Wynton’s speech to the Juilliard’s 2006 Graduating Class
On Friday, May 26, in Alice Tully Hall, Wynton Marsalis spoke for the Juilliard’s 101st commencement ceremony.
Here you have the transcription of his speech:
“I’m going to provide you all with very few practical words, the fruits of many happy years of varied experiences in the arts.
First, congratulations. No one is ever going to ask you to see your grades.
Take all jobs. If somebody says, “Can you …?” say, “Yes, I can.”
Leave jobs that you hate immediately.
If you find a job that doesn’t feel like a job, don’t let others for whom it is a job make it feel like a job to you.
If you find yourself working at your craft, be happy, because it might not happen again.
Being dissatisfied is not an achievement.
Every chance you get to perform is important. It could be at an elementary school, it could be at a rehearsal—every little aspect of it is sacred and is significant.
And, just as a rule, people are generally more enthusiastic the less they’re being paid. Many times people want to know about commercialism versus art. Do what you want to do. Don’t be conflicted. But realize that integrity is real, and so is starvation.
Never let pay and the talk of pay occupy more time and space than the talk of your art. If you find that it is, go into banking, or start a hedge fund or something.
Also, about pay: understand where you are. When I was 19, I was on a tour with Herbie Hancock and I started complaining to him before we walked onstage about what I was being paid. I said, “When am I being paid?” He said, “Come here, man. Look out into the audience.” He said, “Now, do you see those people?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “They paid for these tickets. If you don’t walk out of here [onto the stage], how many of them are going to leave? … Now, if I don’t walk out, how many will leave? … That’s why you’re being paid what you’re being paid.”
Always remember that an agent that you have just met is not your friend.
Never deny a compliment after a performance. “Oh, I love your …” “No, I didn’t …” No. No … Say, “Thank you.” It takes a lot less words.
If you sign an autograph, always look at the person before you hand it to them. Always.
If you’ve written some music or a play or anything like that, and everybody is bored, and you even find yourself getting a little bored, it’s boring. Don’t worry. I would also like to debunk the notion that it will be understood later, because if that were the case, we would have a lot of boring pieces from the 1870s that would be popular hits right now.
If you notice that everybody at the table has been quiet for a very, very long time, except for you, you’ve been talking too much.
Now, to combat nervousness: Number one, practice a lot. Two, think about how unimportant what you’re doing is in the general scheme of things. Three, breathe very deeply and relax. Number four, envision great success, or envision failure and figure, how bad could that be? Finally, forget about all of that stuff and just go ahead and do your thing.
In a crisis—this could be very important for you—in a crisis, or if you are caught lying, you have to come with the truth. Always tell the truth in a crisis.
When you get a bad review, never ask someone if they’ve seen it.
Don’t pretend not to have seen it. Never, ever dwell on it—or on them, in case you get more than one, which you will if you stay out here—so as to mention it to someone who might not even know or care about what you’re talking about. Too much commenting on bad things or criticism, somebody attacking you, is really a form of egotism.
Don’t eat too much bread late at night after performances. But wine is O.K.
Never take the last of anything off of a table when you are a guest. Let that last thing sit there. “Do you want … ?” “No, I don’t want …” the last of anything.
I also want you all to realize that our collective success as artists, all of us, is inextricably tied to the taste levels of the world. The concerned, the refined, the soulful—they’re always at battle with the callous, the crass, and the exploitative. That’s why Picasso said that a work of art is actually a weapon. You know, we don’t fight over land too much today. We fight for consumers. Artists have always had to fight for consumers. And you all—all of you young artists—you’re called to battle the runaway global descent in the popular taste. You’re called to do that without snobbery, or prejudice, or retreat into the smug, high ground of the academy—and please, without selling out, or selling people short.
Use your talent, your good looks, and your education, to transform the whole world with the power of art. Engage the world through inspired teaching, through tireless proselytizing, through an unwavering practice of craft at its highest levels. Engage the world of fellow artists, teachers, audiences, students, critics and other various haters, with a boundless energy, an irrepressible zeal, an unassailable humility, and an infectious joie de vivre. Then you go from being the isolated, misunderstood, besieged artist to being a powerful testimony for the inevitable transcendence of artistry.
You see, as you all go out into the world, know that you have a very special gift: a gift that announces itself through music, dance, drama, film, literature, comedy, painting. You have a gift that survives. It survives the disappointment of not being famous, or not becoming as great as you thought you would be. It’s a gift that many times actually grows larger with life’s unpredictable and inevitable heartbreaks.
This gift is as old as cave people gathering around a campfire to skillfully lie about some animals they killed. Or some grizzled old cowboys trying to shake the trail dust off their brains with an old harmonica and some out-of-tune song, and some nasty coffee. Or Negro slaves at a jubilee, healing days and nights of sorrow with the bittersweet balm of a dancing fiddle and the piercing cry of the blues. Or a stage re-enactment of some epochal love affair that rekindles again and again the grandeur of romance between a man and a woman for those who may have forgotten.
This is the gift that caused old, sick, deaf Beethoven to crawl out of his bed at 2:37 in the morning and put his ears on the piano just to hear the vibrations. He couldn’t hear any notes. This is the gift that had old, blind Matisse laying up on his bed, looking up at the ceiling with a stick, trying to put some color on the ceiling, to figure out some way to squeeze the last moment of something out of his life.
What about Louis Armstrong? The Promethean giant of American feeling, with lips as scarred as the moon, reaching for those last few, blood-soaked high C’s? Yes, this gift is something.
Whether you play on the main stage of the world or you toil in obscurity, believe me, you have the gift to create community with your song, with your dance. Don’t sell it short. Get people to gather around, and understand that we are us, and we become us through art by hearing about who we used to be, who we are, and, in some cases, who we should be—or who we’re going to be.
Use this gift wisely. And if you end up broke, or unhappy, or lonely, it’s going to be by choice, because people love art, and they love artists, and they love to be touched, and they love for you to touch them, and they love you. They’re not your enemy; they’re your friend. And you won’t believe the way that they’ll open their heart and the love that they will give you.
In closing, I’m going to go to an old master of plantation trumpet, Enute Johnson, the early pioneer. He played the cornet around 1883.
A government interviewer found him as an old man, got him a new set of teeth. He saw him working in the sugar-cane fields, around Vacherie, La. He observed that Enute Johnson was not bitter at all about his seeming misfortune. So he asked Enute to reflect on his trumpet playing and other things that he liked to do.
Mr. Johnson said, “Son, play long, play hard, and play as much as possible.” And that makes life quite sweet, brothers and sisters.