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Free Expression

Tolerance of the differences among us is crucial to positive growth in our humanity.

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During college I had a steady girlfriend, so I was non-threatening enough that other women would talk to me about their lives. I could see that these pressures on women hadn't lessened. Some friends had serious self-esteem issues because they didn't match the fashion ads' version of womanhood. And I thought — and sometimes outright told 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."

This has a lot to do with my creative life in jazz music and education. Young musicians seeking to grow in jazz expression often seek the day when instead of wondering what they might play during their solo improvisations during a given performance, they'll "just know" — and thus jazz expression will be safer, more predictable.

But eventually they realize that safety is not their goal, that this would actually be the enemy of learning how to improvise solos. Their true 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 incorporating that into their solo expression.

Jazz musicians would be bored if they could predict what would happen. Any comfort comes in having spent a creative lifetime responding spontaneously to surprising possibilities — and enjoying the ride those surprises give. In his book "Free Play: Improvisation in Life and the Arts," author Stephen Nachmanovitch writes: "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.

Through it all, we seek balance. Jazz musician David Liebman defines the following: "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 wish list also has parallels in real life.

I can't teach a jazz musician what to musically "say." But if I'm fortunate, I can teach musicians how to express what they want to say — even if it's something I'm not a big fan of. I should have a high tolerance for "The Beauty in the Difference" of their views versus mine. That, too, has great parallels in life.

Tolerance of the differences among us is crucial to positive growth in our humanity. After the conclusion of such a bitter presidential campaign, we now approach Inauguration Day. I have witnessed many occasions when conversations took an ugly turn. "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.

But I was struck by how sweeping and intolerant the conversation was. Try substituting: "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." When did it become more acceptable to stereotype voters than it would be to assume that all Jews have identical beliefs on issues — or that 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 violence — because of the close-second-greatest day of Election Day, when each individual gets to declare his or her views as the same as or different from the next person's.

Those days may not be 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." I invite you to celebrate that at every opportunity in your lives.

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. S



Antonio Garcia (www.garciamusic.com) is director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (www.vcujazz.org).

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

© 2004 by Antonio J. Garcia.


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