Remembering John Bavicchi

Posted by DannyFratina, 12.20.2012 There have been 0 comments

If you ever attended Berklee School of Music in Boston and took any class with even a hint of composition, you can probably thank John Bavicchi. John started teaching at Berklee in 1964 and was a major influence on not just the Composition department, but the Jazz Composition department as well, plus everything in between (including the commercial writing and film scoring departments). If you ever wrote something for a class and played it in the class with whatever rag-tag group of instrumentalists was available, that’s Professor Bavicchi. He taught many of the students who would go on to be major educators of the next generation, including former long-time chair of the Jazz Comp department Ken Pullig, ensuring that his methods would continue to impact Berklee for years to come. John’s philosophy has been around long enough that you could even say that notable alumni like Alf Clausen, Juan Luis Guerra, Steve Vai, John Scofield, and countless others were indirectly (or directly) influenced. Everyone in the world of music in which we live in has a connection to John Bavicchi one way or another!

Many who studied with Prof. Bavicchi will have similar memories of him and his classes: his kind-hearted personality, his straight-faced jokes that flew straight over your head only to land gently in your brain, the classic response to not being able to hear what you were saying (”cow’s ass?”), etc, but here are some of my own experiences with him.

I think the first class I took at Berklee that was taught by John Bavicchi was The Music of Bartok, sometime in 2006. I didn’t know anything about Professor Bavicchi but I knew that I liked Bartok’s music quite a bit and took a chance. My time in the Bartok class was spent sitting in the back of the room, struggling to keep up. We fully analyzed all six of Bartok’s string quartets, but I could not yet read viola music (alto clef, my first encounter with it) and could not easily identify the placement of sonata form that Bartok masterfully manipulated with incredible precision and deliberation. I felt overwhelmed by the speed we moved at but I loved it. More importantly, never once did I feel any pressure, displeasure, or scorn from Prof. Bavicchi. In fact, it was the opposite, because he involved me whenever he knew I would be comfortable, so that I wasn’t constantly being embarrassed in front of a class full of advanced composition students (I did that enough in my own head!).

While I learned a great deal in that class, if I had the chance today to take it again I would learn much, much more. But that’s how it goes, I guess - you jump into a class like that and hang on for the ride, collecting as many pieces of information as you can like a bonus round of a video game. However, the most valuable thing I got from that class was the sense of awe of Bartok’s inner-workings, and the motivation to push myself even harder to reach his level.  I owe all of this to Prof. Bavicchi; he helped all of us discover and reveal all kinds of secrets within Bartok’s music in a way that was fluid and informal, so you felt like you not only made the discoveries yourself, but that you also knew exactly what Bartok was thinking when he made the choices he did. I also connected with John Bavicchi’s organized but flexible style of teaching that ensured that everyone learned all the things they were “supposed” to learn for the class, plus all the other little things that came up along the way.

The next semester I signed up for private lessons with him. This was an unusual decision considering he was in the Composition department and I was a Jazz Composition student, and it showed because without the final goals of the Comp. major to work towards our first couple of lessons were fairly directionless and slightly disheartening in the sense that I was expecting to basically learn to fill in all the gaps of my knowledge in orchestration. I didn’t know how to explain that to him though, so for the first month he just listened to all my chamber jazz music and admired my writing. I think he was having more fun than I was, but that was fine by me, as it was a big confidence boost.

After a few weeks I asked him what I should do next, and he recommended that I write something in my own voice for a new ensemble (I had been running a chamber jazz reading band of two trumpets, one trombone, one tenor sax, and one bari sax that played out a little here and there), and we settled on a brass quartet of two trumpets and two trombones. He encouraged me to work with some new parameters and I ended up writing an ambitious and dense rondo for myself and a few friends (one of which was Nick Noonan, now of the successful pop band Karmin!). It helped my composition abilities reach a new level and I was able to shake off a few rusty habits. The piece was one of my first that was deeply personal and it flowed out of my brain faster than I could write it down. It was extremely satisfying in every way, but I also felt that I had written something that John truly enjoyed, which made it that much better.

The last big moment I remember having with him was one of my last lessons. I was asked to arrange a tune for Aubrey Logan to sing (and play!) with a big band, and I sort of panicked because I had never arranged for a singer before. So I asked John if he could help out and he got really excited and wrote out four pages of ranges for every major, minor, and rare voice type that ever existed, all by memory. It was awesome. It didn’t help me much with the tune, but then again, here I am six or seven years later writing twenty or thirty vocal big band arrangements each year...

John inspired me and supported me. He gave me confidence in my work and showed me how to trust my voice. My time with him was relatively brief but meaningful, and even though he lived an incredible ninety years his absence will be deeply felt. Thank you, Professor.


This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Berklee, Eulogies, John Bavicchi