Office of the President | Inauguration
The Journey Begins
Berklee officially ushers in the Roger Brown era.
|Photo by Phil Farnsworth|
Among all that has been said about Roger H. Brown since he was selected as Berklee's third president last spring, perhaps the most concise came from singer/songwriter James Taylor, speaking during last week's inauguration ceremony at the Hynes Convention Center.
"The right man, in the right place, at the right time," said Taylor, who has given several master classes at Berklee.
Taylor's summation may not have seemed as obvious to some several months ago, when it was announced that the 48-year-old Brown, a Georgia-born early childhood educator and entrepreneur, would take the reins of the college. But as several days of concerts, seminars, and speeches culminated in Friday's ceremony and evening concert, it was clear that the pairing of Brown and Berklee is a great marriage that marks a major turning point not only in the life of the college, but in the life of its new president as well.
"Berklee's choice of Roger H. Brown, and Brown's choice of Berklee, is a creative stroke of genius," Taylor said during a speech he gave as one of six introducers of the new president. "Here is a man who walks tall in two different worlds. Proven over and again in the hard-edged world of business, he has had a constant calling to be of service to humanity. He has followed his heart to Kenya, Sudan, and Cambodia, and now, to our great benefit, he comes home to our beloved Berklee."
A Plan for Berklee
Brown's diverse resume, which runs the gamut from international relief worker to founder of a Fortune 500 company, has provided him with both tangible experience and harder-to-define leadership qualities. An he's a quick study. After only six months on the job, Brown used his inauguration address to announce a bold new vision for the college.
"First, we're going to create new facilities. We have some real needs on the campus," said Brown, drawing immediate applause and cheers from the 2,000-plus students, faculty, staff, and guests in attendance. "Secondly, we're not going to let our enrollment grow until we get the facilities and the infrastructure we need to support the enrollment we have."
Other initiatives include making Berklee's admissions strategy more selective in a non-traditional way (redefining it to emphasize an applicant's musical aptitude, passion, and energy rather than grades and SAT scores), a stronger foundation on teaching students about the culture and history of music, and a comprehensive curriculum review.
While spelling out his view of the future, Brown also took time to pay homage to Berklee's past, highlighting in particular the college's outreach efforts to students—such as Quincy Jones, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Arif Mardin—from minority groups and far-flung corners of the globe.
"Given the pervasive racial segregation that existed in American society in the 1950s, the discrimination against women in most musical arenas, the phobia towards Japan just ten years after World War II, and the lack of understanding of parts of the world that are largely Islamic, like Turkey, the capacity of Larry Berk and Berklee to put music first and span cultural chasms by supporting the careers of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin and hundreds of others is quite phenomenal and challenges us to be as visionary and inclusive today," Brown said.
|Photo by Phil Farnsworth|
The musicians who performed at the inauguration reflected the diversity of the contemporary Berklee. Faculty vocalist Donna McElroy and Jetro Da Silva, assistant chair of piano, began the day with a rendition of "America the Beautiful" as stirring as the Ray Charles version. Other performers included saxophonist Bill Pierce, chair of woodwind; keyboardist Dennis Montgomery III,assistant professor of ensemble; the Reverence Gospel Choir, a student group with 53 members; and more than 30 other faculty and staff musicians.
Soprano vocalist Kathryn Wright, associate professor of voice, and a seven-member faculty chamber group, performed a song cycle based on the poem "Earth," by Bengali writer and musician Rabindrinath Tagore, a favorite of President Brown's. Each of the four movements was composed by a faculty member and the entire piece was conducted by Tibor Pusztai, associate professor of composition.
Another highlight of the day came when Brown, who is himself a musician—faculty member Danny Morris called him "a fabulous rock drummer"—granted his first two honorary doctor of music degrees to r&b vocalist Chaka Khan and jazz/fusion/funk drummer Dennis Chambers.
President Brown spent much of his time at the podium recognizing and thanking others for their contributions, including Khan, Chambers, President Emeritus Lee Eliot Berk, the extended Brown family, and Berklee faculty, alumni, and students. But he couldn't keep the spotlight off of himself for long. Speeches by the introducers—Taylor; Morris; Brown's wife Linda Mason; William Donaldson, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commision and Brown's former mentor at Yale's management school; Harvard faculty member Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and student Mike Zawitkowski—gave the audience a multifaceted and comprehensive biography of Brown.
