Berklee, Umbria Jazz Festival Celebrate 30-Year Partnership

For 30 years, Berklee and the Umbria Jazz Festival have worked together to train the next generation of jazz musicians, a collaboration that continues to grow stronger.

July 10, 2015

The alto saxophone notes reverberated throughout the vine-covered brick courtyard of the hotel La Rosetta in Perugia, Italy, on Thursday, July 9, as Larry Monroe warmed up. Those who know Monroe well from his more than 40 years (and nearly as many roles) at Berklee wouldn’t be surprised. While he possesses extraordinary skill and has retired from Berklee, Monroe has never eased up on his regimen of practice six days a week, every week. A few hours later, Monroe took the stage alongside the powerful vocalist Donna McElroy, a professor in Berklee's Voice Department, and an all-star band of Berklee faculty members to kick off Berklee Night at the Umbria Jazz Festival before an eager international crowd of jazz aficionados that was not disappointed.

A Special Milestone

For many, and for Monroe in particular, the moment was a special milestone, as 2015 marks the 30th year of the collaboration between Berklee and the Umbria Jazz Festival on the Berklee at Umbria Jazz Clinics. The clinics, part of the Berklee on the Road program, are vital to training the next generation of great jazz musicians and have educated more than 6,000 students over the years who come from all over the world to study with Berklee faculty in Perugia.

Go inside the classrooms at the Berklee at Umbria clinics.

Read a profile of former Berklee at Umbria student Alissia '14 here.

Monroe was in the room when the initial deal was reached three decades ago, along with former Berklee President Lee Berk; Umbria Jazz Festival founder Carlo Pagnotta; Giovanni Tommaso, the renowned bassist and composer who now directs the Berklee at Umbria Jazz Clinics; as well as multi-Grammy-winning jazz vibraphonist and Berklee educator and alumnus Gary Burton H ‘89.

Looking back on 30 years of partnership with Berklee, Pagnotta reminisced about the birth of the collaboration. “We had a booth inside the JazzTimes Convention in New York City,” Pagnotta said. “At the end of the day, as I was looking through the business cards people had left, I saw one from Lee Berk. So, I took a shot…who could have imagined that 30 years later, we’d still be doing this together? It’s unbelievable, and year by year, the festival gets better and better,” Pagnotta said, shortly after a welcoming event with Perugia Mayor Andrea Romizi.

Honorary Doctorate Awards and a Surprise Honor

Before a giant crowd, on a stage in Perugia's historic and beautiful Piazza IV Novembre, Pagnotta received a surprise that Berklee had been keeping secret for months: Berklee’s George Wein Impresario Award, named in honor of the promoter who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, and given in recognition of those who have contributed to bringing great music to the world’s attention from behind the scenes. Pagnotta accepted the award from Berklee President Roger H. Brown, who said, “We’re delighted to be associated with the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the best jazz festivals in Europe and the world.”

In addition to the Wein Award for Pagnotta, Brown also presented honorary doctor of music degrees to Paolo Fresu—the immensely creative and talented Italian jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player, composer, cross-discipline arranger, and music educator—and to the world-renowned American jazz musician Charles Lloyd.

Lloyd delighted the Piazza IV Novembre crowd, recalling, “When I was a little boy in Memphis, Duke Ellington stayed at our house, and my mother told him that I wanted to be a musician. And the response was, ‘No, don’t let that boy do that. Let him be a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief.’ So I played music all my life, and now they make me a doctor. It’s a great honor.”

Fresu dedicated his reception of the honorary doctor of music degree to Marco Tamburini, a celebrated Italian trumpeter and composer who recently died in an accident. “He was one of the many fantastic Italian jazz players,” Fresu said. “Jazz is finally a universal music, and right now is the best creative moment for Italian jazz, European jazz, and jazz everywhere.”

A Marriage Made in Heaven

Jeff Shames, chairman of Berklee’s Board of Trustees, who also addressed the crowd as the festival got under way, further emphasized that sense of strong crosscultural connection that Fresu mentioned. “Music is magic,” Shames said. “It profoundly connects all of us, and brings enjoyment and wonder to all who hear it, and the Umbria Jazz Festival is a magical two-week event.”

Likewise, the magical connection between Berklee and the Umbria Jazz Festival has not faded. Rather, those who are a part of the collaboration on an annual basis speak of it in terms similar to those often used to describe a strong marriage—a connection that deepens with each passing year.