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An Auspicious Occasion: Words by Booker T Jones

May 9, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Legendary soul musician Booker T Jones, an Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alumnus, was a speaker at the 183rd Indiana University commencement ceremony, May 5, and received an honorary doctorate from the Jacobs School. The following are his remarks to the students who graduated this year.

The entire event can be viewed here.


IU President Michael A. McRobbie (left) and Jacobs School Dean Gwyn Richards (right) congratulate Booker T Jones (center).
Print-Quality Photo

In 1966, 46 years ago today, exactly, I sat where you now sit, because my father loved words.

My father loved words. They didn't have to be big words, but that seemed to help. His words had to have character and not be too common. I remember how he would explore different events and situations in life, intoxicated with the idea of getting the chance to use the phrase "this auspicious occasion" in a sentence. He always did this with a big grin on his face.

And, like my father, I suffer bouts of prolixity. My dad drove us up here from Memphis in our 1955 Buick in the summer of 1962 and checked us into the Van Owen Hotel with an Esso gas credit card. It was the first time any of us had ever checked into a hotel. We slept and ate next to wealthy white folks for the first time in our lives here at Indiana.

The next day I went to audition for the jury that would decide if I could enter the school. I have no idea how I passed that jury. My music reading skills were somewhat short of basic. For years, I had fooled people with my ability to play and re-create what I had heard only once. But now, I had to look at the page and read it from sight. My entire previous experience was writing out a few lead sheets for Stax Records to get copyrights. I had taken a few after-school classes of music theory from the choral director at my high school, and I had been the only student in the class. But, my jurors wanted to take a chance on me, seeing potential in me. I am grateful to them for that.

My grandfather built a school in Mississippi—with his own two hands, on a muddy field, on his own property. His 12 children attended that school, along with others that lived close by. He taught himself to read and write. The former sharecropper became the only black landowner in the county and the only teacher. My parents instilled in me a great respect for education. I've spent a lifetime making music and had a great time doing it. I've earned Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've made a good living and sometimes people come up to me and say thank you for the music. All of this is possible because of the education I received here at Indiana University.

In the spring of 1968, I was in my bed at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in East Hollywood. I had undergone surgery to replace bone in my knee, which was deteriorated from six years of rubbing against the wooden bar underneath the Hammond B-3 organ. The doctors used pulverized bone from my own right hip. Director Jules Dassin visited to give me the good news that I had been hired to write the score for the motion picture Uptight, which he was directing. The company was shooting in Cleveland and would soon be moving to Paris.

A man of only 23, I was overjoyed to find out I would be composing my first Hollywood score! But then I would have to travel in a wheelchair and use crutches since my right leg was in a cast from my foot to my waist. The film paid me a salary and provided me with an upstairs studio in Quai Carnot, which is a quaint village overlooking the River Seine in Saint Cloud, a suburb of Paris.

I learned to argue in French because my driver borrowed money every day the first three weeks I was on the job, and he wouldn't pay me back. I was unable to walk and 6,000 miles from home. My apprehension was heightened when the Sorbonne students took the streets and staged a fiery revolt that shut the school down. That was near the Champs Elysees and not far from my hotel.

But I had walked on this campus from Teter Quadrangle to the music building at 7:15 every morning for four years straight to get to music theory class! I wasn't about to let these conditions stop me! Looking out over the glistening River Seine, I was inspired to write the theme "Time Is Tight," with its long, encouraging melody, for the closing scene of the film. And in so doing, I fell in love with France and its culture.

From then on, each time I raised a baton to lead an orchestra in Paris, London or Hollywood, there was no situation I wasn't ready for, whether standing or in a wheelchair. Thanks to the training and perseverance I acquired here at Indiana, I went on to complete the score in Paris and to conduct many other ensembles in the years to come.

We have nothing more sacred or valuable than the option to get information. Decorum should always be observed when dealing with learning institutions. Colleges and universities deserve an honorable, dignified and respectful place in society.

Higher learning is responsible for most of the advances in society, as well as in medicine, in social structure and in the arts. To gain control of the human mind is the only true power, and the only power a human can truly possess.

I'll say it again, and borrow my father's phrase, that to be certain, this gathering, this commencement ceremony, is indeed, an auspicious occasion!

There is a very good chance that the next leader of the free world sits in this group. You are the ones who have risen to the top. Now, to stay at the top of any field is to understand the nature of what lies at the bottom.

My advice is, if you want to be comfortable at the top, get familiar with the bottom.

If you are a conductor, know where the third trombone has to turn the page.

If you are a general, be able to break down the corporal's weapon with your eyes closed.

If you are a philosopher, be able to empty your own mind.

If you want to rise to the top, stay close to the bottom.

To become truly healthy, you must manage your sickness.

To become truly wealthy, you must give to the poor.

To become truly wise, you must learn to know nothing.

These I offer you today.

I will tell you that you have great powers—powers that you have acquired here in the halls of Indiana University. I will urge you to use those powers to elevate those who are beneath you in society. It is also your responsibility to preserve our highest privilege—the right to learn and the institutions that cultivate it.

From Africa to Europe, the great thinkers have taken their places at high levels of government alongside conquerors. The thinkers became the ministers, the teachers and the lawyers. They became the doctors and the philosophers and the financiers. All of them turned to the artists and the poets to make their societies whole. The artists and the poets continued to plow the fields of the human mind to get medicines their cultures desperately needed to survive. Without art, life is meaningless.

I have survived because I learned how to learn, and I did that here at Indiana. People told me not to come, but I came anyway, and I'm glad I did, and you will be too.

Now, you can say, "I went to Indiana University!!" And because of that, people will listen to you and consider you. They know how hard you worked. They will think you know what you're doing and what you're talking about. You will be paid back for all your hard work!

You have obtained the best education possible. You will be rewarded. When you tell someone you are an IU grad, they will stand back, step aside and make way for you, before they fall in line behind you. You will deserve it because you've done the work for the degree you are about to receive.

Your potential is enormous. Your resources are vast. Each one of you is unique, unlike any other that has ever walked this earth. Your energy is awesome, and I know you will accomplish the unbelievable.

Uphold the cream and crimson; go out there and show them what you can do! Believe in yourself, because you finished the greatest school in the world, Indiana University!!