Marsalis Counsels Embracing Exuberance

Monday, Jun 04, 2018
Juilliard Journal
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Juilliard 2018 commencement

Juilliard alumnus and artistic director of Juilliard Jazz gave the address at the school’s 113th commencement ceremony. An edited version appears below, and you can see a video of it here.

It is indeed a distinguished pleasure to address you on the day of your graduation and on the commencement of your professional lives. Today you’re rightly commended for having successfully achieved your intentions to join the elite body of alumni from the world’s most celebrated conservatory. And beyond the justly deserved kudos and salutations, it is a glorious moment in this day because your community of family, friends, colleagues, and mentors are present and gathered around you right now to recognize and enjoy this life-defining hallmark. Now I want y’all to realize that their feeling is as important as the conferral itself, because they are your biggest investors and supporters, and they’re here to enjoy the dividends of your mutual labor. So please, today, at your dinner, be kind to your people. It’s very important. The feeling in this room is warm with the glow of accomplishment, full with the manifestation of mentorship, settled with the satisfaction of something summarized, sanguine with the sense of “see you later,” pregnant with the pride of family, and electric with the bristling energy in omnipotent exuberance of youthful potential. And though that potential is in itself emotionally potent, it is—in act—as-yet untested, unburnished, and unrealized. What may be will soon be given a much more strenuous workout by the impassiveness of life and by the vicissitudes of time. Before we pass on from this momentary pause and the handling of the official business of graduating to listen to a speech that will hopefully be brief, but not too short to be remembered only for its brevity. You’ve got to find that balance.

There is another feeling in this room that distinguishes it from the many commencements that populate this season all over our nation. It is the intelligence, humor, dedication, hunger, anticipation, expectation, and spirituality of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, unruly, untamable, and truly unfathomable collective creativity this sits right here before us. There is a creative acuity all over here that I can feel emanating, an energy that is as ancient as it is futuristic. You represent nations, generations, races, genders, genres, persuasions, and disciplines who have studied, practiced, rehearsed, and performed together a virtual history of human feeling, wisdom, and aspiration in this year alone with over 750 performances of astonishing complexion, multiplicity, and complexity of meaning. It’s truly astonishing and unbelievable. And although our diversity is deserving of comment we also—and more importantly—sit in communion today with a much larger common purpose. We are entrusted and given the tools, the insights, and the mandate to lift the human spirit, to illuminate forgotten and obfuscated fundamentals, to challenge our intellect, to expand the capacity of our hearts, to stretch the boundaries of our imagination, to nourish our beleaguered souls, to embody the possible and ultimately, to raise the horizon of human aspirations. We’re challenged to pursue absolute excellence under the pressure of public scrutiny, as we dance with the devilishly difficult technical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues that plague all human life across all times. That’s a tall order, and that’s why the sacrifice, the attention to detail, and the courage required to pursue these disciplines will not diminish over time. You think experience makes it easier? It makes it harder.

Juilliard's 2018 commencement
"You possess the ability to heal"

Graduates, you’re the person who was the reluctant kid called to play sing or dance for guests after dinner. You’re the one who played for the school board. You’re the ones who were called upon, 14 or 15, to make the presentation, and the kids who didn’t really like what you were doing but knew it was something important, would say, “They’re nerds, but check this out. This is really good.” Now you’ve become the one who is called to perform for the sick and the shut-in, to raise the spirits of lonely elders, to make friends laugh when they are struggling, to wake benumbed souls by acting a new feeling into existence, to sing when the national spirit is shaken, to bring joy and merriment to festivities, to enrich religious services, to fulfill ceremonial roles as our great trumpeters did today—on B-flat trumpets too; we’ve got to give them a little something—B-flat trumpets! Finally, you’re called upon to minister substance to the world’s soul in a time of decay and capitulation to the greatest of all human enemies: myopia.

Let me tell you—should you choose it to be, your art can be the vaccine for the types of self-involved hysterias that have so often stained human history. And because you are the memory, the conscience, the now, and the dream of the future, you are the interpreters of value from the vast human history that is bequeathed to us all and sits right here in front of us and all around us as an omnipresent elephant in the room, saying: “What you gonna do? What you gonna do? What you gonna do when they come for you?” And they’re gonna come for you. You will determine a portion of the dialogue about the most important questions that plague us all. Who are we? What do we believe? And how do we sacrifice to act on what we believe when the alternative is just so much more lucrative? Being an artist is an anointing of sorts, a gift of shamanistic ability to look into the unknown and the unseen in order to create order from chaos and to make dreams physical. With this skill that was even said to make the gods jealous in antiquity comes the responsibility to use it for substantive purposes. You possess the ability to heal, but there will always be the more lucrative choice of prostituting that which has been given. The pressures of cheap populism that can make you a star. Resist this pressure not for the morality of it, but just for the fun of it. For the fun of being locked in a relentless battle with two very worthy opponents: cynicism from within and the general apathy that besets the bored. Cynicism and apathy are your greatest foes, and they must be kept at bay at all costs. Because as they rise, you and your artistry fall. Regardless of your station, we never know what will happen.

