Music Series at Berklee: Roots and Reason

Joyce Linehan
January 15, 2010
Delta-style blues musician Ben Payton visits from Mississippi for February's first Roots and Reason concert.

Presented by Berklee's Africana Studies program, and part of the 2009–2010 Music Series at Berklee, Roots and Reason is a night of traditional roots music from the Mississippi Delta and around the world, performed by faculty, students, and guest artists. The performance takes place Thursday, February 4, 2010, at 8:15 p.m., at the Berklee Performance Center. Tickets are $15–20, and are available at Ticketmaster or at the Berklee box office. Call 617 747-2261 or visit

The performance kicks off a monthlong set of Roots and Reason concerts. Learn more about these events.

Roots and Reason is produced by Africana Studies director, professor Bill Banfield. This concert celebrates the richness of blues, gospel, and bluegrass and their influence on American popular music, while also exploring the stylistic relationship with global folk. This multi-performance stage presentation will feature faculty and student ensembles performing traditional roots music from the Mississippi Delta and around the world. The concert will also feature guest artist Ben Payton, a Mississippi Delta blues guitarist. (Note: The band the Roots will not be performing at this show.)

Ben Payton was born in tiny Coila, Mississippi, in the hill country just east of the Delta. His early musical influences included his grandmother Mabel Johnson's gospel piano playing and his Uncle Joe Birch's blues guitar. In his mid-teens, Payton moved to Chicago with his family and soon became active in the city's blues scene. He worked regularly with Bobby Rush and Joe Evans and the Supersonics. He also worked with artists including Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang, Junior Wells, Little Mack Simmons, Barkin' Bill Smith, Bobby King, Big Moose Walker, Muddy Waters Jr., Vince McCollum, and many others. In 1977, Payton left the music scene but continued to perform occasionally. It wasn't until 2002, after he moved back to his home state of Mississippi, that he returned to his roots performing Delta-style blues. Payton's voice resonates with a passion for life, and his skills as a guitarist evoke the tradition of the original Delta blues greats such as Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House.

Like other series artists, Payton will spend the week leading up to the concert as an artist-in-residence at Berklee. He'll teach master classes during the day, and help rehearse top student vocalists and instrumentalists who will perform at the concert.

Other Berklee faculty members who will take part include Matt Glaser, jazz and bluegrass violinist and director of Berklee's new American Roots Music Program; pianist Skip Smith, whose style spans jazz, rock, blues, and r&b; jazz vocalist Donna McElroy; jazz composer/pianist George Russell Jr.; Ron Reid, bassist and percussionist specializing in steel pan drumming; master Afro-Cuban percussionist Ricardo Monzon; and drummer Ron Savage, chair of the Ensemble Department. Musical styles represented will include bluegrass, Latin, neo-soul, blues, gospel, jazz, Caribbean, Irish, and more.

Africana Studies provides innovative, substantive, and sustained connective programs in black music culture at Berklee. Its focus is on the study of black music practice, history, and meaning. This includes the study of traditional West African music, spirituals, ragtime, blues, jazz, gospel, r&b, reggae, soul; music in South America, Cuba, and the Caribbean; and contemporary urban music traditions. Africana Studies aids in curriculum and student development by increasing the understanding and appreciation of the music and culture, and the roles artists have had in transforming modern culture and society.