Wynton’s Keynote Address at Tulane University’s Commencement 2014
TULANE COMMENCEMENT 2014
A LOVE SUPREME
President Cowen, Chairperson Berger, Distinguished Guests Dr. Gregorian, and Dr. White, Mr. Day and Mr. Brees, Faculty, Staff and Graduates of the Class of 2014, Senator Vitter and Mayor Landrieu.
Here at home in New Orleans, we have a tradition of starting important gigs by calling out the names of legendary musicians from the past. In evoking the memory of legendary artists, this roll call inspires a higher level of performance. In 2007, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra went on tour with Odaadaa!, a group from Ghana led by master drummer Yacub Addy. Each concert started with a long roll call of distinguished ancestors chanted and spoken in Ga, their native tongue. At the end of the chant, Mr. Addy would say “Trah trah o manyaba.” Whereupon we would say Yow!
Every night, the call seemed to get longer. After a few performances, I asked Yacub if it could be shortened. He said, “Yes brother, who would you like us to leave out?” Not being able to identify a single name I asked, “Can you eliminate a few of the less important ones?” He then replied, “They are all important to the people who know of them and their deeds. These concerts are the realizations of THEIR dreams.” I countered, “Yes, but no one in our band or country knows who any of them are. We can’t even identify their names.” He then inquired with a chuckle, “Brother, does your ignorance of them lessen their importance?”
Today, each of you is accompanied by your own PERSONAL roll call of ancestors, family and predecessors whose sir names are known by very few in this audience, but whose ancestral names are known to all: momma, mother, mommie and daddy, father, dad, pap pap, paw paw, grandfather, grandmother and grandma. They are uncles, aunts, cousins and big sisters and brothers, teachers, counselors, mentors and coaches….friends. Let us acknowledge all members of our collective roll call. They have marched far and wide to be in our number this morning.
PLAY—OH WHEN THE SAINTS
To be realized, a dream must at some point, become a plan. That plan is a directive, a resolution that will require resolve to execute. The dream is free but the plan costs time, dedication, imagination and almost always involves funding in some way.
Paul Tulane’s dream was to establish the private University we now honor. He donated a substantial sum in 1884 to realize that vision. Your parents have saved, scrimped and ‘creatively managed’ for years to get you to this moment. And many of YOU have also sacrificed with work study, financial aid and obtaining loans. The distance between a dream and a plan is the promise of work. And there is no way that the promise is ever as difficult as the work itself. From the first hopeful dimes tucked away for your education to the nerve-wracking rigamarole of admission and rejection, to the satisfied impatience of this very moment, working that plan has required the resolution to see things through.
And though you have put in serious work at The Boot and The Palms, and toiled daily with the gastronomic challenges of Bruff, there’s no way you could have known that mid-terms would fall right in the middle of Mardi Gras or that the mere mentioning of Howard-Tilton would cause you to jones for coffee. After this morning, there will be no more battle-like frenzy to register for your preferred classes, no more asking b-school kids to swipe you into the building at night, and no feverish chills and sweating through the shakes of finals week. You are here today DESPITE the myriad challenges that made you want to quit, turn around—go home. You are here because of your resolution to finish.
I remember being in New York City at 17, a freshman in college. I went to the vaunted jazz club, the Village Vangaurd to sit in with the great Mel Lewis Orchestra. He called me up at about 1:30 am on the last tune, a shuffle in Db minor. I couldn’t play in that key to save my life. I sounded terrible. Afterwards, the cats in the band turned away from me as if not being able to play was contagious. I was so ashamed, I wanted to come back to New Orleans. At about 3 am that morning, depressed, I called my father, recounted what had happened and asked for advice. He said,” Well bruh, when you get up tomorrow…. start practicing in Db minor.”
Sometimes, the resolution of a parent or donor, staff, counselor or friend gives you the strength to conquer this trial of intellect, social fun, finance and folly. And the diplomas that are conferred today are also resolutions, ‘let it be knowns’ that you students have survived this rite of passage and have duly demonstrated the determination, dedication and endurance to join the elite ranks of college graduates.
