Remarks by The First Lady at Jazz Festival Workshop
State Dining Room
11:59 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Hey! (Applause.) How is everybody doing? You guys been hanging out at the White House? Have they been treating you well? You guys good? You guys comfortable?
MRS. OBAMA: We heard you up there jamming. It was a good way to start the morning. So welcome to the White House, everybody. I hope everybody is treating you well.
I want to start by thanking the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, as well as the folks at UNESCO, and so many others who have made this day possible. This is going to be a really good day, and we’re starting it out with you guys. You look so handsome.
I want to thank our incredible artists who are with us. We’ve got Herbie Hancock, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Bobby Watson, and Terence Blanchard. (Applause.) And we’re also going to have a group of amazing students who are studying jazz at UCLA. Where are the students? You look like grown people. (Laughter.) Doesn’t look like students.
Well, welcome, welcome. It’s great to have you all here. Thank you so much. You know, this is a busy day, and the fact that these guys are taking this morning to be with you when they’re going to be playing all through the night is a real testament to how excited they are for our young generation -- you guys. And you guys are really the star of the show today.
So we welcome students who are here from high schools from the D.C., Virginia and Maryland areas. Are you guys all studying music, or are you just sort of hanging out at the White House? (Laughter.) So I hope this is as exciting a day for you as it is for me.
Today, we aren’t just celebrating a uniquely American art form, we’re also honoring the history and the people who shaped the art form into what it is today. And that history goes way back. As many of you know, if you were students of jazz, it unfolded in smoky dance halls in New Orleans and in clubs in Harlem, and in simple shacks all throughout the South where African American artists drew on our nation’s diverse cultural heritage to invent a new kind of sound. And it’s a blend of irresistible rhythms and irrepressible creativity, but jazz is also described as America’s greatest contribution to the arts.
But of course, while the music may have started here in America, in years since, it’s truly become a globally inspired piece of work. Jazz is now performed and treasured by folks of every background in just about every part of the world.
So to honor and help continue this proud legacy, today, we are celebrating the fifth annual International Jazz Day. (Applause.) And we’ve been working on getting this done for a little bit, so I am thrilled that this is happening, that Washington, D.C. was selected as the host city this year. And we are so excited to be putting on just a big, huge jazz concert here at the White House tonight. You saw that -- I won’t call it a tent, because it’s more like a structure that’s on the South Lawn where the concert is going to be held.
This show is just one of thousands of performances and celebrations happening all across the globe, in 190 countries on six continents today. So it turns out that just about everybody loves jazz, right? (Laughter.) And I am absolutely no exception.
I grew up in a jazz household. Everybody knows I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I tell this story always because truly, jazz was the music I was raised on. My mother’s father, my grandfather -- who we called “Southside” -- now that’s a jazz-lover’s name. (Laughter.) Southside was a carpenter, and he built a makeshift jazz studio in his little two-bedroom house where all the kids -- my mother came from a big family of seven brothers and sisters. But this was a two-bedroom house. He had a wall of jazz. He had mismatched turntables, a reel-to-reel, and he connected speakers into every room in the house. I mean, literally, that was surround sound before we even knew what it was. (Laughter.) They weren’t all the same brands; some speakers were found in the alley, some speakers were given to him.
But my grandfather would wake up every single morning and he would turn on jazz. And he would blast it at the highest possible volume that he could get away with. So I really grew up with jazz as kind of the backdrop to my childhood. We’d all gather at his house -- and whether we were unwrapping Christmas presents, it was Miles Davis playing. If it was a birthday celebration, it was Charlie Parker. I just came to grow up loving jazz. My father was a jazz lover, and of course, I married a man who was a jazz lover, too, the President of the United States, who is looking forward to tonight.
So jazz has really fueled my life in ways that I can't describe. It just generates all these memories for me from my childhood. And all these years later, to have the world's greatest jazz musicians play a concert in our backyard -- and I do mean "our," the nation's backyard -- on Duke Ellington's birthday, no less, is really kind of an amazing full-circle moment for me and I know for so many people.
And I'm especially thrilled to share this passion with so many D.C. students on D.C.'s College Signing Day, which is why everybody is wearing their college gear. For those of you who don’t know what College Day is, this is the day that a lot of students declare where they're going to college. You guys look awesome in your gear. It's a good thing. And I have a college-bound student who will be declaring soon.
But I think that it just means a lot. It's a perfect combination to be celebrating College Signing Day with International Jazz Day. Because no matter what you want to do in your life -- whether it's to be a jazz musician or an entrepreneur or a scientist or a teacher -- you're going to need a good education. And everybody on this stage understands that. You are going to need to get an education beyond high school.
