By Ed Hazell
Berklee Press Publications
It's too bad, but the soundtrack I hear in my head when someone mentions the Berklee College of Music is lifeless fusion: Lots of chops, no passion.
See, I like my music rough around the edges. And in my narrow, non-musician's mind, a formal education is an enemy to soulful music. Technique overrides feeling.
But that's a bit unfair, I've learned since browsing through the school's self-published anniversary tome, "Berklee: The First Fifty Years."
The book recounts the school's beginnings, growth and changes, and drops the names of many heavy students and faculty none of them even remotely lacking in passion. Sit back, while I roll off a few: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Quincy Jones, Gary Burton, Richie Cole, Junior Cook, Jack Walrath, Sonny Sharrock, John Scofield, Bill Frissell, Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, etc., etc. You get the idea.
Obviously, Berklee wasn't launched with a mission to turn out an endless line of cold-hearted musical technicians. Clearly, many great musicians have benefited from those classroom sessions in Boston, and they've come out to play rugged, swinging music meant to inspire and entertain, not merely impress. Says Scofield: "The most important thing about Berklee for me was the people the other musicians and teachers. Also, the curriculum was great for me, because I didn't know how to read that well... I often think about where I would be if I hadn't gone to school. I know I would have gotten to the same place. But, I think I got here quick because of that big dose of theory."
Learning a little about theory, composition and technique can't harm a musician who continues to play from the heart, regardless of how much information he has taken into his head. Education can only help. Afterall, I don't begrudge my peers for having studied journalism or literature.
In addition to setting me straight in this regard, "Berklee: The First Fifty Years," written by Ed Hazell, enlightened me to the school's deep jazz roots. Founder Lawrence Berk (the school is named after his son, Lee get it?) was an engineering student and big band chart arranger when he drifted into musical education. Among the greats who stopped by Berklee to offer guest seminars and pick up honorary degrees were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Roy Haynes and Jimmy Smith. The book is illustrated with nice black and white photos of these folks and many of the school's alumni, illustrious and otherwise. Another nice touch is a timeline that runs throughout the book charting major developments in rock, pop and jazz over the half century of the school's existence.
Also in the package: two compact discs featuring student big band performances. Yes, some of it sounds cold and technical, but a lot of it swings, too. It's all about what you do with the tools.
This book probably isn't for everyone. It's geared toward Berklee alumni, but it's a well-produced testament to the role the school has played in jazz and popular music.