Kenny Garrett Addresses Berklee's Largest Graduating Class

Mavis Staples, Michael McDonald, Chucho Valdés join Garrett as honorary doctorate recipients at 2011 commencement.

May 7, 2011

More than 900 graduates from 58 countries—the largest graduating class to date—received degrees today at Berklee's 2011 commencement, held at the Agganis Arena at Boston University. Berklee president Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctor of music degrees to soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples; rock, pop, and r&b vocalist, pianist, and songwriter Michael McDonald; renowned Cuban musicians Chucho Valdés and his father, Bebo Valdés; and jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Kenny Garrett. Garrett delivered the commencement address to the graduating class and an estimated crowd of more than 4,000 guests. 

In his commencement address, Garrett challenged the new graduates to always play music with the same curiosity, freshness, and spontaneity they had as beginners. Quoting Miles Davis, who once told Garrett, by then an experienced performer, to "play like a beginner," Garrett encouraged the class to heed Davis's words. 

"As you stand on the shoulders of our forefathers, try to raise the bar as high as you can," Garrett said. "Sometimes, that requires making sacrifices. You're up for the challenge. You're young, and you feel indestructible. Follow your gut, know your heart, and follow your intuition. This is your story, and no one can write it but you."

After accepting his honorary doctorate, McDonald said, "To be among this graduating class, to see these kids, and to perform last night with such brilliant young musicians who have such finesse beyond their years is one of the most inspirational moments of my entire career. I want to thank Berklee for inspiring me in a way that I think will last me the rest of my life."

Staples was honored for her dedication to bringing gospel music to the mainstream and aspiring to uplift and bring about social change through music. "Well, I finally made it to college. Finally!" said Staples upon receiving her degree. "I'm so deeply honored, and I sit here in awe of these smiling beautiful faces. I know the world is waiting for you, and you're ready to go out and bring the joy of music to the world."

After accepting an honorary degree on behalf his father, Bebo Valdés, Chucho Valdés addressed the crowd in Spanish. He expressed his deep happiness and gratitude for receiving an honorary doctorate from Berklee. 

This year's honorary doctorate recipients were recognized for their achievements in contemporary music, for their enduring contributions to popular culture, and for the influence their careers and music have had over Berklee's international student body. Staples, McDonald, Chucho and Bebo Valdés, and Garrett join the ranks of such esteemed recipients as David Bowie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sting, B.B. King, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Loretta Lynn, Quincy Jones, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, Smokey Robinson, and Patti Labelle.

An annual commencement concert took place on graduation eve, also at the Agganis Arena. Some of the college's most accomplished students presented a tribute to the honorees with performances of music associated with their careers. They were joined by McDonald, who performed one of his Doobie Brothers hits, "Takin' it to the Streets." Valdés also took the stage, performing "Calzada del Carro" and "Dile Catalina" with students. Other concert highlights included several Garrett compositions, a set of tunes originally performed by either Staples or the Staple Singers, and a medley of Doobie Brothers songs.

Berklee's class of 2011 graduated with bachelor of music degrees or professional diplomas. Female graduates numbered 286, representing 31 percent of the total class—the largest number ever. International students from 58 countries made up 34 percent of the class. The largest number of graduates from outside the United States were from South Korea and Japan. Students from as far away as Guam, Iceland, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe were among the graduating class. Domestic students were from 43 states—the greatest number from Massachusetts, California, and New York. The top three majors were professional music, performance, and music business/management. Guitar, voice and piano were the three most common means of musical expression among students of the graduating class.