Especially by modern standards, it’s a lofty mission: Name a musician whose reach extends beyond genres and generations. Someone who so completely embodied American popular music — from gospel and R&B to country and pop — that he or she warrants an academic conference to explore that legacy.
That was the question Matt Glaser, artistic director of the Berklee American Roots Music Program, stared down when he considered curating an event that could delve into various currents of music and culture.
“Early on when I took this job, I had this idea in my mind to put on a symposium especially about the relationship between country music and jazz in the United States,” says Glaser, a fiddler who also teaches at Berklee. “It was very difficult for me to tell my bosses about this in a comprehensive way. So I began to focus on Ray Charles as someone through whom all these streams of American music ran. From that point on, it kind of took off.”
Thus began “Inspired by Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium,” Berklee College of Music’s weekend-long event, in partnership with the Ray Charles Foundation, that will host panel discussions and presentations about Charles’s legacy. (Registration is required at www.berklee.edu, but Saturday’s tribute concert is a ticketed event that’s also open to the public.)
As a testament to the long shadow Charles cast over American music, the tribute concert (titled “InspiRAYtion”) cuts from a broad swath: bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs, singer-songwriter Raul Midón, jazz guitarist John Scofield, Boston-bred rocker Tracy Bonham, and guitarist Doug Wamble, among others. In their respective styles, they’ll perform hits and obscurities from Charles’s catalog.
Glaser says Charles was the perfect fit not only because of his popularity, but also for the critical adulation he courted.
“Ray Charles is one of these rare figures who’s broadly and widely popular and you don’t need to be a trained musician to appreciate him,” he says. “And yet, at the same time, if you are a trained musician or scholar, you can go deep into his music without ever hitting bottom.”
Several of the performers on Saturday’s lineup had collaborated with Charles before he died in 2004 at 73.
“I made this record of his music [‘That’s What I Say: John Scofield Plays Ray Charles’] a few years ago, and I really listened to all of his stuff,” says Scofield, who added that he’s looking forward to performing a song with
Skaggs. “It really goes on forever.”
Skaggs recorded a duet with Charles called “Friendship,” which was the title track of a 1984 album that paired Charles with other country singers (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson).
Skaggs, who was already an established name in country and bluegrass circles, remembers the experience as an education.
“He worked me hard on that record,” Skaggs says. “We got the track cut, and when it was time for me to put my vocal down, the band left and Ray got me into the studio. Singing around Ray Charles, you have the tendency to want to sing like he does, which no one can do. I was fooling myself, but he got me straightened out.”
The fact that Charles saw no barriers in his music almost seems old-fashioned in today’s music business.
“Unfortunately, nowadays I don’t think you really can achieve the kind of success that Ray achieved and not be in a specific genre,” says Midón, whose own music dabbles in soul, jazz, and blues.
The symposium coincides with the 50th anniversary of “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” a landmark album on which Charles turned country staples by Hank Williams and Don Gibson into soul classics.
“I think that country record was one of the biggest things he could have done. People thought he had lost his mind,” Skaggs says. “That’s the way Ray was. He went where the music was; he didn’t always go where the money was. And that’s the reason why a hundred years from now, people will still be discovering Ray Charles.”