Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee

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A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.

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Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”

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Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”

The Mozdzer Motor

Fascinating visit with the remarkable Polish jazz pianist Leszek Mozdzer on the Spoleto Festival, as we recorded an interview between him and Jennifer Foster in the Cato Center.  Here’s the link to the program:
Spoleto Today 2010 June 1

Great dissection of how he channels Chopin into “the Mozdzer Motor” – and his John Cage-like habit of putting drinking glasses, combs, and even his own CDs on the piano strings to combat boredom.  Oh, and along the way we revealed to Mozdzer his unwitting hand in creating the Spoleto Today theme song!

We even had the chance to shoot a little video:

And here are more “Chopin Impressions” from Mozdzer:

Bravo for Brubeck

Nice to see Dave Brubeck get a well-deserved honor yesterday…the legendary jazzman came to Washington DC to honored with the Ben Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy – a sort of “lifetime achievement” award for Americans going abroad. The award was launched last year by our piano-playing Secretary of State, who noted at the ceremony yesterday, “As a little girl I grew up on the sounds of Dave Brubeck because my dad was your biggest fan.”

Here’s the link to the entire half-hour ceremony, courtesy of State’s website.

Or you can listen here to Brubeck’s moving comments about the emotional experience of playing in Poland for the first time a half-century ago….

AND listen to what he played when he put his “cold hands on this cold [and slightly out-of-tune] piano:” Dave Brubeck: Dziekuje (Thank You)

There’s also a very nice article about Brubeck’s incalcuable impact (with a wonderful slide show) as an overseas jazz ambassador during the ’50s and ’60s here.