Class of 2011 "Takin' it to the Streets"

  Famed singer/songwriter Michael McDonald joined Berklee student musicians onstage to sing his hit "Takin' it to the Streets" at the May 6 commencement concert.
  Photos by Phil Farnsworth

On May 6 and 7, Berklee celebrated the annual right of passage of another class leaving the college with students ready to make their way in the music industry. The 2011 graduating class, 908 strong, celebrated with the traditional commencement concert on the evening of May 6 followed by formal commencement exercises the next morning. Both events were held at the sprawling Agganis Arena at Boston University.

Berklee's Yo Team produced and directed the Friday night concert with some 80 student vocalists and instrumentalists in a tribute to this year's honorary doctorate recipients: gospel singer Mavis Staples, singer/songwriter Michael McDonald, Cuban jazz pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdés, and jazz saxophonist and composer Kenny Garrett. Digging into repertoire popularized by Mavis Staples as well as the Staples Singers, the students offered five gospel- and r&b-inflected songs. Standouts among them were "I Still Believe," a soul shouter handled masterfully by vocalist Joelle James, and the civil rights anthem "Eyes on the Prize," sung by Julia Easterlin. The latter was a solo performance in which Easterlin employed a loop station to build layers of vocal harmonies and percussive sounds on the spot.

Joelle James paid tribute to Mavis Staples with a soulful rendition of "I Still Believe."  

Paying tribute to Chucho Valdés, 18 student musicians captured the tropical ambiance of Valdés's music with a razor-sharp horn section and an arsenal of percussion instruments including güiro, shekere, timbales, and congas. Among the notable soloists were flutists Enrique "Kalani" Trinidad and Jeremy De Jesus, and pianist Dayramir Gonzalez. When Valdés appeared onstage to play piano on "Calzada del Carro" and "Dile A Catalina," the music reached a new level of excitement.

Composed of eight musicians, the Kenny Garrett Tribute band did justice to the angular melodies and forms of four Garrett originals. The up-tempo romp "For Openers" featured impressive two-horn work by alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and trumpeter David Neves. Tenor saxophonist Tom Wilson and pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi probed the introspective mood and dark harmonies of "Doc Tone's Short Speech." Throughout, the rhythm section of Shin Sakino (bass) and Mark Whitfield Jr. (drums) supplied the right energy and dynamic shading.

Songs by McDonald book-ended the concert. The curtain went up with "What a Fool Believes," spotlighting tenor Mario Jose (who hit all the high notes with ease). The group dug deeper into McDonald's Doobie Brothers and solo repertoire to end the show with Elliot Aguilar singing to the swamp-funk groove of "It Keeps You Runnin'," Mia Verdoorn applying her sultry alto to "Minute by Minute," and Emily Ebert giving an acoustic treatment to "I Keep Forgettin'." The crowd was electrified when McDonald came out and sat behind the keyboard for the final number "Takin' It to the Streets." After a short gospel-tinged piano improvisation, McDonald segued into the song's familiar chordal intro. The sound of his unmistakable voice singing, "You don't know me, but I'm your brother," elicited a quick roar from the crowd and then a hush. Onstage, the horn section and background singers swayed performing their parts with ear-to-ear smiles throughout. The concert ended with all musicians and the honorees onstage for group bows to thunderous applause.

  From the left: Michael McDonald, President Roger Brown, Mavis Staples, Chucho Valdés, and Kenny Garrett

The next morning Agganis Arena was a sea of caps and gowns. Garrett gave the commencement address and challenged the new grads always to play music with the same curiosity, freshness, and spontaneity they possessed as beginners. Garrett related that his former boss Miles Davis once instructed him to "play like a beginner." "As you stand on the shoulders of our forefathers, try to raise the bar as high as you can," Garrett said. "Sometimes, that requires making sacrifices. You're up for the challenge. You're young, and you feel indestructible. Follow your gut, follow your heart, and follow your intuition. This is your story, and no one can write it but you."

Accepting his honorary degree, McDonald said, "To be among this graduating class, to see these kids, and to perform last night with such brilliant young musicians who have finesse beyond their years is one of the most inspirational moments of my entire career. I want to thank Berklee for inspiring me in a way that I think will last me the rest of my life."

Upon receiving her degree, Mavis Staples said, "Well, I finally made it to college! I'm so deeply honored, and I sit here in awe of these smiling, beautiful faces. I know the world is waiting for you, and you're ready to go out and bring the joy of music to the world."

Jazz musician Kenny Garrett gave the commencement address.  

Chucho Valdés accepted his own degree as well as one for his father, Bebo Valdés - 92 years old - who was unable to make the trip from Spain to Boston. Chucho offered his remarks to the crowd in Spanish and ended by expressing his happiness and deep gratitude for the day's honor.

Of the class of 2011, female graduates made up 31 percent of the total. International students from 58 countries accounted for 34 percent. American students hailed from 43 states. The top three majors this year were professional music, performance, and music business/management. The graduates left the ceremony ready to take it to the streets of the music industry.