Giant Steps for Giant Talent

A Letter from President Roger H. Brown

  President Brown and his wife Linda Mason followed the instructions of Associate Professor Thaddeus Hogarth as he led the entire audience at the campaign celebration in a mass harmonica rendition of the jazz standard "All Blues."
  Phil Farnsworth

The John Coltrane song "Giant Steps" is a proving ground for any serious jazz musician - to be able to play that song at fast tempos, in different keys. I believe that our Giant Steps capital campaign is the proving ground for institutions like ours - institutions that aspire to be world class, that intend to fulfill their dreams. We've never been short on dreams. But we haven't always had the resources to realize them. Now, for the first time, we're beginning to see the amazing things that are possible when those dreams are backed up by committed philanthropy.

I think most of us would agree that the seminal figure in the musical history of the United States is Louis Armstrong. He was the grandson of slaves and the son of a prostitute. He grew up impoverished in New Orleans. He spent a lot of time at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a juvenile detention center. He caught a break when he met the Karnofsky family - Lithuanian immigrants who owned a dry-goods store and who hired young Armstrong to deliver orders for them.

One day the Karnofskys were out riding with Armstrong making a delivery. He saw a cornet in a pawn shop window and felt an amazing desire to have that cornet. The Karnofskys bought it for him. And the rest, as they say, is history. In this case, the rest is the history of jazz.

I would hope that Berklee might have that kind of impact on an individual. And if we're blessed, maybe we could have that kind of impact on art and music.

You, all the contributors to our Giant Steps campaign, have more in common with the Karnofskys than you realize. Just a few years ago, a young woman in Portland, Oregon, the daughter of a single mother, was working as a temporary employee in a telemarketing firm and playing music at night. One of her bandmates said, "You're quite good. You should audition for Berklee." We audition at 50 places around the world - we come to young artists, we don't make them come to us. But she canceled that first audition. She lost her nerve and was a no-show. Her bandmates insisted. They said, "You have to do this."

She scheduled a second audition several months later, and this time she showed up. We auditioned her and gave her a full scholarship. This year, Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for best new artist, the first time in history that a jazz artist has won that honor.

Our alumni have received 205 Grammys, more than 50 Latin Grammys, and several Tony Awards and Emmys. Our students, faculty, and staff have won Fulbright scholarships, Guggenheim fellowships, a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," and more. It's incredibly impressive what these young people do. Just this spring, our a cappella ensemble Pitch Slapped won first place in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. A young blind student named Wayne Pearcy just won second place in the International Trumpet Guild competition. A band of Berklee City Music Program high-school students, ages 14 to 17, performed at the TED conference. They opened for Bill Gates, among others.

Berklee students are distinguishing themselves in all sorts of ways. Our role is to help make these dreams possible through the programs we support and especially the scholarships we offer the next generation of Louis Armstrongs and Esperanza Spaldings. We can make opportunities available to young people who have no idea how deep their talent is or how far-reaching their impact will be. We are carrying on the great tradition of the Karnofsky family, and we're doing it around the world. Thank you so much for helping us to become the college we are destined to be: the incubator of the next wave of great contributors to music.

-Roger H. Brown