This presentation is copyright 2004 by Antonio J. García and originally delivered live at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia on Sunday, November 7, 2004 at its 9:30 a.m. “Contemplation and Conversation” Service by invitation of the congregation. (The sub-headings in the article form below were not articulated during the presentation.)
This work was later published in excerpted form as "Free Expression" in STYLE Weekly, January 12, 2005. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.
The Beauty is in the Difference
by Antonio J. García
Topic Announcement: Art, creativity, and life call for the recognition that we are not all the same; nor do we necessarily express the same views. Teaching art may thus mean showing how to express but not what to express. Antonio García, VCU’s Director of Jazz Studies, shares his thoughts about the beauty in the differences all around us.
I thank you for asking me to share this morning with you. I am honored that you would ask me to share my thoughts with you about creativity, art, and even spirituality; and I am looking forward to our discussion in a few moments. I have visited your church and other UU churches in the past and received inspiration; so I hope that I can provide something of interest and inspiration to you today.
When Autumn Fehr first contacted me about joining you today, I was quite surprised; but my topic very quickly came to mind: “The Beauty is in the Difference.” It’s a saying that has been around for I-don’t-know-how-long, yet not much may really be known about its origins. In fact, if you turn to the mother tool of modern research—Google—and place that phrase in quotation marks, you’ll receive only about a dozen references, each merely incidental uses of the phrase.
García leads the
VCU Jazz Orchestra I in concert.
Photo credit: Eric Norbom
Yet this is a phrase that has been a center of my perception of the world for my entire adult life. For example, I recall that when I was a dating teenager—or a lot of the time, more accurately, a teenager looking for a date—I was just stunned by the variety of attractive women out there. They were all over! And yet, they had such pressure to conform to whatever the cultural standard of the time was for beauty, be it hair-length or shoe-height or style of glasses—or no glasses at all. Guys, of course, had fewer pressures put upon them for style and fashion: we were just…guys.
As I aged into college years, I had a steady girlfriend; so that made me non-threatening enough that other women would also talk to me about their lives; and I could see that these pressures on women to conform to the standard hadn’t lessened. Some of my friends had serious self-esteem issues because they didn’t match the fashion ads’ version of womanhood. And I would think—and sometimes outright tell them: “HEY! ‘The Beauty is in the Difference!’ The things that make you unusual are the things that make you individual—and to me, attractive.”
Nowadays I watch those cultural pressures on young women increase to the point where we have a network TV show called “The Swan,” where “ugly ducklings” are made over into “beautiful swans.” It may be a decade before we know what damage has been done, both to the young women who might watch and value such physical transformations and to the young men who might watch and establish a value system that has no room for “The Beauty is in the Difference.”
William gets a drum set lesson from Antonio García at Christchurch Grammar School in Perth, Australia as Josh and Haslett look on.
Photo credit: Graham Nielsen, Christchurch
One of my favorite activities in public places is “people-watching.” Some places seem to teem with interesting-looking people…and often beautiful people. I remember that when I was visiting the famed city of Nice, France I was struck by how every man, woman, and child—no matter how young or how old—was model quality. You could place them in Vogue magazine or National Geographic or Life; and they’d just leap off the pages. With every step I took on the streets, I would just marvel at “The Beauty in the Difference” of creation itself! For me, these are spiritual moments in which I feel I have experienced some part of the origin of the universe.
Airports are great for people-watching; and on rare occasion there I will stumble onto one of my favorite finds: someone who looks exactly like someone else I know. I can’t get over that. And I think, with all the variety I’ve seen over the years, how oddly unique is it to see someone who’s not different! I mean, it’s kind of like the notion that if everyone is rebelling, soon the only way to rebel is not to rebel. The “rarity of the identical” makes me appreciate the differences even more!
VCU faculty trumpet professor Rex Richardson (left center) and guest trumpeter John D'earth (right center) trade solos with VCU students. Photo credit: Antonio J. García
What does this have to do with my creative life, specifically in jazz music and jazz education? A lot. It’s common that a young high school or college-age musician seeking to grow in jazz expression might initially be waiting for the day when instead of wondering what he or she might play during their solo improvisations over a given tune or performance, they’ll “just know” what they’ll play—and thus jazz expression will be safer, more predictable.
