John Patitucci: Music As an Instrument for Social Change

Renowned bassist John Patitucci, one of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute faculty, said of the institute: “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had teaching in my life.”

June 11, 2014

When Danilo Perez invited renowned bassist John Patitucci to join the faculty of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute four years ago, Patitucci was interested but reluctant. It wasn’t the program itself that gave him pause, it was the commute: from his home in New York, Patitucci must drive three-and-a-half hours to teach in Boston. Yet, he not only joined the BGJI but became a full-time faculty member, and after more than 35 years of teaching and performing worldwide, he says, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had teaching in my life.”


What did you find most appealing when Danilo invited you to be a part of the BGJI?

It’s the mentorship part of it, and it’s also the musical training. Danilo’s really special and has this way of teaching how to integrate rhythmic study into everything we do. It’s special and important to link the music up to the African roots of jazz. But also harmonically and everything else he does, he has a great way of teaching. So there’s the teaching style, which we all are in alignment with, a teaching style that stresses the communal way of learning music and internalizing things in a tangible way with your ears and rhythmically, as well as understanding the intellectual and analytical parts of music.

The other part that’s really important is the part that’s dedicated to hopefully developing character and selflessness in the kids that come through, having them teach young children in underprivileged countries, having them play in prisons, and learning that being a musician is not just so you can be famous and make a lot of money. Music for social change is also a huge thing that’s a very important belief that we have. And [there’s] the fact that we can take kids, when they get into the top-level groups that we have, to travel around the world, to work with people in countries where people are not as fortunate as we are, to learn from different cultures. They get to experience a mentorship that is not so easy to get anymore as it used to be when we were coming up, where there would be a lot of older musicians who would take young musicians around, and you would learn by living with them on the road and touring.


Can you talk about the quality of musicianship you’ve seen among the students who attend the BGJI?

It’s thriving all the time. I’ve seen some really creative individuals, and I’ve been struck by the fact that not only in their playing are they creative, but in their composing. That’s great, and I think that their level of learning how to teach is growing, too, as they’re challenged in that way, as their opportunities grow. They’re all individuals, and they come from all over the world, too, so they all have individual stories to tell from where they’re from. We hope that one of the threads that would be common would be their willingness to express, as a community, all of those stories together in a unified way.


Do you approach teaching as part of the BGJI differently than teaching that you’ve done in the past?

The BGJI has given me the opportunity to teach in a broader context. One of the things about Berklee is that it’s a school with a lot of resources and awareness, and it wants to do these things and helps us do these things. So we have facilities to do these things, and we have a budget to take the kids to Africa. That’s a big thing that I didn’t have access to before in some of the places that I taught. When you have visionary programs that are funded, the kids benefit, and so do the teachers, actually.


Can you say a little bit about the impact that the BGJI has had on your own music?

Any time you’re around young people experiencing the things you do, you get inspired by them. They’re bringing their culture into the music, and that’s exactly what we want them to do. We want them to not come to Berklee and just say, well, now I’m playing jazz, so my country doesn’t have anything to do with it such that I shove it under a bushel. No, we ask them to go deeper into it. So it’s exciting to hear it, when somebody comes from another place and they are able to mix it with jazz. That’s fresh.