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teve Vai and Jennifer Holliday Honored at Fall 2000 Convocation

Convocation honorees Steve Vai and Jennifer Holliday each received an honorary doctor of music degree from President Lee Eliot Berk.
Photos by Bob Kramer

At Berklee's September 8 convocation, members of the faculty and administration and two distinguished guests welcomed the class of 2004. Composed of 990 entering students, this class is the largest in the history of the college. Singer/actress Jennifer Holliday and guitarist/composer Steve Vai '79, this year's honorees, received honorary degrees and a musical tribute later in the program.

The evening opened with festive sounds of the Dixieland band Made in the Shade. The six-piece group navigated its way around the Berklee Performance Center, jamming on "Paul Barbarin's Second Line." Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students Lawrence Bethune then greeted the new students, telling them, "The connection between this serious and traditional welcoming ceremony and the concert that will follow is that both are sincere and heartfelt gestures from us welcoming you into the Berklee family."

Bethune introduced student speaker Judy Jones, a sixth-semester student from Los Altos, California. In her remarks, Jones predicted that at least one student in the hall that evening would become famous in his or her career. She challenged everyone to take full advantage of all that is available at the college. She concluded by saying, "Get out and do as much as you can, experience as much as you can, network like crazy, and stick up for yourself. I wish you the best in your time at Berklee."

President Lee Eliot Berk then conferred the honorary degrees. In his introduction of Jennifer Holliday, he cited her many achievements, including two Grammys and a Tony Award, scores of hit records, and her roles in top film and television productions. He also mentioned her well-publicized battle with and triumph over clinical depression, and how her outreach efforts to others suffering with depression have helped to turn lives around.

After receiving the degree, Holliday told the students, "As you begin your journey as a musician and an artist, make peace with your gift early on. Don't just see it as a way to make money. See it as a way to be a bright light in the world and in your own life. Make peace with your gift and find balance, peace, and harmony."

Guitartists Daisuke Kunita (left) and Jon Finn dueled on Steve Vai's "Attitude Song" and "For the Love of God"

Introducing Steve Vai, President Berk said, "In the crowded field of rock guitarists, Steve Vai clearly stands out above the masses. He is renowned as one of the most innovative rock guitar virtuosos in the music business." Berk went on to mention Vai's best-selling solo albums and his work with such diverse artists as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, L. Shankar, Public Image, Al Di Meola, Whitesnake, and Joe Jackson. Berk also spoke of Vai's establishment of a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to school music programs.

Taking the podium, Vai delivered a humorous and insightful address. He told the crowd, "I've worked hard, but I've really been in the right place at the right time also. When I look back at everything I've had the opportunity to do, you'd think that the most memorable things would be those that garnered awards. But, really, I have to tell you my years at Berklee are probably the most cherished memories I have.

"I hope you'll experience one thing here that I experienced: meeting people that you'll remember forever. I met some great friends here, and I still work with some of them. One of the people that I met here turned out to be the most important person in my life--my wife Pia."

Vocalist Joelle Berger sang Fiona Apple's "Fast as You Can."

Vai told the students to cherish this opportunity to be immersed in music and surrounded by musicians because the professional world brings new demands. "This is the time when you can focus. What you can learn here, you won't get a chance to learn out there. The whole environment of a place like Berklee is something you'll never experience out there."

After Vai concluded his remarks, a 10-piece group of student singers and instrumentalists (plus faculty guest artists Jon Finn and Donna McElroy) took the stage and deftly handled a wide range of material. From the funky rendition of Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" that opened the concert through the soul-charged Aretha Franklin chestnut "Rock Steady" that closed it, the performances were top-notch. Deserving of special mention were Rhea Dummett's wrenching vocals and soul-shout coda on Jennifer Holliday's trademark hit tune "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." In a very different style but every bit as compelling was the guitar showdown on a medley of Vai's "Attitude Song" and "For the Love of God." Student Daisuke Kunita and guitar professor Jon Finn lit up the stage with guitar pyrotechnics that brought the audience (including Vai) to its feet.