Lawrence Berk: Music, Mechanics and Matriculation

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Did you know that the largest independent school of music in the world was named after a twelve-year-old boy? Not only that, but this boy would one day go on to be the school’s president.

We have the prolific Lawrence Berk to thank for this unusual nugget of trivia. It was this deeply versed and influential man who founded the Berklee College of Music and named it for his young son, Lee Eliot Berk.

The Engineer and Eighty-Eight Keys

Berk was immersed in music for the better part of his life, scoring his first professional gigs as a piano player on Boston’s West End at the young age of thirteen. It was the early 1920s and big band orchestras ruled the dance floor. Berk played under the leadership of figures like Ruby Newman and Meyer Davis even as he earned a degree in architectural engineering from MIT.

If Berk had designs on a career in engineering, the universe had other plans for him. It is often said that depression leads to great music. In Berk’s case, it was a Depression — the Great Depression to be exact — that drove him into music full time. With engineering jobs being particularly scarce in 1932, Berk moved to New York and landed a job as a staff arranger for the NBC radio network.

Mathematical Music

It was also in New York that Berk met Joseph Schillinger, a famed music theorist whose ideas perfectly merged Berk’s two greatest passions. With his Schillinger System of Musical Composition, Schillinger offered the premise that compositional decisions could be driven by mathematical processes. Schillinger presided over a private research university based in Greenwich Village called the New School, where he directly advised legends like George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

In spite of Schillinger’s influence, Berk still answered first and foremost to his love for engineering. As World War II raged and the economy surged, Berk returned to Boston to work as a mechanical engineer for defense contractor Raytheon. Based on the company’s area of expertise during the war, one can presume that Berk contributed directly to the development of the shipboard radar systems used to detect enemy submarines.

The House that Berk Built

At just forty-seven years old, Joseph Schillinger passed away from stomach cancer, his ideas never fully realized in the academic community. Lawrence Berk was so moved by his mentor’s contributions that he and eleven others assembled in 1943 to help further his ideas. Each took on a number of students and became an authorized teacher of the Schillinger System.

The preoccupation quickly took hold of Berk, who went from teaching three students part-time on Saturdays to making musical education his life’s work. In 1945, Berk purchased a building on Boston’s bustling Newbury Street and called it the Schillinger House. As the school’s director, Berk oversaw a dramatic expansion in enrollment.

The Age of Experimentation

By 1954, Schillinger’s theories had become only one dimension of a school which aimed to groom its students for careers and professions in music. Thus, the House was re-dubbed the Berklee School of Music after its pre-adolescent future president.

This reorientation positioned Berklee perfectly to capture the spirit of an era defined by unbridled experimentation in classical, jazz and popular music. The school developed a reputation both for excellence and uninhibited exploration of modern forms. To wit, 1962 saw the establishment of the world’s first college-level guitar major; 1973, establishment of an electric bass major; and in 1974, the assembly of a jazz-rock fusion ensemble.

Throughout his tenure as the school’s first president, Lawrence Berk presided over an ever-widening scope of musical styles, genres, and ideas. And it’s kind of difficult to overstate the enormity of his influence. A career in music saved Berk from the desperation that confronted so many Americans during the Great Depression. He offered the same salvation to countless others both by demonstrating that there are practical ways to pursue a career in music and by giving his students the means to do so.

When he retired in 1978, he had already left a permanent mark on the worlds of music and higher education.

All in the Family

That very same year, the school’s namesake fulfilled his destiny by becoming the its second president. Lee Eliot Berk followed his father’s example by making the college a bastion for the ever-broadening and diversifying palette of popular, folk, and experimental music. His father would serve as the school’s chancellor until his death in 1995. Nearly matching his Lawrence’s longevity, Lee Eliot served as president until 2004.

It’s almost impossible to quantify the impact that Lawrence and Lee Eliot Berk had on music history. Noted Berklee alumni run the gamut and include some true legends, including Al Di Meola; Kevin Eubanks; Bill Frisell; Quincy Jones; Jan Hammer; Diana Krall; Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer; and (no kidding) Psy, the guy who sang “Gangnam Style.”

At the time of writing, the school’s graduates and alumni have won a total of 266 Grammy Awards.

Following a 2015 merger with the Boston Conservatory, the school is simply known today as Berklee.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

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