And at the same time, we also know the power of bringing the arts into our schools. And I can't say this enough here, but the arts cannot be an option for our kids. It's got to be a necessity, just like math and science and reading, and all that kind of stuff. Arts has to be a part of that, because we know that students who get involved in things like music or drama or visual arts, they just do better. The studies are clear. They have better grades, they have better graduation rates, they have better college enrollment rates.
Music and arts is a foundation for an outstanding education. And that's why, as soon as we got to the White House, we started hosting these workshops during the day when we would have music series in the evenings. We actually kicked things off in 2009 with a jazz workshop. That was the very first workshop that we did. And since then, we have celebrated every art form, music form, from ballet to country music to gospel to Broadway. And every single time, we bring kids here, like you guys, to spend time with the talent, who takes their mornings on a busy day to be with you all.
So we're grateful to have you. And at every event, we’ve highlighted the transformative power of education, because if you complete your education past high school, there is really nothing that you can't do. But we emphasize this because a high school diploma these days is not enough, but a four-year [college] isn’t the only thing you need to do. There are many ways to get that education, whether it's a four-year school, a two-year community college, a training program, what have you. But high school is not enough. And that's the message that we send to kids as much as we can, and to families, to understand the importance that education has in young people's lives.
The lives of the musicians on this stage are a testament to that truth. Bobby Watson started his career in the world-famous jazz program at the University of Miami. And I hope they all talk about their experience. Dee Dee Bridgewater began touring internationally with the University of Illinois Big Band. Terence Blanchard got his big break with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while he was a student at Rutgers. And then there's Herbie Hancock, this young man here. I think he's still about 25 or something. So he's a prodigy. But he arrived as a freshman at Grinnell College. And when he got to school, he was torn between his passions for music and for electrical engineering. Okay, so let's just stop there. (Laughter.)
And even after he decided to be a musician, he used his engineering background to experiment with electronic instruments to create whole new landscapes of sound. Today, as you all should know, if you are real students of jazz, he is one of the most influential jazz pianists and composers in history, with 14 Grammys to his name. Just saying. (Laughter.)
And I think that Herbie’s story illustrates an important point -- that while the folks on this stage are now legends, they spent plenty of long years really mastering the fundamentals first. And the same, hopefully, will be true for all of you.
For those of you who want to be musicians, that means that before you can improvise and do those solos, you’ve got to practice those scales. You’ve got to understand music theory. You’ve got to get down to the nuts and bolts before you can do this. If you want to be something else -- if you want to be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer, or President of the United States -- you’ve got to buckle down in class. Which means when you get to college, you’ve got to blow it out. You’ve got to take your classes seriously -- which means go to class every day, which sometimes feels like an option when you're in college, if we all remember. But you need to go to class. You need to take good notes. You need to raise your hand. You need to be focused in school -- because you're paying for it. So you're going to feel the pain when you leave, so you might as well get your money's worth.
And I want you all to throw yourselves into all the activities that campus life brings, if you're going to campus -- which means join clubs, be involved in extracurricular activities. Don’t sit in your dorm room alone. That is not the college experience. You're not supposed to get through college on your own, so you got to break out.
And the most important thing I tell young people headed to college is ask for help. Do not be afraid to ask for help. That is the thing that dooms college students. They think they should do it all alone. And no one gets through college or anything in life without a whole lot of help. So the minute you start feeling a little out of sorts, the minute you feel like you're falling behind, you don’t think you understand something in class, there are a whole array of people who are there to help you, from counselors to RAs to tutoring centers -- you name it. But you’ve got to find them. They're not going to come looking for you. That's the difference in college. They expect you to be grown up and identify your needs and go after it, okay?
But if you guys do all of that, the sky is the limit. You can be great musicians, you can be legends in your own time. You can be the President of the United States. You can do whatever you want. This stuff isn’t rocket science. Well, to be what they’re -- you have to have some talent. (Laughter.) It's like, I can't do anything these can people do. But you all can do what I do, if you choose to.
So I hope that you use this time here to really ask questions. Don’t be nervous. When I leave, the press will leave so you'll be okay. (Laughter.) Ask questions. Get the wisdom from these folks. They are here for you. We are here for you all. And have some fun along the way.
And to all our students going to college, I wish you all the very, very best of luck. You got a President and a First Lady who are behind you all every step of the way. Just remember, when you hit a barrier, that's when you grow. So don’t let that shut you down -- because we've all had our trials and tribulations. We've all failed big in some way, shape or form. The question isn't whether you fail, it's how you get up and move on. So keep it up, all right? Until then, just have a good time here this morning, all right?
And with that, I'm going to go do some more work. But I'm going to turn it over to Herbie Hancock and our musicians who are going to take it away for you guys. All right? Thank you so much. (Applause.)
11:13 A.M. EDT