China Daily (USA) - - SECOND THOUGHTS - Contact the writer at ly­don@chi­nadaily.com.cn

I’ve lived in China for a num­ber of years now. So long, in fact, that I feel — in my own, for­eign way — well-ac­cli­mated to my sur­round­ings. Ev­ery few years, when I re­turn to my na­tive United States, I’ll run into one or an­other old ac­quain­tance, who in­vari­ably asks: “So, you live in China? What’s that like?”

I’m usu­ally at a loss for words at first. My im­me­di­ate thought is, “It’s nor­mal.” But then I re­call the strong cu­rios­ity, ex­cite­ment, the sur­prise and some­times puz­zle­ment I felt in my first few years here. I’ll re­call some de­tail or anec­dote that con­veys those feel­ings to tell my ac­quain­tance.

Peo­ple get ac­cus­tomed to their sur­round­ings. It takes some un­usual event to re­mind you that noth­ing around you seemed so every­day at first as it is does now.

I wit­nessed just such an event a few weeks ago.

One of the greats of jazz mu­sic was com­ing to Bei­jing to give a few per­for­mances, and I man­aged to get tick­ets for the open­ing night.

I first heard of Ar­turo San­doval in the mid-1980s. An ac­quain­tance gave me a video of the Cuban — now Cuban-Amer­i­can — mu­si­cian en­gaged in a bat­tle of the trum­pets with jazz le­gend Dizzy Gille­spie.

Gille­spie, one of the in­ven­tors in the late 1940s of a type of high­en­ergy jazz whose prog­eny still rules the genre, looked grand­fa­therly next to the brash, young San­doval, but he was still in top form.

Gille­spie would lay out a sear­ing set of notes that you’d never have ex­pected would work to­gether. He’d dart around the strato­sphere like an iron-clawed swal­low, hang in space, climb again and plum­met back to Earth.

San­doval would pick it up where Gille­spie left off, weav­ing a Latin John Ly­don labyrinth around Gille­spie’s ideas. Each time anew, he would add a twist that some­how height­ened the ex­cite­ment. He sim­ply couldn’t be out­done.

It was stun­ning, and it was clear from Gille­spie’s re­ac­tions that he thought so, too.

The Bei­jing per­for­mance came a few weeks ago. San­doval took the stage lead­ing a typical jazz en­sem­ble with the ad­di­tional spic­ing of a Latin per­cus­sion­ist.

The first two num­bers were hard­hit­ting to the n’th de­gree … they re­ceived tepid ap­plause.

In a change of pace, the third num­ber was a more in­tro­spec­tive jazz ver­sion of what I’m told is a fa­mil­iar Chi­nese folk tune. Again, luke­warm ap­plause. Look­ing gen­uinely per­plexed, San­doval ap­proached the mi­cro­phone and asked if the au­di­ence ap­pre­ci­ated the mu­sic, and if so, why so lit­tle re­ac­tion?

In the West, jazz au­di­ences might shout en­cour­age­ment to the mu­si­cians as they play. They’ll cer­tainly ap­plaud and cheer, if not dur­ing, then at least af­ter so­los they like. They’re rau­cous and bois­ter­ous.

It oc­curred to me that San­doval might be un­fa­mil­iar with Chi­nese au­di­ences, that he mis­took a pre­vail­ing sense of cour­tesy and modesty for dis­in­ter­est.

The per­for­mance con­tin­ued and, like the then-young Cuban’s an­swers to Gille­spie’s for­ays in the trum­pet bat­tle, out­did ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion. Af­ter­ward, I waited amid a buoy­ant crowd of Chi­nese lis­ten­ers in the club’s foyer to con­grat­u­late the trum­peter.

When I first came to China, I be­lieved that peo­ple ev­ery­where are more or less the same. But in my first months or year in Bei­jing, so many of the things I saw chal­lenged the no­tion. So I’ve re­vised the thought. Yes, we are all the same — we just have dif­fer­ent ways of show­ing it.


Jakarta, Java, In­done­sia — Cuban jazz trum­peter, pi­anist and com­poser, the win­ner of 10 Grammy Awards Ar­turo San­doval per­forms live at the Jakarta In­ter­na­tional Java Jazz Fes­ti­val in Jakarta.

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