And then, gradually or sometimes quickly, these students of the music realize that their goal is not to arrive at safety and predictability at all—that that would actually be the enemy of learning how to improvise jazz solos or even of writing jazz compositions. In fact, their goal is to be different, to be individual—and in large part to do so by observing “The Beauty in the Difference” around them at that given moment of performance and incorporate that into their solo expression. David Liebman, an articulate jazz educator and musician, says, “The beauty of art is its universality contrasted by its uniqueness…. Much like art, the essence of a human being consists of many universal and unique attributes.”
As one living legend of jazz, trumpeter Clark Terry, long ago summarized the jazz learning process: “Assimilate. Imitate. Innovate!” Sure, it’s fine to start by imitating the standards of the society around you, musical or otherwise. Internalize it and understand it and be able to express it. But then, build on it. And that’s the challenge of not just the jazz life, but of the creative life. The acclaimed classical composer Bela Bartok stated, “Only from the entirely old can the entirely new be born.”
So the jazz musician’s goal is not to predict what is to happen and be comforted by that knowledge; it is to recognize that one not only cannot predict what will happen but would be bored if one could! The comfort comes not in knowing the future but in having spent a creative lifetime responding spontaneously to surprising possibilities—and enjoying the ride those surprises give us. To put it in the words of the author from whom you’ve already heard some readings today, Stephen Nachmanovitch, “Practice gives the creative processes a steady momentum, so that when imaginative surprises occur (whether they be thrown toward us by accident or brought up from within by the unconscious), they can be incorporated into the growing, breathing organism of our imagination.”
So In Life
Guest trombonist Ray
Anderson chats with VCU students during a rehearsal break.
Photo credit: Antonio García
Nachmanovitch must be an interesting character. His bio says that he is a “violinist, composer, poet, teacher, and computer artist who studied psychology and literature at Harvard and has a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz.” I’ve never met anyone with a degree in the History of Consciousness; and the very title of the degree sounds daunting—do you cover the History of Consciousness in two years or four years? Do you have to stay awake for all the classes?
Nonetheless his book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, has become a handy reference for me and an appropriate link for today’s talk about creativity in music and in life. The parallels are strong.
For example, he says, “An improviser may have to practice for years before being able to play a totally spontaneous minute of music in which every detail is right for its own fleeting moment....The fruits of improvising, composing, writing, inventing, and discovering may flower spontaneously, but they arise from soil that we have prepared, fertilized, and tended in the faith that they will ripen in nature’s own time.” That’s not necessarily what an 18 year-old future jazz musician wants to hear, but it’s true in life as well.
I have often told improvisation students, “Look. I can’t teach you improvisation. You’ve been doing that all your life. You already know how to improvise. How many of you have had an unscripted conversation with someone else this week?” But what I can do is assist them in finding their own routes to express that improvisation through music.
To quote Nachmanovitch again, “The Western idea of practice is to acquire a skill. It is very much related to our work ethic, which enjoins us to endure struggle or boredom now in return for future rewards. The Eastern idea of practice, on the other hand, is to create the person, or rather to actualize or reveal the complete person who is already there.”
Four of the ten VCU Jazz faculty at a university reception: Bob Hallahan (piano), Antonio García (trombone), Victor Dvoskin (bass), and former member Howard Curtis (drums).
Photo credit: courtesy VCU
Through it all, we seek balance, another angle that applies to music and to life. David Liebman defines a jazz musician in what I believe is a most articulate way: “An ideal aesthetic combination for an improvising musician would be total control of the rules of music, instrumental virtuosity, mental and intellectual depth, and the looseness of personality which allows these factors to mix spontaneously in a balanced fashion.” That, to me, is a wish list for a jazz musician that also has parallels in real life.
So I can’t teach a jazz musician what to play or, musically, “say.” But if I’m fortunate, I can teach musicians how to express what they want to play. It’s like that old saying that differentiates between giving a person a fish and teaching a person how to fish: the latter can last the person a lifetime.
