Jeff Rabhan, chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, was understandably proud as he spoke at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the program, held Sept 26 at Gallow Green, the rooftop garden bar of Manhttan’s vintage McKittrick Hotel.
“In ten short years of the Clive Davis Institute,” said Rabhan, “our graduates have landed in all corners of the music industry. They are producers. They are writers. They work for record labels. They work for publishers….
“And now,” he added, “I can also say they are Grammy Award nominees.”
Elle Varner, who last year earned a Grammy nomination for best R&B song for the track “Refill” from her MBK Entertainment/RCA debut album, “Perfectly Imperfect,” relaxed on a stool with her guitar and offered the crowd her song “So Fly” which she noted was written while she was still at NYU.
Displaying the depth of talent pouring from the Clive Davis Institute, Varner was preceded at the microphone by current student Kiah Victoria and her ensemble. And Rabhan described the achievement of students who were among the winners in a contest staged earlier this year to record a cover version of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” — then he screened the YouTube video of the performance which has become a viral hit.
As Questlove spun grooves in a DJ booth, Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainent, was surrounded by well wishers, ranging from family — his sons Fred and Doug co-hosted the evening — to longtime friends such as Mel Lewinter, EVP of label strategy for Sony Music, and Julie Swidler, EVP of business affairs and general counsel for Sony Music.
“So, 15 years ago, Clive Davis came to NYU with a challenge,” recalled Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts, which includes the Clive Davis Institute. She remembered Davis asking why the film and television industry had an established presence within American universities, but the music industry did not.
“We had no answer,” Campbell recalled. “And we said, absolutely, it has to have a place. So first of all, I want to give a big round of applause to Clive Davis for his vision and wake-up call to American higher education. In ten years, we have built quite a magnificent house. To give you a small indication of how extraordinary this program is, in all of New York University, this is the single most selective, most competitive undergraduate program at NYU.”
And the recorded music institute was the dream of a former NYU student who, at one time, thought he would have to drop out of the school.
“I want to talk to you off the cuff, from the heart, as to why this has been such a unique and personal experience for me,” Davis began, as the crowd fell quiet. He recalled the death of his mother during his freshman year at NYU’s Washington Square College, followed by the death of his father less than a year later.
“I had the total sum of $4,000 facing three more years of college with a dream of going to law school,” he said.
Yet with the benefit of a scholarship, Davis graduated both from NYU (Washington Square College class of `53) and subsequently from Harvard Law School.
As his career took him from work at traditional law firm to the role of general counsel for CBS Records to his hitmaking positions at the pinnacle of the music industry, Davis says he lamented the finger-snapping “stereotypes that were written” about music executives.
These were stereotypes discredited by the intelligence and style of his mentors and peers, he said, men like “Goddard Lieberson…Ahmet Ertegun…Richard Branson… David Geffen… Doug Morris… Jerry Moss… Mo Ostin… Herb Alpert… I could go on.”
Music programs at other major universities, Davis said, were not focused, as is the NYU institute, on “the contemporary culture that I have lived through, the [work of] cutting-edge artists that has enriched people all over the world.
“So, yes, when I was in a position ten years ago to design how I would give back, there was no question that education dominated my thoughts. It was my dream that this institute come into existence,” said Davis.
“You have taken the dream and moved it to another level,” he said to the crowd. “To see this grow, to see it so in demand, is a source of enormous pride.”