PLAY— JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE
All the dreaming and planning in the world is virtually meaningless without execution. The every day and everyday of classes, tests and papers, deadlines and ‘have to dos’ have defined a large portion of your experience. You may have enjoyed ‘fried chicken Wednesday’ or partied on ‘Thursday’s at F&M’s’ or eaten free food and grooved to the bands on ‘Friday at the Quad’, but anyone can party, groove to a band and eat good food. Graduating is an achievement. The pursuit of something worthwhile requires endless repetitions of tasks until their execution become muscle memory. You have spent hours upon hours in the woodshed and for that, we salute you.
New Orleans native and genius of gospel music, Mahalia Jackson, sang “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing about in My Song.” Well, your life IS your song, and though you have successfully lived the life of a student who is now a graduate, you deserve to celebrate….but don’t rest. This world is a cauldron of action.
In January 2006, at the re-opening of Tulane after Hurricane Katrina, I was given the honor of addressing returning students. At that time I said, “…education’s purpose is to lead students to who they are, what they can be, and who they want to be. The best way to be, is to do. And when we teachers pass on the best of what we DO… THAT is quality education.”
And to do, we must pursue. The great drummer Elvin Jones who fueled John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet used to say, “We endeavor to pursue.” And your families have endeavored to support and love you, and your teachers have endeavored to educate and encourage you, and counselors and mentors have endeavored to protect and guide you, and your friends have endeavored to embrace, corrupt and entertain you….And you have pursued the goals of each to a magnificent conclusion. For that we applaud you.
PLAY—DIDN’T HE RAMBLE
Of course, New Orleans is the home of soul, so each of our graduates has been baptized and bathed and sin-dipped in that ephemeral but ‘oh so real’ feeling. And soul is a unique quality that animates space with the relaxed intensity of encompassing love served with generosity of spirit.
This is a time for gratitude, genuflection and prayer. An elevated moment, ripe for you, our graduates, to give thanks for having attained some portion of the dream that many in your roll call had FOR you before you could crawl. But also, it’s the time for us in that roll call to thank YOU. Your hard work and achievement has answered OUR prayers. The pride and swelling sense of accomplishment you feel, is also shared by all of us.
And in this elevated moment, swathed in the glory of achievement and the regalia of academic distinction, please pause to receive our prayers and thanks with grace and humility by recognizing your family, teachers, mentors and friends. Give further thanks for all the obstacles and tribulations that made you reach deeper to raise yourself higher, even as you recognize and appreciate all the advantages and incentives that have allowed you to float above the turmoil and chaos that have destroyed the aspirations of many with the similar hopes and desires who came before and will surely follow.
And finally, let us all, distinguished guests, students, family, faculty, staff, mentors, friends and citizens acknowledge our leader and mentor, our advocate, cheerleader, benefactor and chief strategist, the keeper…defender…and kindler of the flame of Tulane University.
He showed the nation and the world the true meaning of leadership. In facing down the greatest natural disaster to ever befall an American city, he led this University and the education system of New Orleans to greater and greater heights. In 2005, he told students who questioned returning to this devastated city, “Don’t come back if helping restore New Orleans is not in your DNA.” Ninety-one percent of Tulane returned.
He understood that New Orleans herself was the world’s greatest classroom and tore down the walls of the academy to give students the opportunity, through community service, to use their brains, industry and enthusiasm in reviving our ravaged city. And they responded with stellar results as you continue to respond even now. You are all a testament to that truth.
But let us not move on from this moment until we recognize his creative insights and powers of persuasion in leading this institution on campaign after successful campaign: to renovate existing facilities and build new ones, to safeguard our financial stability, to elevate our academic and research capabilities, and to reorganize and restructure our schools into a more efficient ensemble.
He has lived his most sacred belief: that a University IS its students. So let us acclaim the unprecedented growth and quality of this student body and ride the sky rocketing morale of everyone associated with this great University as a result of his tenure.
When I accepted his offer to speak to you today, his last commencement as President. He said, “please don’t say anything about me. This is for the students. They have done all the work.” You are what he has worked tirelessly and passionately to manifest. To celebrate him IS to celebrate you.
And let us conclude in acknowledging that his resolution in pursuing a trailblazing, ascendant course for this University for the past 16 years has created a revolution of feeling that is all around us and all up in us in this Dome this morning. He has been a blessing for us all, just as YOU, graduates, are a blessing for him. Congratulations to you all. Job well done—- retiring President Scott Cowen.
PLAY — JOE AVERY SECOND LINE