On May 24, Bobby Ricketts will deliver the student address to an audience of more than 1,000 graduates and their families and friends at this year’s graduate commencement ceremony.
But this isn’t Bobby’s largest audience—not even close.
“I have a lot of experience with really intimate settings that are just magical, but once in a while, you just get to a setting that’s magical with a larger audience,” said Ricketts, who was recently featured as saxophonist in Moonjam, a Denmark-based band. “Seeing 20,000 people waving their arms and singing along and phones in the air—that’s magical. When you’re playing a note, and 20,000 people are vibing on that—that is kind of incredible.”
As an international musician who’s based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Ricketts, 59, has performed for upwards of 100,000 people in concert. He’s performed in intimate jazz clubs and large outdoor festivals and venues in over 30 countries across five continents, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. But despite his international fame and success, Ricketts has rarely missed a class at UMass Boston.
“I’ve attended classes while I’ve been in Africa, Japan, and Europe,” said Ricketts, who will be graduating from the Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT) master’s program at UMass Boston on May 24. Ricketts participates in his classes via Zoom, a video conferencing platform. “I’ve missed only two classes, and that’s because I was on a flight at the time and couldn’t access the internet.”
Ricketts, who originally hails from Boston, returned to UMass Boston on April 30 to present his final presentation for a CCT course. That same night, he was invited to play in Lagos, Nigeria, for International Jazz Day. But Ricketts chose to fly home to Boston.
“I’ve played in Lagos several times before, and they’ll have me back next year,” he said. “That’s kind of how I prioritize. The work I do in CCT is a value to me just because of the results I’m getting out of it that help me in all the work I do.”
What work does Ricketts do besides writing, composing, performing, and arranging music and producing and engineering shows? The saxophonist also holds seminars and master’s classes and designs outreach programs as an arts envoy of the U.S. Department of State. Through these programs, he coaches and mentors young musicians, songwriters, and vocalists from marginalized backgrounds.
“Most of the people I was in contact with were young, aspiring musicians, and a lot of the content was supposed to be about music fundamentals,” said Ricketts, who has received the Fulbright-Hays grant eight times. The grant provides funds for musicians and artists to design outreach initiative programs. “But the most common question I got was, ‘How do I get to be you?’ People were interested in goal and strategy and mindset.”
It was for this reason that Ricketts—who hadn’t been a student since 1981 when he graduated from the Berklee College of Music—returned to school to earn his master’s degree.
“Over the years, I’ve had contact with literally hundreds of people, and I see them using whatever experience I relate to change their lives. I thought, ‘If someone is going to take my advice, maybe I should know a little bit more about what I’m talking about,’” said Ricketts, who spent four years searching for a graduate program that could help him do just that. He then decided to see what programs were available at UMass Boston. “I found the CCT master’s program, and the description fit me perfectly. I applied and was accepted, and it’s been an incredible program for me. It’s international. It’s diverse. I could travel and go to school.”
Now Ricketts, who has traveled all over Japan, Europe, the Middle East, and East and West Africa, is getting ready to travel again—this time to Boston as he prepares for his own graduation.
“I’ve been away from the whole academic thing for decades, so it’s been a bit of a culture shock to come back to grad school, but I slid into it,” said Ricketts. “I’ve become a stronger musician and stronger composer even though I’m not actually studying music. Everything I’m learning can be applied to what I’m doing.”
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