Berklee Today

Berklee Beat: Steely Dan Honored

From the left, commencement honorees William Davis, Larry Linkin, Lee Eliot Berk, Walter Becker, and Donald Fagen

Photo by Justin Allardyce Knight

Berklee's 2001 commencement weekend will go down as one of the hottest on record for many reasons. Boston's weather was tropical; but there was also a bit of heat generated by the excitement of having Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan on campus for the festivities. Fagen, Becker, Larry Linkin (retiring president of NAMM) and William Davis (retiring board of trustees chair) were this year's honorary doctorate recipients.

On Friday night, May 11, the Berklee Jazz/Rock Ensemble, comprising 18 vocalists and 16 instrumentalists took center stage at the Berklee Performance Center for a program of 17 Steely Dan songs. Seated in the audience, Fagen and Becker applauded and nodded in approval.


The concert opened with "Two Against Nature," the title cut of Steely Dan's latest Grammy-winning CD. Jason Joseph did an outstanding job on the lead vocal and tenor saxophonist Gilad Ronen got to cut loose in a virtuosic, unaccompanied solo that ended the tune. The program covered the Dan's 30-year musical history with such tunes as "Do It Again," "Hey Nineteen," "My Old School," Deacon Blues," "Kid Charlemagne," "Peg," and others. There were also highlights from the solo records by the two. Fagen's "Maxine," from The Nightfly album, was cast in a contemporary "boy band" vocal setting by faculty member Richard Evans who arranged it for a quartet of male voices.

From the left: Vocalists Chrissi Poland, Eric Wainaina, and Andrea Capozzoli, sing Steely Dan's "Aja"
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (right) congratulate student performers after the Steely Dan tribute concert.
Commencement speaker Larry Linkin told the graduates, "The only time success comes before work, is in the dictionary."

On "Cousin Dupree," singer Ben Ward became the song's antihero, raising his eyebrows and flashing a sinister grin as he sang, "How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?" A subtle touch connected the song "Aja" with its homophone Asia. Hiromi Uehara came to the piano wearing a colorful

kimono and navigated the song's rhythmic and harmonic changes behind vocalists Andrea Capozzoli, Chrissi Poland, and Eric Wainaina, and vibes soloist Warren Wolf. Also noteworthy was the razor-sharp guitar work of Michael Ruzitschka and Takuya Tanaka on "Reelin' in the Years." The concert closed with an encore of "IGY" in which all 18 vocalists sang together.

After the audience filed out, Fagen and Becker joined the musicians onstage to offer congratulations and sign autographs. Becker commented, "They sounded better than us!"

At the Saturday commencement exercises at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, all four honorees were seated, dressed in caps and gowns.

As this year's commencement speaker Larry Linkin told the graduates, "You have answered the call of music at a time when there is more public acceptance for what we do than ever before. Take some risk, be original, and strive to do the very best that you can. Keep in mind that the only time success comes before work, is in the dictionary."

President Lee Eliot Berk presented the first honorary degree to retiring Board of Trustees Chair William Davis. Berk lauded Davis for a quarter-century of dedicated service to Berklee, including nine as board chair. Berk cited Davis's success in expanding the board of trustees, providing for the financial well being of the college, and guiding Berklee during a growth period.

Bestowing the degree on Larry Linkin, retiring president and CEO of the International Music Product Association (NAMM), Berk called him "one of America's foremost advocates for music and the arts for over 30 years." Berk described Linkin's role in launching and developing the National Coalition for Music Education and his outreach to musicians as "profoundly effective."

Introducing Fagen and Becker, Berk noted that through 10 Steely Dan releases and three solo efforts, Becker and Fagen have "sold millions of albums, reached a worldwide audience, earned four Grammy Awards, and heavily influenced two generations of musicians."

After accepting the award, Fagen stated, "We've gotten a few other honors this year, but this is the best for us, because it comes from musicians and a musical college." Becker gave advice to the graduates, saying, "As you go into your musical careers, people will try to refocus you on their goals and their artistic aspirations. It's always best to stay focused on your own. It's the only shortcut that really is available."