Ultimately, the musicians I teach may end up playing or musically “saying” something I’m not a big fan of. That’s not really my business: it’s my gig to support their growth towards their goals, so long as they can also complete the university degree. I should have a high tolerance for “The Beauty in The Difference” of what they’re expressing versus what I might choose to express myself. That, too, has great parallels in real life.
If I have come away with any one principle accentuated by my own occasional visits to the Unitarian Universalist Church services, it is that tolerance of the differences among us is crucial to positive growth in our humanity. Sure, we all have to draw the line somewhere, where we feel for example that our own moral code is otherwise compromised; but tolerance of views other than ours is no less than a key to survival.
Guest artist Bobby McFerrin and his Voicestra along with members of the NU Vocal Jazz Ensemble directed by Antonio García.
When, some months ago, I accepted your invitation to speak to you today, it never occurred to me that this would be the Sunday following Election Day, the conclusion of perhaps one of the bitterest, most antagonistic, most negative campaign seasons in our history. I felt fortunate to avoid much of the community conflict; but even I witnessed social and business occasions when conversations took an ugly turn.
No matter from which political party affiliation my individual friend or neighbor or colleague spoke, the approach was the same. It would go something like this—for which I’ll invent the fictional, political party of your non-choice: the despised “DemoPublicats.”
“Things were fine in my neighborhood until all those DemoPublicats moved in. They’re so ignorant.” Or, “Our lives will go to hell if the DemoPublicats run the country for the next four years.” No matter which way the election turned out, I knew I was going to have some depressed friends this week.
But I was struck by how sweeping and intolerant so much of the conversation was. Imagine, for a moment, if instead of “DemoPublicats” you inserted the word “women”…or “Jews”… or “gays”…or “Hispanics.”
“Things were fine in my neighborhood until all those Hispanics moved in. They’re so ignorant.” Or, “Our lives will go to hell if women run the country for the next four years.” Since when did it become any more acceptable to stereotype voters than it would be to assume that all Jews have identical beliefs on issues—or than all gay people would vote the same on a given civic referendum?
I say, “The Beauty is in the Difference.” To me, there is no greater day on the political calendar than Inauguration Day, when civic powers change hands without rancor, without violence—because of the close-second-greater day of Election Day, when each individual gets to declare his or her views as the same or different than the next person’s.
Those days may not go my preference any more than I can control the musical expression of my students—or any more than I can predict the outcome of a jazz solo I’m about to take. But each of those expressions strikes me as the individual, creative, artistic “Beauty in the Difference”; and I invite you to celebrate that at every opportunity in your lives.
Guests René Marie
(vocals) and Joe Kennedy, Jr. (violin) in concert with VCU Jazz faculty
Victor Dvoskin (bass), Howard Curtis (drums), and Skip Gailes (saxophone).
Photo credit: Eric Norbom
I hope you enjoyed the Prelude, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” sung by once-local artist René Marie. The Postlude will be a another version of hers as well. I chose the piece intentionally. Musicians—artists—create because they must. Yet each person on this earth creates, differently, often beautifully, each day. As Stephen Nachmanovitch says, “The free play of creativity...is the ability to experience life as it is.” I wish you that experience, each and every day.
To celebrate life, I’d like to share with you now some music-making with friends of mine. We’d like to perform for you a wonderful composition by George Gershwin titled, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” after which we will all gather for our discussion this morning.
Thank you again for the honor of speaking with you today!
Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts. (© 1990 Stephen Nachmanovitch), published by The Putnam Publishing Group (republished 1991 by Tarcher), ISBN 0-87477-631-7, 224-page paperback, lists for $12.95.
García, Antonio. “Improve Your Improv—Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It,” Down Beat, Vol. 61, No. 9, September 1994 (and online within this same “Articles” section of my web site).
Antonio García scat-sings in a clinic session with the trio of Melvin Peters (piano), Bucco Xaba (drums), and Mike Campbell (bass) at The South African Jazz Educators Conference in Pretoria, South Africa.
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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own garciamusic.com, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.
Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.
Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."
About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”
Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/educator...one of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.
The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <www.garciamusic.com>.
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