Berklee Today

Rubén Blades and Ornette Coleman Honored

  Ruben Blades
  Rubén Blades sings "Pedro Navaja" with a band of student and faculty members.
  Photos by Phil Farnsworth

On Tuesday, November 1, Panama's best-known songwriter and current Minister of Tourism Rubén Blades came to Berklee to take part in the sixth annual Latin Culture Week. While on campus, Blades made it a point to speak with Berklee's Latino students, faculty, and staff, who were excited to interact with him during his highly anticipated visiting artist clinic at the David Friend Recital Hall.

Blades is widely known for his salsa recordings, which have netted him six Grammy Awards, and his acting roles in 30 films. He has been compared to Bruce Springsteen for using his songs as a forum for social commentary. Blades also has ties to the Boston area. In 1985 he earned a graduate degree from Harvard Law School and has performed on numerous occasions in the Boston area, including eight appearances at the Berklee Performance Center. Fellow Latin superstar Juan Luis Guerra, who was last year's special guest for Latin Culture Week, mentioned that his own unique lyrics were influenced by those of Blades.

The questions asked of Blades by students during his clinic made it clear that younger listeners are also learning from his socially conscious and poetic songs. Like a true pedagogue, Blades announced that he would not be singing during the session, claiming that if he sang, students would not learn anything. Standing on the David Friend stage, Blades recalled his early development as a musician and the influence of such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra, Cheo Feliciano, Elvis Presley, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and others.

Ornette Coleman  
Roger Brown presents Ornette Coleman (center) with an Honorary Doctor of Music degree as Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Lawrence Simpson looks on.  

Blades also spoke of his current position in the Panamanian government and his plans for a new CD. That evening, students and faculty presented a tribute concert to Blades that lured the singer to the stage for his song "Pedro Navaja."

Berklee President Roger Brown presented Blades with an honorary doctorate for his contributions to music and for his efforts to improve the lives of his fellow Panamanians.

On January 17, saxophonist, composer, and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman was the guest of honor at the Berklee Teachers on Teaching (BTOT) conference. Each year BTOT spotlights the teaching talents and innovations of faculty members during the week before the spring semester begins. This year's conference was held in the Berklee Performance Center, and the hall was packed with faculty and staff members.

Piano Department Professor JoAnne Brackeen and renowned saxophonist Greg Osby '83 played a musical tribute to Coleman. Brackeen followed with an overview of Coleman's career. William Banfield, professor of Africana studies in the Liberal Arts Department, then took the stage with Coleman for an interview in which Coleman shared his musical insights and philosophy.

President Roger Brown capped the event by presenting an honorary doctor of music degree to Coleman for his contributions to jazz. In his introductory remarks, Brown stated, "Like many other innovators in music, Ornette looked at the gifts he had and courageously followed his muse to where no one else was going."