By M. J. Moore
Decades ago, the Berklee College of Music in Boston was commonly known as “the Jazz School” or some other iteration of a Jazz Institute. More recently, it has been a haven for serious students of all styles – Pop, Rock, Fusion, Funk, Hip Hop and every imaginable kind of Latin Music inflection.
Part of Berklee’s transformation over time is due to the perennial in-house presence of guitar professor, recording artist, professional performer, and former Berklee student Lauren Passarelli, who was born and raised in Paramus, New Jersey.
This fall semester marks the 35th year that Lauren Passarelli is on the faculty at Berklee, teaching and advising her students (as a multi-instrumentalist) while leading by example in her ensembles and recording workshops.
Lauren, herself, is something of a Berklee institution. As a student there between 1978 and 1982, she was the first female to complete a degree in guitar performance.
Yet, at the time, all she was focused on was her music. “I found out the day before I graduated that I was the first woman to finish the guitar performance major,” she recalled recently. “It was never a goal or planned.”
What was planned, in her life, was her quest to get from New Jersey to Boston, for the sole purpose of enrolling at Berklee. “I was looking forward to attending Berklee College of Music since I was eleven years old,” she says. “It sounded like THE place for serious musicians to attend.”
Lauren Passarelli was always serious about music, and she was and is ultra-serious about The Beatles (separately and together). The legacies of John, Paul, George, and Ringo have buoyed her musical journey throughout her life.
The Beatles are now studied in musical curriculums all over the world, but when Lauren first arrived at Berklee she was in a milieu most celebrated (back then) for its emphasis on the history of Jazz. As the saying goes: “Still, she persisted.”
“To me, music was music” she says. “All of it mattered, whatever flavors you loved. It was surprising to find some teachers and students who fought for their tastes in styles by putting down other genres of music, like pop and The Beatles.”
It’s important to remember that in the late 1970s, what we call classic rock was already facing tremendous competition from punk, funk, disco, and all other forms of the ever-changing contemporary music scene. The glory days of The Beatles were a decade (or more) gone by.
In the 1978-1979 era, John Lennon’s retirement was in effect (he took himself off the scene from 1975 to 1980, and was murdered when he re-emerged with a new album toward the end of ‘80). George Harrison was also off the scene, by and large, after conquering the charts as a solo artist throughout the first half of the 1970s. Paul McCartney & Wings were playing to an AM radio demographic and Ringo Starr was struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, more or less in musical limbo.
Nonetheless, as a Berklee undergrad and then as a full-fledged faculty member, Lauren Passarelli was always known for her expertise on all things Beatlesque.
But it’s not just their albums, singles, interviews, and movies that influenced her.
“What I always loved about The Beatles included freedom,” she notes. “Another way of looking at life and everything, and [their] clear message is to use your power for the good and do your thing authentically.” It’s remarkable that for a guitar-playing girl in Paramus, New Jersey, who was ten years old when The Beatles disbanded, such a lifelong awareness of their unique energy defined her.
Lauren adds: “I always felt sorry for people who didn’t ‘get’ The Beatles, because there is a wealth of humor, melody, fun, intelligence, and courage in John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I love those guys and their music. I have always been thankful that I was on the planet when the four of them were here.”
Nonetheless, she was acutely aware of how what she loved musically was seen by others as a bit lacking. “I could understand that from a Jazz perspective, once you heard intricate, beautiful guitar playing” – the wizardry of Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery and others applies here – “pop music would be considered watered down and maybe not as complex.”
However, she goes on to say: “But communicating and connecting soul to soul has nothing to do with the complexity of the tools or the medium used to express what we want to say.”
To ensure that she had a venue to record and release the music she created, Lauren Passarelli founded Feather Records as an “indie” label long before indie was “in.”
It’s a path familiar to maverick women. For example, Beat poet and memoirist Diane di Prima (who enjoys a worldwide readership) created her own publishing company, instead of waiting for the men ruling the book business to notice her.
Feather Records was one sure way for Lauren Passarelli to stay in control and manage her own music and recording. Such independence was not encouraged. In fact, such bold moves were “very unpopular at the time, even though books had existed from the 1970s about how to do it yourself.” These days? Indie is patented.
Equally pioneering was the hiring of Lauren Passarelli as Berklee’s first female Guitar Performance professor back in 1984. “I felt they needed a woman to teach in the guitar department and that I belonged there,” she says. “In 1984, when I started teaching at Berklee, most of the guitar teachers taught from a Jazz perspective and their emphasis was on improvisation. I was hired because I played well, loved recording, and I wrote and played songs.”
For Berklee, it was a smart demographic move. Thousands of guitar players were enrolling at the school as the years went by, and as Lauren highlights: “There were thousands of students singing and playing guitar [and many] enjoyed studying with a pop/rock teacher. I always found there was more trust and connection between student and teacher when there was a shared style.”
Another thing about which Lauren is sure is that Berklee will always be her base.
“Absolutely,” she says. “Berklee just gets better and better. I am technically a professor and on the faculty, yet it feels like I’m an artist-in-residence. My job is to keep learning everything I love about production, recording, arranging, playing, and composing – and share it. It’s so easy and such a beautiful thing to interact with the enthusiasm of students.”
(M. J. Moore is HoneySuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. He’s also the author of Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, and For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor (A Novel). Learn more at heliotropebooks.com