A Beautiful View from the Berklee Bridge, Flowing with Music, Energy, and Glimpses of a Fruitful Future

A Reflection by Dr. Bill Banfield

I have often felt that, with my art, I could strike a blow against mediocrity. Thumb my nose at power, hate, and injustice. Lift a story that inspires joy. Pull from life a creative melody that guarantees a sigh and wonders about beauty. Build a room where everyone could find a friend. Change the mind of a young person to find a better truth for themselves . . . Wow, that would be a goal to work, live, and die for, happily having tried.

Well, after being at Berklee for fifteen years, that is what I feel I can see forthcoming. I say that because this is a school that potentially will change the future due to talent, energy, and the power of music to impact our society. I have taught my students and engaged with them as we all tried to explore and define artistic citizenry.

Let’s face it, Berklee College of Music is a very cool place to be for a young musician. The energy is everywhere, from around corners, down stairwells, out from classrooms, in studios, and most importantly, coming out of the soil of the place and the students. But after thirty plus years of being an arts/culture professor, and teaching at over forty colleges and universities, I’ve found that Berklee is the only place that pulsates, breathes, and delivers such a palpable and rich presence of music. Music, creativity, and the human spirit are everywhere. And these things don’t come just from the students. They also come from the dedicated and inspiring faculty and staff. If you could cut the walls at Berklee, they would bleed sound, energy, and creative soul.

I’ve been hugely blessed at Berklee, because I was invited and allowed to play in all the arts playgrounds I have loved and trained to engage in as a creative artist and scholar. I served for fifteen years as the founder and director of the Center for Black Music Culture Studies, and a professor in Liberal Arts, a humanities department.

Music and humanities education through Africana Black Music/Culture Studies provides an extremely engaging and fulfilling time for our students. A time that guarantees guidance and shaping from many angles. The study of music and culture, is not just “extracurricular,” it is essential to the curriculum.

There is no doubt about it, when young artists study the creative history of music, they tap into a “fuller history” of ideas, personalities, and the creative enterprises that impact our society. One of the greatest achievements in the expressive culture of modernity is popular music. Creative movements from hip hop to civil rights, from bebop to the Harlem Renaissance, from the blues of Bessie Smith to Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel guitar, Ornette and Free Jazz, and Bob Dylan, are all examples of young creative thinkers. Women and men who pressed forward and used innovative expression to propel their own identities and create solutions that touched lives and increased participatory citizenry.

Contemporary music education ought to equip musicians to see themselves as artists contributing to the broader culture. Today, a global worldview is absolutely essential to our vitality as artist citizens. Artists and educators need to be in touch with these impulses in a multi-ethnic world with a host of strategies and views on contemporary culture, artistic creation, production, education, and business. Educational programming that broadens the understanding, definition, and direction of contemporary music culture-doing, is the direction the academy must continue to take. The great music tradition is the essential arts/culture study, and we at Berklee are proud to share this as the basis of our mission in music education.

Culture helps people to know they “have a face,” an identity that records and affirms their humanness in the world. Dance, song, poetry, and the visual arts are the creative expressions of that humanness, history, and heritage. Artistic sharing goes directly into the most central core of our human pulses. And music is that sounding note, best appreciated as an expressive result of our living deeply in the world.

So, I am retiring after 40 straight years in music education, having begun in 1980 as a music teacher in the Boston public schools.

Artistic citizenry is about giving, sharing, service and arts/culture cultivation. The question then becomes, as an artist, how do you respond now with the right notes to such living in the world? From my view from the Berklee bridge, all I see is a flowing of music and energy with glimpses of an even more fruitful future.

Be well and share art. It changes things.

Professor Bill Banfield

George Russell, Banfield, Thaddeus Hogarth, Kenwood Dennard, Ernie Isley, Lenny Stallworth, David Fiuczynski
Banfield with students from Sociology of Black Music in American Culture
Banfield with students from the Theology of American Popular Culture, 2019
Banfield with faculty (Joey Blake, Donna McElroy, Gabriel Goodman, Jeff Ramsey, David Gilmore Winston McCow), students, guest artists (Stokley Williams, Morris Hayes) celebrating Africana Studies 10 years, 2017