Lee Berk

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • August 1, 2003

Photos by Tony Scarpetta, Scarpetta Photography, Somerville, Mass.

Many of the country’s prominent colleges and universities – Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Brown – have been named after individuals who were influential in their schools’ establishment and evolution. So it is also with the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. – though, perhaps, somewhat less conventionally. While the other schools were named for adult leaders who made significant contributions to their respective colleges, Berklee was named for a young boy who had yet to realize his own role at the school.

Lawrence Berk, founder of the Berklee College of Music, created the school’s name by reversing his young son Lee’s first and last names and combining them. While Lee Berk was unable to offer his leadership and support at such a young age, he made up for it after he graduated from the Boston University School of Law in the mid-1960s.


At about this time, Berklee – which the senior Berk had established as the first school dedicated to the study of jazz – was experiencing a transformation. Known at the time as the Berklee School of Music, the institution had recently moved from its townhouse complex on Newbury Street to its present quarters along Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue as part of Lawrence Berk’s vision for the private enterprise to become a non-profit college. Just as Berklee had established itself as a pioneer in jazz education, the school was breaking more ground as a leader in the contemporary music of the day – rock ‘n’ roll. And then Lee Berk, fresh from law school, came on the Berklee scene and found his niche.

“When the students and teachers found out I had a law degree, I was quickly besieged with questions in all areas of music law,” he recalls. “I started offering our first course in that area for our students, which was very well-received, and other faculty started offering related courses in music business. From that small seed, it ultimately became one of our most popular majors – music business and management.”

Berk also wrote a book on the subject, “Legal Protection for the Creative Musician,” which won the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Deems Taylor Award in 1971.

Twenty-five years later, the school’s namesake sits at his desk in the President’s office, six floors above Boylston Street, fulfilling what some may say is his destiny. But Berk, who plans to retire from the Berklee presidency in 2004, puts it more simply: “My father asked me to come in and help, and I’ve been here ever since.”

A ‘Beacon’ in Music Education

While the college now enjoys an international reputation for excellence in contemporary music education, Berklee’s beginnings were an ongoing struggle. Berk’s father, Lawrence, had to create his own educational path to learn the art and craft of jazz because of the lack of educational resources available at the time. A jazz pianist, composer and arranger and an MIT-trained engineer, the senior Berk wanted to share his knowledge with other young musicians interested in following the same path to jazz.

“Musicians of the year in which my father was learning his skills – which was in the 19-teens, 1920s – typically had to listen to the recorded music of the day, notate it by ear and then study it to try to figure out what was going on in the music,” Berk relates.

His father wanted to offer a “direct” approach to learning jazz, through an organized system and curriculum for aspiring musicians. [The school was called Schillinger House of Music from 1945 to 1954. Berklee became an established college and gained its accreditation in 1973.]

“The fact was that there was a big gap in music education opportunity for that approach because all of the other colleges of music were and are primarily conservatories,” Berk explains.

Berklee’s founder also had to grapple with society’s preconceptions that jazz was a natural progression – not something that could be taught or learned.

“Jazz – because of its origins – was always viewed as knowledge and skills that somehow just magically emanated from the individual. It was viewed as what they did, rather than what they were taught,” Berk states. “It was hard for Berklee to establish the credibility and acceptance of what it was doing in the educational marketplace.”

Berklee College of Music faced similar challenges in the financial marketplace.

“When we became a college there weren’t philanthropists lined up ready to shove dollars from their mattresses at us,” Berk recalls. “We had to overcome a lot to be accepted. A lot of the financial means for Berklee to be able to address the challenges of growth had come from tax-exempt bond financings.”

But, despite its challenging beginnings, Berklee has grown to become a world-renowned college for the study of contemporary music.

“We occupy a very prominent place in music education,” notes Berk, who points out that Berklee’s full-time enrollment of 3,700 undergraduate students makes the school’s population about seven times as large as any other college of music in the country. “We’re still the only college that’s primarily focused on the breadth of contemporary music styles – jazz, pop and rock, music production, music technology and so forth.”

Each year, about 30 Berklee alumni are nominated for Grammy Awards in various genres, for their artistic or technical achievements. Ten or 11 of those nominees take home the awards, Berk notes.

“As a result of that, I think we’re making a strong statement about the need and integrity of college-level education in contemporary music,” he states.

Berk adds that the percentage of international students attending Berklee – a whopping 30 percent of the enrollment is drawn from an estimated 80 countries – cements the school’s reputation for being the worldwide leader in contemporary music education.

“What that really says is America is known throughout the world for its leadership in contemporary music,” he explains. “In any art form, it always carries the greatest credibility for people to study in the country which is the home of that art form. So just as, for example, a painter would want to study in Paris or an opera singer would want to study in Rome, people who want to study contemporary music come here to America, and Berklee is the logical place for them to come. We’ve really been a beacon in music education for contemporary music studies, which just don’t exist anywhere else in nearly the completeness they do at Berklee.”

Berklee in the Community

Continuing to bring contemporary music education to the forefront, the college has reached out to the community at large to expand the educational opportunities available to the city’s young musicians.

