Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis to be June commencement speaker

Corinne Lestch

Legendary jazz performer Wynton Marsalis will be Northwestern’s 151st commencement speaker June 19, the university announced Thursday. The 47-year-old musician will also speak at the School of Music convocation June 20.

The New Orleans native is a noted trumpet player. His credentials include six Grammy awards for his jazz recordings and two for classical music recordings. Marsalis studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He will receive an honorary degree from NU at the commencement, said Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations.

“He is truly one of the most well-known and foremost musicians in the country today, so we’re very excited to have him as commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient,” Cubbage said.

Past commencement speakers have included President Barack Obama in 2006, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2007 and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008. Each speaker brings a unique approach to the event, Cubbage said.

“I think (Marsalis) will be very different from all of the commencement speakers,” he said. “I’ve been here for 12 years, and all of them are interesting. I honestly have enjoyed all our commencement speakers.”

Marsalis is the first musician to deliver the commencement speech during University President Henry Bienen’s tenure at NU, which began in 1995, said Jake Julia, associate vice president and associate provost for academic initiatives. Julia, who participated in the selection process, said the arrangements were finalized in late fall.

“I think certainly what he has accomplished in the music world speaks for itself,” Julia said. “And certainly having somebody in the music world as speaker in President Bienen’s last year was also somewhat fitting.”

The School of Music’s name was changed last spring to the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, after the university president and his wife.

While Cubbage said he wasn’t sure how students will react to Marsalis as speaker, Julia said he thinks Marsalis will trigger “a lot” of name recognition among students.

“I just happened to read in the Chicago Tribune (about) a concert he did in Chicago in the last couple of weeks, so I would think that the students would be very excited,” Julia said. “We’re talking about one of the best jazz musicians in the world.”

Weinberg junior William E. Kalema’s eyes popped when he heard Marsalis was speaking.

“Really?” he asked. “I’m very excited. I’m a big jazz fan.”

Kalema said he was introduced to jazz through his father.

“I think our parents would love it,” he said. “I would definitely go. This is the first one I’ll definitely be going to.”

Music sophomore Julia Gang, who is studying music education, said she thinks Marsalis is “cool” and admires him for using his musical talent and prestige for educational purposes.

Along with composing music and performing, Marsalis produces music education programs for public radio and television. He leads programs and concerts for Jazz for Young People at Lincoln Center in New York.

“I’ve seen him at Jazz at Lincoln Center three or four years ago,” Gang said, adding that she would see him again at the graduation ceremony if she is still on campus. “It was a really cool concert. He does a lot of trying to incorporate history with what he does.”

Other students interviewed said they had never heard of Marsalis.

Still, Julia said he thinks Marsalis should be a hit at the ceremony.

“My hope would be that our students and faculty and staff would be excited about having someone the caliber of Wynton Marsalis as our speaker,” he said.

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