by 1320Elements

Berklee on STORY+

Berklee. It’s one of those names that you know is important but you don’t quite know why you know that.

I can tell you that, “Berklee College of Music is a nonprofit, coeducational institution of higher learning incorporated under the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The college is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and authorized under federal law to enroll non-immigrant students and to train veterans under the G.I. Bill of Rights.” That might help.

Furthermore, I can tell you how to get there too. The campus is clustered aroundMassachusetts Avenue in Boston about four blocks from the Charles River. However, if I tell you that Berklee is a world-renowned centre of learning for students of contemporary music covering everything from folk to rock to roots to jazz and hip-hop then that would be more instructive. In fact, it is the further education pathway into the music industry and its ambition and achievements are breathtaking.

Berklee was founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk (b. 1908) on the principle that one way to prepare students for productive careers in music could be through the study and practice of contemporary music, or jazz as it was known at the time. In 2012, it’s all ART, and popular music no longer has to justify itself to a sniffy academia. But it wasn’t always so.

Lawrence Berk with students

Berk was born and raised in Boston’s West End and was playing professionally as a pianist in dance orchestras by the time he was 13. Nevertheless this wasn’t a full-time occupation and he continued in school until he graduated from MIT with a degree in architectural engineering in 1932. However, there were few engineering jobs available during the Great Depression and he moved to New York City, where he became a staff arranger at NBC. He later studied with music theorist and teacher, Joseph Schillinger. When World War II broke out, he returned to Boston to work as a mechanical engineer at Raytheon.

After Schillinger died in 1943, Berk became one of 12 authorized teachers of theSchillinger System. He began teaching part-time on Saturdays with three students, but eventually quit his job at Raytheon to teach music full time. In 1945, he purchased a three-story building at 284 Newbury Street in Boston and opened Schillinger House.

Under his direction, enrolment in the first nine years increased tenfold, the curriculum expanded to include music education, and alumni began appearing in nationally famous orchestras led by people like  Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. This is probably the first incarnation of Berk’s perceptive take on the fluidity of popular music. Jazz  that you could dance to marked the first post war-wave of youth-driven popular culture. The kids couldn’t get enough of that stuff, and Kenton’s tune The Peanut Vendor was a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  They listened to it, danced to it and revered it. Many of them wanted to take up instruments and play it too. Berk was tapping into the Zeitgeist and not for the last time either.

In 1954, he changed the name of the institution to the Berklee School of Music, after his son, Lee Eliot Berk in order to give it a unique identity quite distinct from the musical establishment. It was an inclusive institution for inclusive music. He consolidated the faculty with  some heavy hitters from the jazz fraternity such as trumpeter Herb Pomeroy (1956), saxophonist Charlie Mariano (1957), drummerAlan Dawson (1957), and reed player John LaPorta (1962)  to the faculty. He wasn’t a man to waste a minute and as early as 1957, he instituted an innovative LP and score series, Jazz in the Classroom, featuring recordings of big band arrangements and performances by the school’s best students, packaged with copies of the arrangements.

He wasn’t one for standing still either and in 1962 the school established the first college-level instrumental major in guitar. Rock ‘n’ Roll had been King for a while but this initiative was taken just as the Beatles were emerging over the horizon and things would never be the same. Prescience or just good fortune? You decide – but don’t take all day about it. This is what Lee Eliot Berk had to say on the subject, “Once we began accepting electric guitar as a principal instrument in 1967, it opened the door to the whole electronic revolution”.

In 1966, Berklee awarded its first bachelor of music degrees and moved into larger quarters at 1140 Boylston St. Under Berk’s leadership, the school offered the first college-level courses in rock and pop music and composing forcommercials. By 1970, it had become the Berklee College of Music where other curriculum firsts included an electric bass guitar major (1973), and the creation of a jazz-rock fusion ensemble (1974). Berklee’s synergy with the ascendant musical forms of the moment seems now to be something akin to clairvoyance. The early 1970’s marked the beginning of the short reign of heavy riffing prog-rock outfits prefaced by Cream whose bassist Jack Bruce re-wrote the book on rock bass. In the mid-1970’s west coast rock flourished and racked up the sales. But it was Weather ReportIan Carr’s NucleusThe Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever whose influence was far-reaching in the continuing affair between Rock technology and the source code that is at the core of Jazz.

Berk’s final major expansion of college facilities took place in 1976 with the establishment of the Berklee Performance Center. This 1227-seater auditorium is located on Massachusetts Avenue where an adjoining building is used for additional classrooms, rehearsal facilities and the college library. The venue is the former Fenway Theatre, a movie palace built in 1915, which has been thoroughly converted for use as an auditorium.

Naturally, it hosts an incredible variety of artists and performers, not least those from the student cadre. But it isn’t simply a concert hall conveniently attached to a college. “We see the Performance Center as a giant classroom where people can learn about performing and the technical side of presenting a show,” says Rob Rose VP for Special Programmes. The Performance Center was funded through a 25-year government bond issue to the value of $7m which the college finished paying back a few years ago.

After he retired in 1978, Lawrence Berk served as chancellor until his death in 1995. His son, Lee Eliot Berk (b.1942) succeeded him as president of the college in 1979 and the college entered a new phase of expansion and innovation.

Under the younger Berk’s leadership, further diversified its curriculum to create new majors, including Film Scoring, Music Production and Engineering, Music Synthesis, Songwriting, Music Business/Management, and Music Therapy.

Lee Berk graduated from Brown University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Boston University in 1967. From there he worked closely with his father first serving as bursar and supervisor of the Private Study Division. He continued to realize the vision of his father by expanding the size of Berklee’s urban campus and widening the curricular offerings in the areas of music technology, music business, and music therapy.

He made his mark early on when his book Legal Protection for the Creative Musician, won the prestigious Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP in 1971 for best book in music. It is a not only a core text but it is also a marker for a sea-change in relationships between artists and the an industry that has a poor reputation for playing fair. Artists who got royally ripped off probably did not read this book. The effort to educate musicians in the business of music continued under Lee Berk’s tutelage and as early as 1992 the Music Business/Management major became available.

However, it is the affinity with innovations in music production and recording technology that has helped make Berklee what it is today. The on-site campus technology has a three-year replacement cycle so state-of-the-art comes as standard.

Berklee, in contrast to many other music colleges and conservatories, became technologically sophisticated from the outset and it is this distinction that has given the college such a strong identity. The move into technology alongside Berk Jr’s ability to forge working business partnerships has been the making of Berklee as the college of the music industry.

The strong business ethic and the astute management protocols don’t tell the whole story of Berklee though. It was born out of a passion for popular music and that a genuine desire to offer educational support and direction to aspirations of gifted young talent. That continues today with a strong commitment to outreach local and international outreach programmes. Every year, talented youngsters from the Boston area are identified and funds are raised to give them scholarships to summer programmes and many of them have matriculated into the college.

The college also offers a Music Therapy major based on research indicating that music therapy had been a recognized discipline since World War II. However, it is the Berklee of 2012 that finds itself eminently resourced to allow students using technology to create new avenues of exploration in music therapy. The courses have only been running for about seven years but they are already delivering tangible results. There have been especially gratifying achievements among students working closely with cancer and Alzheimer’s patients, and young people with learning disabilities.

If Berklee still sounds a bit elitist to you then I think it may be a matter of asking what is not provided in music education elsewhere. Berklee began with a vision, a plan, and people who cared. It made it’s own luck. That good fortune is being delivered back to all of us in the form of musical riches from the recent past, the vibrant present and the highly promising future.

The Curator, June 2012