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Wynton Marsalis

    Jazz and Classical Musician
    University of Vermont, 2013

    Commencement Speech Excerpts

    A favorite tradition in New Orleans is the jazz parade. The dancers that follow the band are called second liners. Our most celebrated song, When the Saints Go Marching In, has a line, ‘Lord I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in’. Well, we are in that number today. We are YOUR second line– your support system. Our presence today IS our pride. And though there is much of life that you must face alone, you cannot make it out here in this world by yourself.

    Your diploma is a hard-earned symbol of achievement but the broadest education has already come from your life itself, and that life is all around you today. Embrace and cherish it. The widow of a successful New Orleans doctor once told me that she and her husband were at a luncheon banquet full of prominent doctors. During the meal, he started to have trouble swallowing something, and being embarrassed, he went to the bathroom, passed out, and died alone with a roomful of the best support available just a few feet away.


    Live in that sweet spot. Be present.

    It’s harder to build than destroy. To build is to engage and change. In jazz, we call progressing harmonies changes. Changes are like obstacles on a speed course. They demand your attention and require you to be present. They are coming…they are here….. and then they are gone. It’s how life comes. Each moment is a procession from the future into the past and the sweet spot is always the present.Live in that sweet spot. Be present.

    The great knight Sir Lancelot of the Round Table came upon an impassable bridge that was the blade of a sword stretched over a bottomless moat of rushing water. He was challenged to rescue Queen Guinevere on the other side. After surveying the situation and being told no knight had ever successfully kept his balance in crossing, he took off his armor and crossed on bloodied hand and knee. On returning with the queen, he was asked, “Why did you strip?” He replied, “I didn’t want to worry about being cut.” He understood: crossing this bridge is about being cut.

    We all have such bridges to cross, and those too, are with us here today because all of the dynamics that shape our lives are here. And those dynamics are unruly and hard fought. Improvisation challenges the jazz man to give order to an unknowable present. The size and grandeur of this moment challenges you to be present and to create the relationships you want to experience.

    This day is the final test of your college years. What you do is what you WILL do. I ask you to approach this day with grace, grit and gratitude. This is not preparation for life, THIS IS LIFE.

    Your diploma is a symbol, it is a key. Have you ever looked all over the housefor some keys that are in your hand? When it comes to your support system, don’t be oblivious of the obvious. Mullah Nasruddin, a 13th century Sufi folk philosopher, would pass the same border crossing on his donkey 10 to 15 times a day. The border guards knew he was smuggling something and searched every possible hiding space for years. Never found anything. Some few years after they had retired and Nasrudin himself was no longer active, all of them accidentally happened to meet in a tea house. “Come on Mullah,” they chided, “we’re all retired now. Nothing will be done to you. What were you smuggling all of those years?” The Mullah’s reply, “Donkeys”.

    To my son, Simeon, who graduates today, and to all other graduates, I want to speak on behalf of Candace, Greg and all the parents and step parents who don’t have the opportunity to personally comment publicly. From every changed diaper to every sickness to every shoulder ride and bedtime story, fights over curfew, over homework, over habits and even further onto all the triumphs and failures rolled up into one….we thank you.

    Commencement Speech Transcript: