A woman in a floral shirt with shoulder length hair smiles.
Communications Director

In the first of what NEFA staff hope may become a series, former NEFA board chair and current board member Larry Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at Berklee College of Music, joined NEFA staff to discuss his career and how he became a leader in the field.

The conversation was conceived by NEFA’s Staff Development and Training Working Group, which was formed in 2018 with a mandate to create opportunities for staff learning and professional development. This salon offered a chance for staff to  hear from an important cultural leader  and learn about the experiences and advice he found critical to his own professional growth.

Larry generously responded to a variety of questions, including how his academic career - a Ph.D. in Social Psychology – led to a career in higher education administration and enabled him to pursue his passion for the arts. A few additional excerpts follow.

Three people in conversation sitting in a semi circle with a small table with a lamp and a houseplant in between.
Larry Simpson, Daniela Jacobson, and Morganna Becker; photo by Jeffrey Filiault.

What advice would you have given yourself at different points in your career?

At Berklee’s convocation every year, I tell the new students that I don’t have any advice for them, since they’ve received too much at this point. But this year, I advised students to be balanced.

One has to know what one wants and not be afraid of one’s own vision. People often get off on the telling of what they want to do more than the doing. Try to network and be honest. Chief Fela Sowande said, in his paper, The Seven Standard Rules for the Student, “If you must lie, lie to others – because if you lie to yourself, you are a lost fool.” Be honest with yourself and look at your situation dispassionately; yoga taught me that you come to a point where you need to find balance.

Tell us about your love of jazz and who has inspired you.

I used to play piano, and I can tell you how I got into jazz. My parents used to play jazz records. I remember Dinah Washington and Brook Benton playing in the house. And there was this young girl I liked; I’d see her at her house, and we would listen to Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana… That was the beginning of my journey in the arts.

We started a jazz support organization in Cleveland. At that time, people were not presenting jazz, so we began to present the music. I had the time of my life; I met everybody! Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln, Woody Shaw, on and on. In those days, there really weren’t grants to present jazz. We started applying for funding from the Ohio Arts Council. We had no idea what we were doing! But that’s when I got hooked into the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Regional Arts Organizations. I started doing grant panels and working as a consultant, when I began to see how deeply important the arts are. I loved it and I had a passion for it. I’ve served on numerous NEA panels, on the board of Arts Midwest and APAP. I know the field well and know a lot of people. From a music standpoint, jazz is the most forward looking. Improvisation – how does the musician respond in the moment? I’ve had such great experiences being in the arts and have served on the boards of Dance Cleveland, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Cleveland Orchestra. I have been deeply committed to the arts and firmly believe they have the power to transform lives and make a difference. Shortly after my father died - he was a big hero to me - I began listening continuously to a recording called “Sacred Common Ground” by pianist Don Pullen, who used to play with Mingus. He had contracted cancer, and in the recording, you can hear him dealing with the prognosis through the music (this was Pullen’s last recording).

What performances are on your list this fall?

Berklee produces over 2,000 performances every year!  In the early years, I was out every night, but that has moderated. But I will be seeing many performances there during this fall, in fact  we recently had an event with 87 African American students from the Berklee Summer Initiative, a first-year program for African American students. Their concluding performance was amazing.  

Four people conversing in a group, smiling and laughing. More people are standing and chatting in the background.
Photo by Jeffrey Filiault

But if you can, I recommend seeing:

  • Charles Lloyd. When I saw him recently in Italy, the performance was transcendent.
  • Kamasi Washington, a tenor sax player and composer from L.A. He is such a compelling player.
  • Dee Dee Bridgwater: Is coming to Berklee. Women are redefining this music; it’s so refreshing to see and experience. They bring a different level and way of communicating and performing with each other that does not always happen in a male dominated band.
  • We’ve instituted the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, led by founder and artistic director Terri Lynne Carrington. “Jazz without the patriarchy” is the tag line. Women have faced deep-rooted sexism and many challenges in the industry. It’s really inspiring to see what the Institute is doing, and I suggest you try to make it to some of their events through-out the year.
  • Val Jeanty, an electronic magician. She is from Haiti, and she did a wonderful presentation with drums and her electronic gear. She said it was the drum that inspired the electronic performances.

What has kept you engaged with NEFA?

At NEFA, you engage people in ways that the public often does not see; that’s how the sausage is made. What we do here is undergird and support creativity, creation and helping to make the world better.  This region would be the poorer if not for NEFA.

What we do here is undergird and support creativity, creation and helping to make the world better.

Thank you, Larry, for your generosity and insight!


Larry Simpson is senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at Berklee College of Music. He is responsible for Berklee’s three academic divisions, institutional research and assessment, graduate studies, concert operations, special programs, the library and learning resources, and faculty development. He has been a jazz presenter and was previously the chair of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals board. He has served as a panelist numerous times for the National Endowment for the Arts, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Arts International, and NEFA, among many others.