Musical Monopoly: Lee Berk ’64

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
It’s impossible to separate lee berk from the Berklee College of Music. After all, the school was named after him by his father, Lawrence Berk, a pianist and composer who wanted to teach contemporary music—genres frowned upon by traditional conservatories—to aspiring musicians. As the school’s president for the past twenty-five years, Berk has built on his father’s legacy, transforming Berklee into one of the world’s largest music schools. But on June 1, when he officially retires, the college will be led for the first time in its history by someone with a last name other than Berk. “Berklee is a very unusual story in higher education in America,” he says. “A family, really out of nothing, created what has become one of the top colleges of music education in the world.”

Berk joined the Berklee faculty in the mid-1960s after receiving a law degree from Boston University. He taught a course in music law and wrote an award-winning book on copyright and contract issues involving musicians. When his father retired in 1979, Berk was named his successor. During Lee Berk’s tenure, enrollment more than doubled to 3,800 and the school’s endowment grew to over $125 million. Along the way, Berklee turned out an expanding roster of famous, Grammy-winning alumni, ranging from Quincy Jones and Branford Marsalis to Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore and Norah Jones producer Arif Mardin.

Over the years, Lee Berk has helped expand the curriculum to mimic the ever-evolving face of music. The school offers programs in rock and pop performance, jazz composition, film scoring, and songwriting, in addition to music management, production, engineering, education, and, most recently, therapy. This year Berklee added a course in “turntablism”—the art of scratching and spinning records. “Keeping music education relevant is one of the college’s major achievements,” Berk says. “Music changes rapidly. We’ve been able to adapt to these changes.” Berk says he’s most proud of his efforts to recruit more women and expand music education to inner-city children.

Berk, who plans to move to New Mexico with his wife, described the year since he announced his retirement as a “victory lap.” In January he received the International Association for Jazz Education’s Humanitarian Award. Then in February, as part of the Grammy awards, he was presented with the National Academy of Arts and Sciences President’s Merit Award, a recognition also bestowed upon his father. “We’re the only two people who have received recognition for music education from the recording academy,” Berk says. “We have a family monopoly.”

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