Baker, Carter, Eubanks and 692 Graduates Cross the Dais at 2005 Commencement
Once again, commencement weekend activities marked a high point in the lives of the graduates, honorees, and Berklee administration and faculty. On hand for the occasion were three honorees: Grammy-winning vocalist Anita Baker, jazz bass giant Ron Carter, and NBC Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. All events were held for the first time at Matthews Arena at Northeastern University to accommodate the large crowds.
Events kicked off Friday evening, May 6, with the traditional commencement concert in which graduating seniors and other top students present a musical tribute to the honorees. As has become customary, before the concert opened, the a scholarship from Billboard magazine to an outstanding student musician was made. This year's winner, guitarist Bryan Baker from Pasadena, California, received the award from Billboard Attorney Susan Butler and then strapped on his Fender Telecaster to play the concert opener "Omelas" penned by Kevin Eubanks.
The Berklee Jazz/Rock Ensemble played two more Eubanks numbers, "Earl" and "Navigator." The latter was memorable because of the addition of vocalist Jeremy Ragsdale, who provided a wordless melody, and last year's Billboard scholarship winner Nir Felder, who engaged in a freewheeling guitar duel with Baker over a medium-tempo swing groove.
Other concert highlights included a performance by the Berklee Hip-Hop Ensemble that opened with a spoken word segment penned and recited by Lee Moretti. Then the band went seamlessly into two high-octane numbers notable for coordinated dance steps of the singers and the presence of a violist in the band.
The tribute to Ron Carter included three of the bassist's originals, as well as an original tune written, sung, and played on double bass by Esperanza Spalding. The set closer was Oscar Pettiford's "Laverne Walk," arranged by Yo Team member Tom Stein with a bass battle at the coda. Bassists Spalding and Frank Abraham engaged in an extended but friendly cutting session to the delight of the audience.
For the Anita Baker tribute, a half dozen of Berklee's top vocalists took turns singing some of the r&b queen's best material, including "Sweet Love," "You're My Everything," "Giving You the Best That I Got," "Same Ole Love," and "No One in the World.
The concert closed with a song titled "We Are All Connected" penned by Andrea Whaley in tribute to the women of Darfur, Sudan. After a poignant multimedia introduction by Linda Mason, wife of President Brown, who recently visited Darfur to present a recording of Whaley's song and another made by Berklee students to the Sudanese women, all 65 student musicians joined together onstage and took their bows. The Yo Team concert production staff watched proudly from the wings.
The next morning at 10:00 a.m. the commencement ceremony began when all three honorees, the gradates, and their families gathered for the occasion. After the processional and opening greetings from several speakers, President Brown bestowed the honorary degrees. Introducing Anita Baker, Brown referred to her as a "superstar vocalist, songwriter, producer, and mother," and reminded the audience that she has won eight Grammy Awards over the course of her career. In speaking of two-time Grammy-winning bassist Ron Carter, Brown called him "one of the premier bassists of the past two generations who has contributed bass tracks to some of the seminal recordings in jazz and other genres-including hip-hop."
Brown gave a personal aside in his introduction of Kevin Eubanks. "Kevin's music was the bridge that first connected me to Berklee in 1986," said Brown, a drummer. "When I heard Kevin's album The Guitarist, I was completely blown away by the music-especially the drumming of Tommy Campbell." Brown later made his first trip to Berklee to seek lessons from Campbell who was then a faculty member. After the honoree presentation, Ron Carter gave the commencement address. He advised the grads not to let their emotions get in the way of the music. "People who think that music requires great passion are wrong," Carter said. "Of course music communicates passion and can move us to extreme emotions; but to be a good player, you better be calm, cool, and collected."
After presenting all of the diplomas and degrees, Brown told the grads, "You've got your Berklee degree and all these important skills, and you've heard from all these great musicians and other teachers about what they think about the world. Now it's your time. It's important for you to go out there and say what you have to say. Remember who you are, because the world doesn't need you to be like someone else. It wants you to be who you are. I'm confident that if you do that, you will have a successful life and career."