To present the full range of famed musicians with associations to the Berklee College of Music would require a weeklong festival. Instead, the world-renowned school for contemporary music settled for one stellar night — Saturday at Boston’s ornate Wang Center — to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Gloria Estefan, Juan Luis Guerra, Gary Burton and Michel Camilo headlined Three Score, a three-hour program organized by producer Phil Ramone and hosted by Bill Cosby. In turn, all eight were honored with Berklee Presidential Scholarships in their names, offering young musicians a four-year free ride — an unprecedented music-college perk.
Simon was almost a no-show, Ramone told the sold-out crowd of 3,600, because “his voice was shot” from the flu. One would never have guessed from the way the singer closed the night with a ghostly outro in “Slip Slidin’ Away” and buoyant whistling in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” “I should always be announced as having the flu, which raises a certain amount of sympathy, and glee,” Simon joked before launching his four-song turn with “Mrs. Robinson” and a relaxed “Graceland,” with pianist Hancock walking out halfway through the latter to lend his own filigrees. Both artists received honorary doctorates from Berklee in 1986.
Drummer Steve Gadd and other Simon musicians helped anchor the night’s core band, while Berklee faculty, students and alumni filled a stage complete with a choir and orchestra. The orchestra enjoyed the luxury of top Berklee-trained arrangers, who set the table with a sixty-year overture. Musicianship outweighed celebrity, considering that one of the most rousing ovations went to a slap-crazy bass solo from studio ace Abe Laboriel, Sr. (whose son and fellow Berklee alumnus Abe Jr. plays drums for Paul McCartney). And youth was served by more recent graduates, with the impressive scat-singing and upright bass of Esperanza Spalding and an emotive ballad from Italian vocalist Chiara Civello.
“Notice that there’s been no smoke, and no synching of the lips,” said Cosby, whose “Berklee Football” shirt reminded of one thing the college does not offer. “At Berklee, you have to be on your own — you have to be you.”
Latin music was well-represented by Dominican merengue star and 1982 alumnus Guerra, who complemented warm vocals with spirited hand-claps atop spicy grooves, and Estefan, whose elegant delivery in “Coming Out of the Dark” belied her brassy Miami Sound Machine roots.
But while Berklee has expanded its studies in popular music to everything from hip-hop and electronica to recent entry bluegrass, the institution’s longtime dedication to jazz earned a fair chunk of time. Hancock’s quartet shadowed him as he segued from classically styled ruminations to a funky stroll through his Headhunters-era favorite “Chameleon.” And just as invigorating was a summit featuring the nimble Dominican pianist Camilo and vibraphonist Burton, who later traded fours with jazz fan Cosby on a second set of vibes.
Cosby — who received his own honorary doctorate from the college in 2004 — even stopped the orchestra at the outset of “Flying Home,” a tribute to both vibes pioneer Lionel Hampton and his onetime sideman and longtime Berklee teacher Andy McGee, on hand as a sax soloist. “This is Lionel Hampton!” Cosby playfully admonished the band off-mike. “I want an attack!” The musicians obliged with gusto, as they did throughout the night.