Wynton Marsalis' Speech to the 2006 Graduating Class of Julliard
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
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.
find yourself working at your craft, be happy, because it might not happen
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
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
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. 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 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
Always remember that an agent that you have just met is not your
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
If you sign an autograph, always look at the person before you
hand it to them. Always.
If you've written some music, 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.
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, or if you are caught
lying, you have to come with the truth. Always tell the truth in a
When you get a bad review, never ask someone if they've seen
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.
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
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 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, comed y, 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
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
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.
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.