Remember to be kind in the execution of your duties. People never forget kindness. As performers, you have opportunity to be placed on a pedestal you don’t deserve. Never look down on people whose lives are lifted by the talents and skills that are only partially your own making. Yes, they are your greatest skills as a musician, as a singer, an actor, a dancer; however, the people are your greatest allies and assets. They are the body that you serve, from which you come, and whose spirit you are ordained to educate, entertain, and enrich. Stay with the people. [That] doesn’t mean follow the people, or get the people what they want. It means be with them and always strive to understand and listen for what people need. Human beings are the greatest technology you will ever encounter.

An act of kindness and understanding lasts forever in the memory of the recipient. When I was 19 years old, I had the opportunity to play with the greatest rhythm section in the history of our modern music: Ron Carter Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock. There’s no way in the world I belonged on the bandstand with them. Matter of fact, I had no idea what they were playing. We had one day of rehearsal. I was so unprepared—it was a style of music I’d never heard, and in jazz, we play on cycles but these were harmonic structures I didn’t even know existed, and they played them three and four times at once. It’s like going to the deepest region of a country you’ve never heard of and being thrown into a debate with learned professors in that language. So I made sure I had a really nice suit. I said, “Man, I’m gonna sound so bad when I get up there.” … It was worse than nervousness, because you’re nervous when you think you may have a chance of doing good. And we came up to the Hollywood Bowl. It was packed with people, and I looked at those people, I thought, “Oh my God, maybe I could stand in the back of the band or something.” And there’s only that unbelievable rhythm section and me in the front of it. Well you know, we get closer to the gig, and I’m saying, “Man, maybe I could just quit.” We’re standing backstage before we go on. Ron Carter walks over to me, puts his arms around me. He says, “Hey man, if anything goes wrong, listen to me. I have got you, and I know where we are.” And he hugged me and we went on the bandstand. And when I look at him today, I’ll get full thinking about it. Because it was so soulful, it was so full of feeling. He didn’t have to do that. I had known him for one day. He gave me so much love and feeling. An act of kindness lasts forever. When I have a chance to greet students, people, I go back to that feeling. “Hey man, we with this. You’re gonna be all right. Don’t worry about this. I know you’re nervous. Let’s handle this.”

I’m going to conclude by recognizing the greatness of Joe Polisi. One of the greatest honors in my life [was] to be asked by him to speak at his last commencement. [And once I did, h]e sent me a letter, which he’s never done, and he called me twice to say “Don’t talk about me.” And that’s why I have to do it. I did promise him that it would not be long, but we didn’t define what long was. And I really can’t help it because it feels so good to be able to say things about someone exceptional with the same unreserved passion that one normally reserves for negative comments.

I remember thinking when Joe was first appointed, “Man, he’s kind of young for that job.” [But] I’ve watched with such deep, deep respect and admiration at his nimble and skillful guidance of our institution through these years. He’s followed, as Harriet Tubman did, the North Star, [which] leads us toward a larger world, a more expansive experience and toward a freedom we will experience when everyone is free to be. Joe means so much in the history and life of this institution. Damian and I have talked—we’ve been friends for many years—and we’re going to do everything we can do to burnish [Polisi’s] legacy and to show him the respect that his achievement deserves. We’re filled with love and respect for this man and rightly so. He is a man of integrity, depth, wisdom, judgment. But he will not be gone. When you see him, hug him. You are a student as you are daughter and a son, and you will have the opportunity to teach students as you will be a father or a mother. Certainly you sit here today seeing things you would like to improve and changes you would like to enact. I hope you take the example of Joe Polisi to heart when the challenges of creating change against the pressures of time overwhelm you. He was up for the fight, and he left us much, much better than he found us, and that is the definition of soul. When you walk out of a room and it feels better than when you walked in, you’re soulful. He’s encouraged us to make the world a smaller place with our participation as artist citizens. Let’s honor his work by doing just that.

Welcome to the world, class of 2018. You will be tested as never before. You will fail to win auditions. You’ll suffer physical injuries. You will not get good roles. You will mess up in important concerts. You will miss the high note. Forget your script. Be late for a defining rehearsal. Get terrible reviews. Have terrible bosses—even worse conductors. You will watch colleagues enjoy more success. You will have personal challenges you can’t possibly fathom right now. But … look around you, and remember in your darkest times … to … think about your neighbors assembled here with you, … recall the power of all that is seated around you, and … tap into the intelligence, humor, dedication, hunger, anticipation, expectation, and spirituality of the uncontainable, uncontrollable, unruly, untamable, and truly unfathomable collective creativity of our class that represents nations, generations, races, genders, genres, persuasions, and disciplines who have studied practiced, rehearsed, and performed a virtual history of human feeling, wisdom, and aspiration with millions of performances of astonishing diversity. And well if you consider what you all have done collectively since you were born, since you started performing, it may be in the tens of millions. And collectively is really the only way you can see as much as you can see and be as much as you can be and truly be free to remake our world. Trust me, we desperately need you out here right now.

Juilliard's 2018 commencement
"The feeling in this room is warm with the glow of accomplishment and electric with the bristling energy in omnipotent exuberance of youthful potential"