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White House bestows honor on musician, composer, and educator Bill Banfield

A graduate of BU’s School of Theology, Bill Banfield established the Africana Studies department at Berklee College of Music.Kelly Davidson

To receive the President’s Call to Service Award, honorees are expected to have completed 4,000 hours of “extraordinary” public service in their chosen field. The man who will accept one of this year’s prestigious honors from the Biden administration on Friday surely surpassed that benchmark years ago.

A composer, educator, and author, Dr. Bill Banfield has served as a Pulitzer Prize judge for music and a researcher for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. A 1988 graduate of Boston University’s School of Theology, Banfield established the Africana Studies department in 2005 at Berklee College of Music, where he is now professor emeritus. He is also the man behind the Jazz Urbane Cafe, the arts venue scheduled to begin construction this fall in Roxbury’s Nubian Square.


“I’m still wrapping my head around what it all means,” said Banfield about the honor, which he will receive at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. The ceremony will feature performances by the Boston Arts Academy Choir, the saxophonist Najee, and Banfield’s own Imagine Orchestra.

Also known as the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Call to Service Award was created in 2003 by the administration of George W. Bush, following previous iterations dating back to the 1980s. The program went on hiatus under Donald Trump and has been reinstated under the current administration.

A native of Detroit who attended that city’s historic Cass Technical High School, Banfield began his career in education as a 19-year-old teacher in the Boston Public Schools. For more than 30 years, he has taught a class called the “Theology of American Popular Music” at colleges across the country.

While studying at New England Conservatory, he was offered an opportunity to teach at Madison Park High School. At the time, he was just two or three years older than his students.


“I immediately had to undertake a professional role,” he recalled, joking that “I couldn’t bum around with the students.

“I began to see the impact of my work immediately, and it made an impact on me. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to do music and be in education, I have an opportunity to train young people.’ ”

The 4,000-hours commitment for the Lifetime Achievement Award is “only formulaic,” he said. “Really, it’s about the narrative of one’s work.”

Banfield has written several books on the Black American musical experience, ranging from conversations with Black composers and essays on contemporary music to a biography of Pat Patrick, the longtime Sun Ra associate who is the father of former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Banfield describes the through-line of his scholarly work as “griotology.”

Throughout his career, he has emphasized the connection between music and spirituality. Artists such as John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, and Woody Guthrie are effectively lay ministers, he maintains, expounding the gospel of community and, yes, service to others.

During the pandemic, Banfield said, honorees could not travel to the White House to receive their Lifetime Achievement Award, so the Biden administration began sending emissaries to each recipient’s city of residence. That practice continues with Friday’s celebration at AME Bethel.

“It’s a wonderful community event,” said Banfield, “which is what it should be.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him @sullivanjames.