April 5, 1976: Berklee Performance Center Opens
The Berklee College of Music opened its new Berklee Performance Center on April 5, 1976.
From its first days as Schillinger House, at 284 Newbury Street, the absence of a large performance space hampered Berklee. It could only cast its eyes covetously toward the New England Conservatory and its spectacular Jordan Hall. Berklee had to make do with rental space. Sometimes that was the New England Mutual Hall, but more often than not it was the John Hancock Hall, in the John Hancock Building (the one topped by the weather beacon), at Berkeley and Stuart Streets.
Berklee staged some memorable events at John Hancock Hall, such as Joe Viola’s Musical History of the Saxophone in October 1956, and the first Jazz International Concert in November 1958, showcasing Berklee’s foreign students: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gabor Szabo, and Arif Mardin. And Berklee used the hall for commencements, speaking engagements, and other functions that attracted a crowd.
By 1972, the Berklee brain trust knew, like the song said, that “something’s gotta give.” When the Bryant and Stratton Business College put their Back Bay property up for sale that year, Berklee bought the former Sherry Biltmore Hotel at 150 Mass Ave (now home to the Stan Getz library and more), and the Fenway Theater at 136 Mass Ave.
The Fenway was a fine old theater, dating back to 1915, and designed in a neoclassical style by Thomas Lamb, a prominent architect known for his theater work. (Lamb also designed the Orpheum in downtown Boston.) And there was jazz in this building’s bones. In the speakeasy days, there was a club called the Attic Studio up above the theater, and among others known to play there was the saxophonist Perley Breed, who came to prominence in the twenties and had recorded for Gennett in 1925.
Berklee redesigned and renovated from basement to Attic and the result is the 1,200-seat theater we know today as the BPC. In his remarks at the grand opening, Governor Michael Dukakis called the new facility “an outstanding contribution to the cultural resources of the city and state.” Tony Teixeira’s big band performed a new work, Jazz 1776-1976, at the dedication. I’ll confess to being a bit puzzled by that title.
There is plenty of video available from the BPC, and it’s hard to pick one. Here’s Phil Wilson and the Rainbow Band with Duke’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” from 2011.