As part of its involvement in the six-college Professional Arts Consortium, Berklee played a leading role in establishing Boston’s first high school for the performing and visual arts, the Boston Arts Academy. The pilot school near Fenway Park graduated its third batch of seniors this spring and holds steady at an enrollment of 440 students – 30 of whom are musicians.

“It’s been a great achievement so that – especially in this era of cutbacks in public school music – students have the opportunity to go to a public high school to study music,” Berk states.

The Berklee City Music Program is another outreach program to the local community, designed to offer musical opportunities to talented urban teens, Berk explains. Throughout the year, Berklee faculty visit area public schools to audition students who show a musical interest and aptitude. Those who qualify receive scholarship support to participate in Berklee’s summer performance program for high school students and the opportunity to continue with musicianship classes and private lessons throughout the school year.

” Our goal is to work with a group of 50 or 60 students over a two- to three-year period and bring them up to the level musically where they could enter a college like Berklee if they chose to do so.”

Berklee has extended its reach into the global community by making its educational offerings available online through its distance-learning Web site,

“It’s the only distance-learning Web site in music education that I’m aware of at the present time that provides an actual classroom, faculty-led, interactive teaching experience to any students anywhere on the face of the globe who have a computer and Internet access. We’ve developed about 20 courses up to the present time. We’ve been focusing on presenting a breadth of music education opportunity in different subject areas for people at a variety of different levels in their music career. Some of it would be basic-level coursework in theory and composition, and others would be more sophisticated courses, such as Pro Tools or music production.”

Berk points out that these distance-learning courses do not yet offer college credit, but that is a possibility in the future. For now, Berklee is looking into offering CEUs – continuing education units – as credit for distance-learning coursework.

“One would never be able to offer a complete college education online because there are areas, such as performance, in which we haven’t yet managed – and may not be able to manage – to offer the quality and breadth of education that would be required. Also, Berklee, like most colleges, does have a residency requirement of two years minimum for a college degree.”

Channeling Change

Under Berk’s leadership, Berklee College of Music has kept pace with the ongoing changes in music education – through its early days as a jazz school to the addition of numerous music business-related courses, and through the technology evolution that’s reshaping the face of music education and production.

Since the electric guitar came on the music scene, Berklee has been pioneering new programs to reflect developing trends in music.

“With the electric guitar, that gradually began to move us into the electronic era,” Berk recounts. “We pioneered programs in music production and engineering, music synthesis, and so forth. We instituted a contemporary vocal program for singers because, just as with guitarists, there really was no place for people who wanted to be jazz or popular or studio singers to go to study that in the context of college music education. Guitar, for example, is an instrument that was never part of the symphonic orchestra. Guitarists by and large wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to a conservatory and keep guitar as their principal instrument. Likewise, the kind of vocal programs offered by the conservatories would be strictly classical and involving studies of the operas, operettas, traditional choral music, and so forth – totally different world and role model.”

One of the newer programs Berklee has established is music therapy, which was added seven years ago.

“The great strengths of it being offered here at Berklee – as contrasted to a conservatory setting – is that our students are steeped in contemporary music and improvisation and the uses of technology so that they can really be helpful to people with health needs in a variety of circumstances in very flexible and advanced ways,” Berk points out. “They’re able to reach out more broadly in many instances than people who have a more specifically focused music education.”

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

As Berk looks ahead toward retirement, he can still turn his internal clock back to one of his favorite memories at Berklee – the first commencement, in 1966, at which the legendary Duke Ellington received an honorary degree.

“We made a piano available in the reception area for the post-commencement reception for students and parents, and he actually sat down and played and very graciously entertained the whole group of guests who were assembled there. That was certainly a personal highlight for me,” he recalls.

Other highlights along the way include receiving the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 1971 in recognition of authoring “Legal Protection for the Creative Musician,” and being awarded the American Eagle Award from the National Music Council in 1995, which coincided with the school’s 50th anniversary.

Berk, who helped secure financing for the school in its early days, also counts an “unusual” highlight among his memories.

“Our first [tax-exempt bond funding] was in 1976. It was a 25-year bond funding, Berklee Series A, and we just paid it off about a year ago. Because I was so intimately involved in securing that, to me that was quite a wonderful moment.”

In addition, throughout his career there have been what Berk calls “an endless number of musical moments” nearly too numerous to mention.

“Just this past May, for example, we honored at our commencement Diane Reeves, the great jazz singer, and Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith. When we honor people, part of it is a concert that’s dedicated to their music, held the evening before commencement. This particular year, both of them were so impressed with the quality of the musicianship that was going on onstage that they both jumped right in and participated. They did a feature song of theirs along with the students, spontaneously. That was just a terrific moment.”

None of the terrific moments for Berk and his father would have been possible without their wives, he adds.

“My mother, Alma Berk, worked very hard along with my father. They really achieved a lot together,” he notes. “I’m also very grateful that my wife, Susan – we’ve been married 27 years – has always been with me at endless college events that we’ve shared together. I hope we’ve set a positive role model for the Berklee community over the years that we’ve tried to exercise wise leadership.”

Berk and his wife have plans to retire to Santa Fe, N.M.

“That’s been our go-to place for about 20 years,” he says. “It’s a wonderfully arts-rich community and also has beautiful nature. So we’ve decided that’s going to be a good place for us to be.”

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