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Bill Banfield: keeping jazz alive in Boston

Scott Haas
Bill Banfield: keeping jazz alive in Boston
Bill Banfield. COURTESY PHOTO

Dr. Bill Banfield, Professor at Berklee College of Music, cannot be contained by the four walls of a classroom. His energetic, creative passion for music originated in Detroit at Cass Technical High School and fermented in Boston as far back as 1978 when he attended the New England Conservatory, graduating in 1983. An M.A. in theology from Boston University and a doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan followed. He has his own recording label, JazzUrbane, and is the author of numerous books, including a recent biography of jazz musician Pat Patrick (father of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick) and “Cedric’s Truth,” a novel released in April 2018. Now, he is set to open a jazz club, JazzUrbane Café, in the Bolling Building in Dudley Square. The Banner caught up with Banfield on the Berklee campus.

You’re a busy man whose name I keep hearing in jazz circles throughout Boston. What’s in store for you in the next few months?

I’m doing a number of readings of my new novel, “Cedric’s Truth.” And last year I was appointed a research associate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH). My tenure extends through July 31, 2021.  We’ll also be recording albums for my label.

From Detroit, how did you land at Berklee?

Originally, I came to Boston in 1978 with fellow Cass classmate, Regina Carter, the great violinist. In 1980, at the age of nineteen, I was hired to teach at Madison Park [High School] while still in school.

Tell us about the Africana Institute you established at Berklee.

We opened in 2006 for studies, and became an Institute in 2011. Much of our purpose is reflected in a philosophy that actually was adapted into Berklee’s mission statement, which we changed so that it now reads: “Berklee’s core is founded upon music in the African Diaspora.” Students at Berklee are now required to take at least one class in Africana Studies. So you may be a student interested in rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s great, but we are adding to the curriculum. It’s important to know about antecedents.

As a mentor to the next generation of jazz musicians, what advice do you find yourself giving to all of your students?

I tell them two things. In order to track where you’re going, you have to be conversant with the best that came out of the past. And, you have to be culturally relevant in the times you’re living in in order to properly
construct the future.

When did your label JazzUrbane start? What’s in the immediate future?

I started JazzUrbane with the great musician Esperanza Spalding and we would play at Darryl’s every Monday night. Jazz is about musicianship and mentorship, and we collaborate with younger musicians. So right now, work is being done with Shana Tucker, Michael Burton, Gregory Groover, and Zahili Gonzalez Zamora, among others. Their recordings are planned for release in 2020.

And about Boston: It’s 2019, and you came here in 1978. How does jazz — where it is performed, who’s performing it and who’s coming to listen — fit into the dynamics of this complex city?

Boston has an incredible history with jazz musicians who played or studied here. Among them are Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Carney, Regina Carter, Esperanza Spalding and Branford Marsalis. The list goes on. Boston has captured and cultivated major artists. Along the way, however, the city has lost some of its identity. Which is what the club and performing arts center JazzUrbane is going to be about. It is an attempt to help continue the legacy of music that the city is engaged in at many levels with musicians who come here to study and perform.

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