Berklee College, Boston: a jazz education mecca

Young people flock to Berklee College in Boston expecting practical education in the most under-capitalized of arts: jazz and related forms of contemporary popular music. With some 4000 enrollees pursuing BA programs in composition, film scoring, production and engineering, music business/management, songwriting, performance, etc., Berklee is by far the largest of 160 institutions in the U.S. and another dozen internationally offering degrees and/or certificates in jazz studies, as detailed in the current (October) issue of Down Beat.

Berklee is a lively place that has involved notable musicians as faculty and produced an impressive number of famed alumni. Being in the thick of it, though, you’re bound to wonder: What’s the point of this jazz education?

During my long day at Berklee last week I addressed smart students and faculty in five separate meetings on topics of reviewing, interviewing, biography, travel writing and “effective communication.” The attentions of those I faced as well as the palpable creative energies in the streets and classrooms of the burgeoning urban campus did happily encourage your humble culture vulture. And yet I also worry: What do these bright kids think they’ll do with their costly educations? Can the world employ several thousand grads every year whose skills focus on the instigation of sound? The greatest of jazz’s greats — Morton, Armstrong, Bechet, Dodds, Beiderbecke, Hines, Ellington, Basie, Hawkins, Young, Benny Carter, Holiday, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Monk and the rest — didn’t go to school but worked at jazz from an early age. Do programs like Berklee’s prolong adolescence, indulge self-absorbtion, or train youth to become productive citizens and professionals? 
I was visiting as a guest of the Liberal Arts department, hosted by Fred Bouchard, the school’s  principal teacher of writing and a published connoisseur of wine, food, birding and technology as well as music, so I enjoyed the royal treatment. But aside from the upbeat buzz and evident well-designed comfort of the many newly renovated practice rooms, what impressed me most was the sense of hands-on work being done everywhere — by musicians playing music, yes, but also by musicians turning their minds to literary matters: 
  • One class, learning to review cds and post to blogs, confronted journalistic basics such as the necessity of writing briefly and descriptively, and learning to identify “throwaway” phrases — those asides that don’t convey info or forward the plot — followed by actually throwing them away.
  • Another group, having read Keroauc’s On The Road, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and Mark Twain’s essays on Bermuda, considered “voyages” that scramble narrative conventions by shuffling chronologies and heightening consciousness — with reference to Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, the film Memento, Henry James and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • In the “Effective Communications” class taught by Rebecca Perricone questions involved how to ask questions (be an interviewer) and how to answer them (be interviewed). As Berklee has an Oral History project in expansive redevelopment, several teachers and administrators were interested in related fundamentals: how to pace sessions, how to direct discussions, how to probe, when to lay back, problems arising from interviewing several people simultaneously. 

I gave my spiels and expanded as requested — the very model of a cooperative interviewee.  Was I giving away professional secrets? No more than sharing what I’ve learned while practicing as a professional, which is what I believe teaching’s all about. 

True, I stumbled on my tricks of the trade without any such formal instruction, and there’s value in having arrived at certain ways of doing things by being forced to improvise in the heat of the moment. That’s traditionally been the jazz method. But these Berklee students aren’t to be criticized for trying to prepare themselves through professional training. There were no courses in arts journalism while I was at Syracuse University, so of course I learned on the job. Now there are degree programs but no jobs. . . 
Of course I experienced the Berklee and Boston scene from a special vantage point. The night before my presentations I was shepherded to a daring blowout by the Saxophone Summit (reedists Dave Liebman, Ravi Coltrane and Joe Lovano, who used his new Aulochrome double-soprano sax, with drummer Billy Hart, bassist Cecil McBee and pianist Phil Markowitz — here’s a Youtube clip of them with guest trumpeter Randy Brecker) at the Regatta Bar. The audience was rife with Boston jazz activists (and my longtime associates) including Bob Blumenthal (newly author of Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America’s Music, published by Collins); WGBH-FM producer and program host Steve Schwartz and Pauline Bilsky, executive director of JazzBoston, a grass roots organization. 

JazzBoston is a partner with Berklee in the three-day Beantown Jazz Festival, which also started last Thursday night, and was feared  to be rained out. Indeed, the impressive roster of stars (Randy Weston, James Carter, Kurt Elling) set to play out-of-doors for free on Saturday was cancelled. But I caught a glimpse of keyboardists Patrice Rushen and Geri Allen in serious rehearsal with drummers Terri Lynn Carrington and Cindy Blackman, who performed on Friday with guitarist and Berklee prof David Gilmore and Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma, an up ‘n’ comer who in this youtube clip seems to be creating spontaneously, free of restraints but thinking as she goes. 

From her bio:
Tineke Postma graduated with honours from the Amsterdam Conservatory with a masters degree , where she also now teaches. She was awarded two scholarships to study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she studied with Dick Oatts, David Liebman and Chris Potter.

So there is a future for (some) jazz ed. students: Easier entry to jazz’s current big leagues. Perhaps it’s a personal issue for each student — partly answered by what else they know, what else they’ve learned — where to take it from there.
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  1. says

    I’ve often wondered whether it would’ve been helpful for someone to clue me in to the incredible imbalance of supply and demand in the jazz world when I was going into a mountain of debt to finance my jazz education at the New School–where I saw you speak in 1995. (I think I remember my roommate at the time telling me that the average starting salary of a Parsons design grad was over $50,000, and thinking that the average starting salary of a New School Jazz grad would be tips and a beer.)
    However, I probably wouldn’t have listened if they had, since I was young and invincible and little things (like the fact that there seem to be more people making jazz than listening to it) couldn’t faze me.
    HM: Thanks for your note, Ian. I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from studying jazz; as you write the power of jazz to attract the young and invincible is stronger than financial considerations for them. Those of us involved in the music though ought to look at our society clearly, and consider how to work with the gap between what we’re called to do and how we can live. This is what jazz musicians have done since the get-go. I think such reality-checks strengthen the musician and the music. Who said it was gonna be easy?

  2. Chip Tingle says

    Let’s be honest and lay it out on the table by acknowledging that jazz education has become a sizable and self-supporting niche industry unto itself. You allude to this in your piece by speaking of graduates whom go on to teach in the schools from which they’ve just graduated.
    Until there is some kind of large scale change in the funding of jazz performance, presentation, and/or recording on the scale of major symphony orchestras, opera companies, or museums, etc….. I frankly don’t see any sizable shift on the horizon, at least in the US. There just simply aren’t enough Monterey or San Francisco or Newport festivals, not enough Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestras….to sustain actual jazz performance careers in the large numbers you’re discussing here.
    HM: Sustaining jazz performance careers may not be the end result of jazz education. I think we may be creating a large cadre of jazz listeners, perhaps people who think in jazz-like ways, with jazz-influenced values. I also think all musicians today benefit from knowledge of jazz practices, whatever kind of music (commercial, country, symphonic) they play. It may also be, in our new economy, that people play for pleasure without much reference to professional opportunities. That means some (many? most?) of those students won’t be pro musicians, but will learn (later? elsewhere?) to contribute to society and make their livings some other way, keeping jazz something special. Kind of like English majors back in my day, or liberal arts students in general.