rhythms of a drum circle.

  Featured lead vocalists trade lines on "What's Going On?" for the Convocation Concert finale.

Wearing academic caps and gowns, Marsalis and the college's administrators lined the BPC stage for the evening's convocation ceremony. President Brown addressed the entering class, saying, "You will meet some people here who are formidable players. Try to let that inspire rather than deter you. If you were a young Thelonius Monk sitting in the audience, I'd tell you not to try to sound like Oscar Peterson; sound like Thelonious Monk. If you were a young Bob Dylan, I'd say don't try to play like Eric Clapton; be Bob Dylan. Ultimately, you have to come back to who you are and what you were meant to do as a musician. You've got something unique and special to say, and that's what we want to hear from you."

Brown later introduced Marsalis to the audience before presenting him with the honorary doctorate. Brown cited highlights from Marsalis's career including his three Grammy wins, as well as his touring and recording work with such music legends as Miles Davis, Sting, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, the Grateful Dead, and many more.

Bill Pierce (left) interviews Branford Marsalis.  

After accepting the honorary degree, Marsalis shared anecdotes, reflecting on his time as a Berklee student. "The ultimate goal is to gain tools to become a professional working musician, and there's no better place to do that than this one. At Berklee you're able to share your musical experiences with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. I'd never met anyone from Japan until I got here. Over the next four years, absorb as much music and information as you can. You'll be better for it in the end."

After the stage was cleared, more than 30 student singers and instrumentalists presented a top-notch concert tribute to Marsalis. The varied program included selections by Charlie Parker, Sting, Stephen Sondheim, Aerosmith, Marvin Gaye, and, of course, Branford Marsalis. After the concert, Marsalis greeted the student performers, making an intergenerational connection. The sight recalled Brown's earlier mention that Marsalis's student peers at Berklee had included Jeff "Tain" Watts, Kevin Eubanks, Steve Vai, Aimee Mann, and others. As President Brown suggested, odds are that among the entering class, there are some who will make their own unique contributions to the music of the future.