King Me: Berklee at the MFA

Danielle Dreilinger
February 6, 2009
Professor Stan Strickland salutes King on sax.
Bill Banfield doubles as professor and performer. Right: bassist/faculty member Lenny Stallworth.
Banfield discusses the impact of African-American musicians on contemporary culture, connecting art to King to Obama.
Charlie Parker was among the greats discussed in the talk.
James McCoy, Berklee's director for community and governmental affairs, cohosted and coproduced the show.
Forget tickling the ivories: George Russell Jr. pounds them.
The band brings it home. From left to right: George Russell Jr., piano; Bill Banfield, guitar; Kenwood Dennard, drums; Lenny Stallworth, bass; Stan Strickland, sax.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Most people go to the Museum of Fine Arts to see painting and sculpture. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they lined up to hear music with meaning: a talk/concert from Berklee's Africana Studies initiative.

The set was part of the museum's daylong celebration of King. Other acts on stage included a poetry slam, a film about Paul Robeson, and a presentation about health disparities, all given by various members of the Boston arts and nonprofit communities.

Berklee has been collaborating with the MFA for four or five years, said cohost James McCoy, Berklee's director for community and governmental affairs. It helps "engage Berklee with the community," he said, and "make our work here at the college accessible to the general public."

In this case, it's the college's emerging Africana Studies curriculum. Led by professor Bill Banfield, the initiative emphasizes the roles African-American music and musicians—from traditional West African griots to MCs and everything in between—have played in transforming society.

Banfield's talk connected musical history to King's legacy to Barack Obama's inauguration the following day. His band BGKLS punched up the talking points, honoring King with jazz selections that included the classics "Summertime" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

The band was composed of Banfield on guitar, George Russell Jr. on piano, Kenwood Dennard on drums, Lenny Stallworth on bass, and Stan Strickland on sax, Berklee professors all. They went to town, and the audience responded in kind, cheering after solos (in a museum, no less).

McCoy said, "It was great. It was a packed house. Standing room only. People really, really dug it." Attendees told him they appreciated the infrequent opportunity to experience scholarship alongside artistry.

"The youth and exuberance of the audience was contagious," Dennard said. He felt the performance was "a genuine meeting of the minds on stage and a genuine meeting of hearts with the audience."

Reflecting on a day commemorating a historic American figure, one day before a historic American event, Dennard said, "If this audience is any indication, the future looks bright."