Improvising a Life
Growing up in the South during the 1960s gave Brown a deep awareness of the inequalities that existed between whites and African Americans. He began to see music as a way of bridging cultural gaps and finding common ground. After graduating from Davidson College with a degree in physics, Brown taught math in Kenya. He returned to the United States to study management at Yale, but before graduating, lived in Cambodia for a few years to work on a food distribution system. After returning to Yale to complete his MBA, Brown and Mason went to Sudan to develop a famine relief organization for Save the Children.
In the mid-1980s, Brown and Mason returned to the States and founded Bright Horizons, a company that provides on-site daycare and early childhood development. Bright Horizons grew into a multi-million dollar corporation and earned a spot on Fortune's list of the Best 100 Places to Work in America. After nearly 20 years at Bright Horizons, Brown was encouraged by a friend to apply for the position at Berklee last year. Having never worked in higher education, it represented for Brown a radical change, but one that nicely melded his passions for entrepreneurship, service to society, and music. A key change to be sure, but one that made sense, considering his past.
Driven by a dedication to social responsibility and a faith in his own improvisational instincts, Brown has succeeded at every step. But even when he met with skepticism—Donaldson said during his introduction that he had questioned Brown's decision to start Bright Horizons—Brown trusted his ideas and ideals. And he seeks to imbue the same entrepreneurial spirit in everyone who studies and works at Berklee.
"Our students count on us to work hard, stay strong, recommit to the revolutionary ideas that got us to the dance in the first place, and to keep dancing to the music even when others cannot hear it," said Brown during his address. It was a theme he used as a refrain throughout the day, often turning to lines from the Mary Oliver poem "The Journey" to underscore his point:
- One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around
their bad advice...
...there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world...
As for Donaldson's initial impression of Bright Horizons, he later changed his opinion and wound up serving on the company's board of directors. During his inaugural introduction, Donaldson said that Brown represented his dream of what he hoped for his students: "Leadership, integrity, entrepreneurial zest, intelligence, willingness to question, social responsibility. That's Roger Brown."
The Music is the Message
A few hours after the ceremony, the inaugural celebration changed venues, moving from the Hynes to the Berklee Performance Center, where students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the college performed in a memorable concert that will go down as one of the most wide-ranging and high-energy shows the college has ever presented.
Produced by the Yo Team, the concert was a very direct expression of Berklee's core mission: students making music. In every conceivable style and configuration of players, performers demonstrated over and over what goes on here, from the propulsive concert opener "Falsas Esperanzas," featuring Natalie Fernandez, to the night's encore, "Dance to the Music," a hit by Sly and the Family Stone.
In between were about a half-dozen different groups, including the Bluegrass Ensemble, performing Charlie Daniels's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia;" the Rainbow Band tackling charts by Duke Ellington and faculty member Phil Wilson, who directs the band; and Overjoyed, a nine-member gospel group who performed "Let Go and Let God," a song co-written by student Major "Choirboy" Johnson and Dennis Montgomery III. Overjoyed also accompanied faculty member Livingston Taylor on "Step by Step," a rousing Taylor original.
It was a night for special guest appearances, as Dennis Chambers took over the drums to play with a faculty and student group on Billy Cobham's "Stratus;" Chaka Khan stunned the crowd by stepping onto the stage and singing with a student band on one of her hits "Through the Fire;" and percussionist/vocalist Vinx, an old friend of President Brown's, performed two tunes. Then there was tenor saxophone great Joe Lovano, who has been teaching at the college for the past few years, performing with two recent graduates, bassist Esperanza Spaldingand drummer Francisco Mela.
Faculty members shone on of the crowd pleasers of the night, "Midnight Train to Georgia," featuring Darcel Wilson on lead vocals and vocalists Jeff Ramsey, Nancy Morris, and Jerome Kyles, as the Pips.
The stardom-seeking antagonist of that song may have given up on his dreams to head back to the Peach State, but Berklee's new leader has only just arrived, and the campus-wide consensus indicates everyone is hoping he stays right where he is for a very long time.