While MIT may be best known for its Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur “Geniuses,” on June 10, a Tony Award was added to the mix, thanks to composer Jamshied Sharifi ’83, who orchestrated the music for the record-breaking Broadway hit “The Band’s Visit.”
Though he admits that some may see an MIT alumnus winning a Tony as “a bit of an oddity,” Sharifi also hopes that it will demonstrate “the breadth of the student body.”
“MIT people excel at math and science,” he observes, following what may be the most common preconception, “but they’re often broad in their interests and abilities. Every time I come to MIT to take part in a musical event I’m amazed at the level of musicianship, musical intelligence, and passion.”
Sharifi credits composer David Yazbek, who wrote the score to “The Band's Visit,” with being his “overall musical guru.”
“I think he wrote a score that perfectly straddles the worlds of Arabic music and Broadway,” Sharifi says, noting that, as orchestrator, he was responsible for arranging Yazbek’s songs for an ensemble, as he has done at MIT and elsewhere.
Despite his demure attitude, Sharifi still sees why he was a good fit for the project.
“As I had a great deal of experience with Middle Eastern music,” he reasons, “it was a natural fit, and the instruments used in the show were and are intimately familiar to me.”
That said, Sharifi sees it as a “huge honor, both to be nominated and to be selected” and expresses appreciation for the many who have stood by and supported the show.
“Although it was clear from nearly the beginning that 'The Band’s Visit' had a lot of critical love,” observes, Sharifi “that doesn’t necessarily translate into awards. So, for the show to be so recognized, especially for an unusual, quiet, understated show such as this one, is very sweet. For me personally, well, it’s still pretty unreal!”
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Sharifi was exposed at an early age to a wide range of international musical forms and styles, thanks to his American-born mother and Iranian-born father.
“I grew up in Kansas City,” Sharifi explains, citing the birthplace of such legends as Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Pat Metheny as his hometown. “I was able to find good teachers and a community of musicians my age who were interested in jazz and improvised music.”
Sharifi began taking piano lessons with his keyboard-playing mother at the age of 5 and then branched out into guitar and drums at 9 and added flute at 10.
“She always encouraged me,” Sharifi says of his mother, “and also pushed me to study other instruments.”
His ever-expanding repertoire of instruments have helped Sharifi succeed in various parts of the music industry, from composing to conducting and to scoring musicals and films.
From KC to MIT
As his father is a chemist (and also a “huge music fan”), Sharifi was not only “jazz aware” but science aware — and aware, in particular, of a certain school in Massachusetts.
“MIT was on my radar,” he recalls. “I don’t know where I first heard of it, but it was a legendary place where one could get deep into those subjects.”
Though he admits to preferring music to matriculation when he graduated from high school, Sharifi deferred acceptance to MIT and did not enroll until he was urged by high school friend (and eventual fellow MIT student) Shlomo Vile '83, '84.
“Shlomo…had gone ahead,” Sharifi recalls, “and he came home that summer and said I had to go.”
Arts at the Institute
While at MIT, Sharifi was able to pursue his proclivities in both science and the arts and came to see both as great strengths at the school. However, he maintains, the arts programs have continued to expand since he graduated.
“The arts at MIT have become a much bigger part of campus life since I was a student,” he maintains, “and I think now there are many more opportunities for students to find artistic expression than when I attended.”
During his time as a student, Sharifi became involved with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and got to know its legendary leader Herb Pomeroy.
“I met Herb as a freshman,” he recalls of the former sideman for fellow Sunflower State son Charlie Parker. And while he was not admitted to the ensemble until his junior year, Pomeroy had apparently seen something special in Sharifi. So much so that, upon his retirement, Pomeroy asked Sharifi to take over as conductor of the ensemble. In this capacity, Sharifi continued to compose and perform and helped the band win top honors at the prestigious Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz festival in 1991.
“I think from that point on I’ve been pretty deeply connected to music at MIT,” Sharifi says. He also thanks the current MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble Director Fred Harris, who called upon Sharifi to compose a work in honor of Pomeroy’s 75th birthday, for encouraging the ongoing relationship; a relationship that has seen Sharifi return to arrange for 2017 Grammy-winner Jacob Collier and MIT musicians and to compose for MIT’s Great Clarinet Summit.
“I have the greatest respect for him as a person and musician,” says Harris, calling Sharifi “absolutely first-rate in every regard and a true consummate professional. ... I’m not surprised at all that he won a Tony!”
When he graduated from MIT with a degree in humanities in 1983, Sharifi went across the river to the Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz piano and composition. It was at Berklee that Sharifi began to show an interest in film scoring.
“I had always felt a draw to film music and the relationship between film and music,” Sharifi says, citing Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as an early inspiration. Working at Berklee with such scoring stars as Michael Gibbs only encouraged this passion. In a few short years, Sharifi had scored three films and 15 hour-long televisions shows. Among his more notable scores are those for “Muppets From Space,” the Nickelodeon film “Harriet the Spy,” “The Rugrats Movie,” and the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” This experience also allowed Sharifi to meet other collaborators, eventually leading him to the team that scored “The Band's Visit.”
“My dear friend and frequent collaborator Rob Mathes was the music director of Sting’s 'The Last Ship,'” Sharifi explains, recalling how a scheduling issue encouraged Mathes to call him for help. “On that show I met Dean Sharenow, who … is a longtime friend of 'Band' music supervisor David Yazbek, and he recommended me as an orchestrator.”
While his Berklee experience emphasized his love for Jazz, Sharifi’s Middle Eastern influences continued to shine through, giving his scores a distinctive sound and feel; one that is enhanced by technological advances he developed at MIT, including a breath-controlled pitch bender on his synthesizer which allows Sharifi to play it like an acoustic instrument.
“I did a lot of listening and transcription of very old — nearly a century old — Arabic recordings,” Sharifi recalls. “This led to a set of original melodies that I drew on.”
The Middle Eastern influences on Sharifi’s life and music came to fullest fruition in 2013, when he was asked by MIT Wind Ensemble Music Director Fred Harris to compose music about the Arab Spring for a concert that was filmed by MIT Video Productions and broadcast by Boston’s PBS affiliate WGBH. The documentary about Sharifi’s composition, “Awakening: Evoking the Arab Spring Through Music,” won a New England Emmy Award.
“It was a terrific synergistic collaboration between the performing arts and media arts at MIT,” noted MIT Video Production Senior Director Lawrence Gallagher.
As the accolades continue to pour in for “Band,” Sharifi is already working on the orchestrations for the musical version of “Monsoon Wedding” by Mira Nair (who, Sharifi notes, studied film at MIT while attending another school down the river) and producing records for Pharaoh’s Daughter and Mirabai Ceiba.
“I’m [also] trying to keep up with my kids Kai and Layla,” he says.