Joni Mitchell has collected a shelf-full of awards over her half century-plus career, but she said few have been sweeter than the honorary doctorate bestowed on her on Tuesday evening (August 23) by the Berklee College of Music in recognition of her contribution to music.
“Since her debut in the late 1960s, Joni has been a force for change in the industry, blazing the trail for women in music with an unwavering commitment to achieving the status rightfully due her as one of the world’s great musical artists,” Berklee President Erica Muhl said at the event, which was held at a private residence in Santa Monica, California. In addition to lauding Mitchell’s trailblazing musical career, Muhl said the evening was also a chance to “highlight Joni’s important work as an activist and champion for women in music” via a collaboration with the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, an organization she said has done “pioneering work in this same area.”
With her signature wit on full display, Mitchell, 78, paid homage to both her childhood piano teacher and her parents in a speech that was both self-deprecating and thoughtful. She collected the award while reminiscing about the piano instructor who called her out for not following the sheet music, quoting the words that echoed in her head as a child.
“‘Why would you want to play by ear when you can have the masters under your fingertips!’ And she whacked me across the knuckles with her ruler,” Mitchell said with a laugh while recalling her early lessons, according to a story about the night’s event. “So I said to her, ‘But the masters had to play by ear to come up with that stuff.’ And she whacked me again. I wonder if she saw any of this [tonight]. It’s my moment of revenge.”
The night also included video clip tributes from many of Mitchell’s admirers, including Eurythmics and solo star Annie Lennox, who said, ” I’d never have thought about becoming a singer-songwriter if I’d never heard Court and Spark and all the beautiful, beautiful pieces of work that you have created over your lifetime.”
Mitchell took it all in stride, joking that “luckily I’m too old to get a swelled head,” when accepting the honor and shouting out her good friends and colleagues flanking her on stage, jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. But she also remembered those who didn’t make it, adding, “I wish my parents were alive. My mother in particular would be really proud of this because she wanted me to go to college. I went to art school and I quit after a year. She thinks of me as a quitter. So to see this achievement would be very impressive to her. I wish I could share it with her.”
Among the musicians paying tribute to Mitchell on Tuesday were Dianne Reeves, who performed “River” and “Both Sides Now,” and Esperanza Spalding, ” who played “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey” and “Love.”
Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” returned to multiple Billboard charts dated Aug. 6 after her viral live performance of the song at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I., July 24. Mitchell performed her first full set in over 20 years during the festival. The surprise appearance featured musicians such as Brandi Carlile, Marcus Mumford, Wynonna Judd and more.
Check out pictures from the event below.