creation story: Antonio Garcia 

Director of Jazz Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University

Why he plays the trombone: "I like the trombone because as with a string instrument … it has no keys or valves," Garcia says. "It has the potential to be as lyrical as the human voice." The fifth child in a family of six children who all played instruments, Garcia took up guitar and piano when he was about 10, then started playing trombone at age 13. His older brother played trombone and Garcia decided to give it a try. The first few times he tried to play it, he put it together backwards.

"I was lucky that I grew up in New Orleans," he says, "It was a great inspiration. I didn't realize how great until I left there and went to Eastman [School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.]. … AM radio doesn't sound the same in other parts of the country as it does in New Orleans."

Why jazz? Garcia grew up listening to blues, soul and big-band music, but surprisingly, never listened to much jazz. "At 18, I was a jazz major [at Loyola University], but I had never heard of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker," he recalls. "I was clueless."

Although he was eager to learn about jazz playing, "I was very slow as an improviser." He graduated at the top of his class from Loyola, but his professors wouldn't recommend him to graduate school because he couldn't improvise. He considered giving up music twice in college because he was so frustrated as an improviser.

Garcia studied music and improvisation for two years on his own after college before being accepted to Eastman. "I still felt like I hardly knew the jazz vocabulary, but I was hellbent on throwing myself into a place that was immersed in it.

"The experience made me excited about teaching," he says. "When it comes to solving students' musical problems, often the best teachers are those who have been through these problems themselves."

Garcia was associate professor of music at Northwestern School of Music before he came to VCU to head the jazz studies program.

On the craft of improvisation: Jazz is all about improvisation, a skill that Garcia compares to "composing without an eraser." A self-described "conservative guy," Garcia says he enjoys improvisation because of its unpredictable nature. "Jazz is my Danger Mouse," he says. "It teaches me to deal with the unexpected."

The big thing to remember with improvisation is that there is no such thing as a mistake. "There are fresh improvisations, there are surprising moments, but there are not mistakes," he says. "The question is training yourself how to deal with those occurrences. … that is the challenge of improvisation."

Garcia believes a successful jazz solo communicates with the audience and other players onstage. "It is not so much a solo as it is a conversation," he says.

When playing a solo, "the issue is how to comment on the tune and the moment," he says. "My general rule is to try to come up with a melody that is as good as the original — that's my goal."

His favorite gigs: When Garcia was a sophomore at Loyola, he began playing trombone professionally with a big band, accompanying artists such as Mel Torme, Doc Severinsen and Ella Fitzgerald when they played at a New Orleans supper club.

"It was nirvana," he says of his gig with Fitzgerald, one of the highlights of his career. "We played for two weeks, two shows a day for six nights a week. Ella was in her late 60s and sounded incredible. Her musicians were amazing, the groove as incredibly uplifting. I was having so much fun I remember thinking I couldn't believe I was getting paid. … I couldn't believe how good it felt."

On the other end of the spectrum, Garcia played bass trombone on Phil Collins'Quantum Leap Big Band Tour in the summer of 1998. After rehearsing in Switzerland, the group played outdoor festivals in Europe and the United States, including the Poire Jazz Festival in Finland, which drew more than 25,000 people. With Collins on drums, the band played big-band versions of Collins' greatest hits — imagine "Sussudio" with a swing beat.

— Jessica Ronky Haddad


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