Opening Day: Now's the Time

Roger H. Brown
September 15, 2008
Berklee president Roger H. Brown speaks to staff and faculty on the 2008 Opening Day.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

The following is the text of Berklee President Roger H. Brown's Opening Day speech:

The musical montage you just heard ended with the tune "Now's the Time": our theme for Opening Day 2008. Charlie Parker recorded the song in 1945, the year of Berklee's founding, featuring Dizzy Gillespie as well as a 21-year-old Max Roach and 19-year-old Miles Davis. Incidentally, Charlie Parker was voted the most popular instrumentalist by Berklee students in 1949.

So—now's the time... but for what?

The Talking Heads tune "Once in a Lifetime" poses the following existential questions:

"You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may ask yourself 'How did I get here?'"

This morning, I would like to pose some of those existential questions to the Berklee community. Why do we exist? What are our purposes? Where does our highway go?

Berklee has a 63-year history and has grown dramatically stronger as an institution. It is not an overstatement to say that we have had a significant impact on the music of the last half of the 20th century not only in the U.S. but abroad, as exemplified by our guest Sadao Watanabe of Japan. We can claim 162 Grammys, famous film scores, legendary teachers and methods of teaching, 47% of all Thelonious Monk fellowships, leading new media music businesses, and more.

But our ultimate purpose is not to serve the institution and its health and its legacy. Of course Berklee's underlying health is vital to our deeper purpose, and we are right to feel great pride at the institution's achievements. But ensuring Berklee's health is a means to an end.

For many of us, Berklee offers a wonderful opportunity to have a job pursuing what we care most deeply about. And clearly, making Berklee a great place to learn, teach, and work is an important priority. According to last year's employee survey, 92 percent of us like working here and when we post a new job, we get dozens, in some cases hundreds, of interested applicants. But being a great workplace, while a vital goal, is not our fundamental purpose. We need to be a great place to work in order to pursue our purpose, but this is a means to an end.

Indeed our entire strategic plan—including key components like more scholarship support, which will approach $20 million this year; auditioning and interviewing all students, with over 5,000 auditioned last year; curriculum review, whose compelling report I am just reading at the moment; improving our physical facilities, where we have $42 million of new buildings purchased and soon to be renovated; raising money (our Giant Steps capital campaign just crossed the $30 million mark, and we raised the goal to $50 million thanks to the help many of you have given us)—these are all tools to serve the greater purpose. Our strategy is merely a means to an end.

We have stated that we intend to put the students at the heart of all we do. This is a helpful guiding premise, and I believe that examining our policies and practices from the students' point of view is a critical technique. And we have done many things to enrich the student experience at Berklee. But even this objective is not our purpose. Our deeper purpose transcends even a focus on the individual students.

So what is our purpose?

Let me offer you a proposition. In 1953 a very famous experiment was conducted at the University of Chicago by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey. They created a laboratory environment of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen, mirroring what was believed to be the composition of the earth's atmosphere and its oceans in primitive times. They simulated lightning storms with electrodes that emitted pulses of electricity and discovered that within this primordial soup, organic molecules that are the building blocks of human life were created—amino acids and precursors of DNA.

"Ensuring Berklee's health is a means to an end."—President Roger H. Brown

We still don't really understand the process of how life came to be. It is mysterious, miraculous—some would say divinely inspired. But the experiment was a major milestone in science because it showed us how the right mixture of chemistry and energy could produce the conditions that led to the creation of plant, animal, and human life.

In my mind, that is our purpose at Berklee: to create the conditions under which creativity can occur. It is a mix that requires highly skilled and motivated students, gifted faculty, ingenious staff, financial resources, facilities, inspired curriculum, and so forth. But the point, our deeper purpose, the end to which all these efforts are directed, is to concoct this stew in which great new ideas in composition, performance, education, entrepreneurship, technology, and healing through music can be born.

And in addition to discovery of these new ideas, this environment will provoke self-discovery, which will allow us to drill deeply into our own creative capacity.

We can't predict exactly when a student might have the epiphany that leads to a personal or artistic breakthrough. A teacher is said to have commented to a colleague, "I can lead them to water, but I can't make them drink," to which the colleague replied, "Your job is not to make them drink, but to make them thirsty."

According to Hungarian Nobel Prize winning chemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, "Discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind." Likewise, we want Berklee to be a place where the world's most gifted students from all corners of the globe meet a carefully prepared environment. Then we can expect some stunning accidents of discovery to occur.

We are called to be bold and ambitious.

If we think back to 1945, the year "Now's the Time" was recorded followed the worst period in the history of 20th century music. In World War II, a shortage of shellac, from which records were made before the introduction of vinyl, meant a ban on recorded music except for marches and martial music to support the war effort. An ASCAP strike in 1941 meant that most composers were not being paid royalties. An AFM strike in 1942 meant instrumental performers were not getting paid. Musicians feared that the proliferation of jukeboxes would destroy live music. Some estimate that half of the professional musicians of that era quit. Big bands, which dominated music before WWII, took a body blow and never fully recovered. That Larry Berk had the audacity to create a school of music at this moment is testimony to his courage or recklessness or both.

Out of this commercial and artistic chaos emerged the superstar pop vocalist, no longer captive to the band leader but now the prime mover—with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore, and Patty Page dominating the charts and catapulting record sales to unimagined levels. Bluegrass was born in 1945 when Bill Monroe added banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt to his Bluegrass Boys. And at virtually the same moment bebop, arguably the greatest musical achievement of the 20th century, which had gestated in the obscurity of the recorded music ban, was born from the genius of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others performing at Minton's Playhouse in New York City.

In this postwar era, music achieved artistic and commercial success that was unprecedented in the history of the United States.

Music in the early 21st century appears to be beset by a litany of plagues and poxes that rival the early 1940s: file sharing and illegal downloading, the collapse of major-label record companies, autotune and the subservience of music to image, and the predominance of vapid, recycled musical ideas.

But the "darkest hour is just before dawn." I believe that Berklee can be the incubator of the artistic and commercial ideas that spark the next major innovation in music. We can be the Minton's Playhouse of this century. Who is better endowed to brew this primordial creative soup than Berklee? And each of us can be the sparks of energy and illumination that leap between the electrodes and create the conditions in which ferocious, unsparing creativity can be unleashed.

Now is the time.