The Family Grows by 1,082

By 

The sights and sounds of a major life transition for prospective Berklee graduates were visible across campus in the days leading up to the May 11-12 commencement weekend. In front of the dorms on Massachusetts Avenue and on the blocks of the surrounding neighborhood, family members helped sons and daughters load instruments, boxes, and clothing out of student apartments and into vehicles ready to take them to the next chapter of their lives.

The ceremonial portion of this annual rite of passage began on Friday, evening, May 11, when thousands filed into Boston University’s Agganis Arena for the commencement concert. The cast of 168 student performers—30 lead vocalists, 19 background singers, 109 instrumentalists (including a 22-member string section and 26 members of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute), plus nine dancers from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and a sound and visual design artist—took the stage during the concert. The students and their faculty directors presented a dazzling two-hour program paying tribute to this year’s honorees, Rosanne Cash, Esperanza Spalding ’05, and Nile Rodgers.

The show kicked off with an energetic dance medley of “Good Times” and “I Want Your Love,” songs recorded by the legendary Nile Rodgers and his watershed disco band Chic during the 1970s. Student guitarist Oscar Brown III employed Rodgers’s signature “chucking” rhythm guitar technique and singers Reggie Lett, Lyric Stephen, and Mayah Dyson traded lines and harmonized as members of the dance ensemble crisscrossed the stage stoking the energy.

Jonathan O’Neal introduced Rosanne Cash’s catalog with her song “Modern Blue.” Following a lush string intro, O’Neal’s high tenor voice, accompanied by his acoustic guitar strumming and a rhythm section, offered his personal take on the song from Cash’s triple Grammy-winning album The River & the Thread.

Members of the Berklee Global Jazz Ensemble introduced the music of multi-award-winning bassist, composer, and singer Esperanza Spalding with her song “Swimming toward the Black Dot” from the 2017 album Exposure. Vocalists Farayi Malek and Erin Tornesaki sang the song’s enigmatic lyrics against an instrumental fabric provided by vibes, bass, drums, guitar, acoustic piano, and electric keyboard.

The program alternated with tunes from each artist in arrangements that afforded plenty of room to silver-throated singers and virtuosic instrumentalists. Among the highlights were Cash’s “Blue Moon with a  Heartache,” “Seven Year Ache,” and A Feather’s not a Bird.” The breadth of Rodgers’s career was represented by a range of titles that he produced for David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Madonna (“Material Girl”), the theme from the TV show Moonlighting, Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), and more. Spalding’s tunes included “I Adore You,” and “Funk the Fear.”

Cash took the stage to sing her song, “When the Master Calls the Roll,” with sensitive backing from assistant professor Kevin Barry (acoustic guitar) and fiddler Megan McGarry. Spalding joined the Berklee Global Jazz Ensemble (with professor Terri Lyne Carrington sitting in on drums) and added her voice to the sonic tapestry of her own “Radio Song.”

The concert finale, “We Are Family,” a hit by the group Sister Sledge that Rodgers produced, was both poignant and rousing. A multihued arrangement penned by associate professor Lee Abe, opened serenely with the melody passing between Dimitris Menexopoulos playing the lyra, a Greek bowed instrument; Srishti Biyani on the bansuri, an Indian wood flute; and Joshua Joseph playing steel pans. The band then ground out the groove and all performers flooded the stage singing and dancing together, unified like a joyful, harmonious musical family hailing from many nations and cultural backgrounds.

The next morning, graduates, family members, and Berklee leaders were on hand for the formal commencement ceremony. Senior vice president for academic affairs/provost Larry Simpson greeted the crowd and reprised the sentiment of the concert closer. “We are family, Simpson said, “and that’s a beautiful thing.” He then shared statistics about the graduates, revealing that with 1,082, members, they are the largest graduating class in Berklee’s history. They represent 72 countries with women making up 34 percent of the total.

President Roger H. Brown began the presentation of the honorary degrees by introducing Rosanne Cash, daughter of country music star Johnny Cash. “Revered as one of the country’s preeminent singer-songwriters, Cash has earned accolades that speak to her talent and influence,” Brown said. He then cited Cash’s four Grammy wins, 11 number one singles, and induction to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. After accepting the award, Cash said, “Thank you so much, I didn’t expect this. No matter where we are as musicians and how long we’ve been doing this, we all need encouragement. And this is very encouraging!”

Of Nile Rodgers, Brown said, “As a composer, producer, guitarist, and arranger, Nile continues to shape the music world with his DNA.” Brown concluded by saying, “For fueling four-decades with pop anthems and for his undeniable influence on music and culture, it brings me great pleasure to present Nile Rodgers with a Berklee honorary doctorate of music.” Taking the mic, Rodgers said, “I want to start by giving props to the band last night. It was amazing. I don’t believe in speaking in absolute terms, but I am absolutely the happiest person in the world right now to receive this honor. Thank you so much.”

“Esperanza Spalding is known for pushing the boundaries of her art,” Brown said introducing Spalding. “She is an acclaimed bassist, composer, vocalist, producer, actor, and humanitarian. She is internationally recognized for her artistic vision, drawn from a diverse and nuanced stylistic range.

“She has won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award, the Americans for the Arts Award, the NAACP Image Award, and four Grammys. For me, it’s been an honor to watch Esperanza enter and transform the world of music, having known her since she was a teenager. And so for her boundless creativity, her bold artistic vision, and transcendent talent, it is my pleasure to present the honorary doctorate to one of our most esteemed alumni.”

Addressing the audience as the commencement speaker, Spalding told the graduates: “You are now going out into the world to connect spirit to spirit; that’s your job. You are the vessels that have to listen, receive, exchange, communicate, and tell the truth. . . . And also, have fun.”