Improving Lives through Music with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute

Through outreach visits to underserved communities, graduate and undergraduate Berklee Global Jazz Institute students learn not only a high level of musicianship and creativity, but how to direct their talents toward making an immediate and positive impact in people’s lives.

December 16, 2016

When three student ensembles from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) walked into Susan Bailis Assisted Living in Boston on a recent afternoon, a crowd awaited them. In a bright blue and yellow room decorated for Halloween, elderly residents eagerly watched as the ensembles played an hour of jazz ranging from upbeat songs like “Flat Foot Floogie” to more mellow pieces like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” During the hour-long performance, residents packed the room, drawn in by the music and the enthusiasm with which the students played.

Along with teaching a high level of musicianship and creativity, BGJI focuses on creating and sustaining this kind of community partnership in an effort to make an immediate, positive impact in people’s lives through music. Artistic director Danilo Pérez and managing director Marco Pignataro have built a program that encourages graduate and undergraduate students to connect with underserved communities who need more music in their lives. Patricia Zárate, saxophonist, music therapist, and executive director of the Panama Jazz Festival, was the former lead volunteer outreach coordinator, and her contribution has been essential in building this part of the program in Boston and Panama.

Lessons in Bringing Joy

Pignataro says that ever since their first outreach visit in February 2010, the BGJI has made four to five visits per semester to locations in the greater Boston area such as Susan Bailis, Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, and Bridgewater State Prison. At least one graduate ensemble plays at each location, which allows the more seasoned performers to mentor the newer students, in addition to the mentorship they all receive from Pignataro, Perez, and the other BGJI educators. Some of the students have subsequently taken their training outside of Boston to the Dominican Republic, Europe, and, hopefully one day soon, to China.

Pérez calls the BGJI’s outreach work “a concrete example of how music brings joy.” Because, he says, “an aspect of performance is experiential,” it’s critical for musicians to connect with underserved audiences and learn how music can be used as a platform for communication. He wants the students to see and feel how their playing can unify people and foster deep connections with others that transcend differences and bridge gaps.

It has proven a powerful lesson for the students. Bassist Isaac Levien, a graduate student from Lexington, Massachusetts, says, “The program has a strong emphasis on developing musical freedom, which requires a very high degree of being in tune with the surrounding musicians, and also a strong emphasis on human connection, requiring being in tune with your audience and the rest of the world. For me, the highlight of these experiences is perspective. You go and stand in front of a crowd of people maybe four times your age or more, and I think to some degree the ‘you’ matters much less.”

Turning Music into Social Action

For Hari Kim, a pianist from Seoul, South Korea, the primary question since joining the BGJI is “how can we make a better world using the tool of music?” These days, she often asks herself why and how she plays, and she feels honored to meet people she wouldn’t typically interact with when she goes on BGJI’s outreach trips. She says that watching one of the residents at Susan Bailis who danced in her seat in time to the music was “like a miracle for me.”

Colescott Rubin, a bassist and vocalist from Portland, Oregon, finds inspiration and love in each performance. For Rubin, the most powerful experience involved visiting the Clifford School at Longview Farm, which assists children and youth with an array of behavioral and educational challenges. Rubin's three younger brothers have learning disabilities that they are able to cope with in part thanks to music therapy and playing their own instruments. His ultimate goal is to take what he learns through the BGJI on the road while traveling, teaching, and performing with his brothers. “I want to make jazz music that is easily relatable to everyone,” Rubin says, “and use it as a powerful creative, therapeutic, and inspirational force everywhere in the world.”

Suzanne Aiken, Susan Bailis’s resident life director, says that many of their 75 residents once frequented Wally’s, the well-known jazz club in Boston’s South End, and really appreciate the opportunity to hear live jazz again. Caryl Beth Thomas, a music therapist at Shattuck, loves the “active engagement” that the BGJI brings to her patients, encouraging them to dance and even play along with the ensembles. She finds that their performances always draw in many members of the hospital community, not just the patients, noting that the BGJI performers are truly “ambassadors of music as social action.”

This social action is evident in the students’ future plans, which include more outreach visits in Boston as well as upcoming trips to the Panama Jazz Festival and work with the Danilo Pérez Foundation. The BGJI has prepared them to take on the challenge of using music to improve society, and now they have the experience to help them succeed.