DISCOUNTING ALL THE DIFFERENCES, WE’RE JUST SO DIFFERENT
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.