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Art Coleman: “It’s all about how music makes you feel!”

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A humble man, Arthur Coleman, Jr. is not inclined to self-congratulation. Despite his great gift for music and teaching, recognition was never his goal. Still, that recognition was bound to come. In 2004, Arthur Coleman, who goes by Art, was named California Teacher of the Year and in June 2022, Stockton Unified School District honored him by unveiling their new administration building named for him—an honor almost never bestowed upon the living. Among his many achievements, he has collaborated with Stockton Symphony Conductor Peter Jaffe on special projects such as conducting live performances of music written by the great Duke Ellington.

How does someone who wasn’t looking for recognition end up with so much of it?
To understand his life journey as a positive role model in the community, Art said you have to start with the influence his parents had on him and the way they modeled interpersonal relationships. It was his upbringing that prepared him for the work he has done in adulthood. “I’m a PK,” he explained, “that’s pastor’s kid. My father was a minister in Stockton my entire childhood. In 1942, he came from the Texas-Louisiana area, met my mother in the early 50s, and I was born in 1958.”

Learning the Classics
Art didn’t realize it as a kid, but in his parents’ Sunday school classes, he was already absorbing their gentle approach and basic teaching techniques. In adulthood, it came as a surprise when he found himself implementing their style in his classroom. He adds that spending six years in his youth doing musicals in Bob Manning’s summer drama group, South Stockton Community Theater, gave him additional methods for making people comfortable with talking and expressing themselves in front of others. A graduate of UOP, Art credits his pedagogy learned there as well as his own ideas and “a lot of common sense” when it comes to his overall success as an instructor.

Those methods paired well with Art’s love of music, giving him a contagious enthusiasm throughout his career. He began as a student teacher in Walnut Grove, where he spent one year instructing all areas of music to kids K-8. The next 11 years were spent at Hamilton Middle School as a special education teacher, followed by 22 years as their band teacher. In 2005, Cesar Chavez High School was built and he signed on to teach music including concert band, jazz band, marching band and drumline. He has done this job for almost 20 years, often spending weekends and evenings taking his band to participate in competitions, games and special events.

Art remembers his childhood with fondness. In the early (and very lean) years, they lived on the south side of Stockton, his mother, Mae Ella, teaching Sunday School, and his father, Arthur Sr., ministering to the congregation. “My father was a people person,” Art said, smiling broadly at the memory. Around 1973, his parents began to do better financially and were able to buy a home out north. He reminisces about how his mother loved to fish using an old 22-foot bamboo pole. “She knew just where to go and she would sometimes catch enough catfish to feed our whole family and take some to church the next weekend.” Likewise, he remembers his father taking him to the store at Thanksgiving and buying multiple turkeys and all the foods needed for a complete holiday meal and then driving with him to deliver each gift bag of food to the church families in need.

Finding the Rhythm
“Being a PK, I was at church all the time and a lot of my musical foundation comes from the church,” Art said. There he learned to play drums and piano as a child, adding horns such as trombones and trumpets while at Taft Elementary School. In junior high, he joined the Commodores Drum and Bugle Corps as its youngest member, playing cymbals and double tenor drum before becoming drum major his senior year at Stagg High School. His first marching experience was with the Sea Cadets, a group sponsored by the Stockton Police Department. The president of the Sea Cadets was Gene Castles, whose granddaughter, Kristen Castles Florek, was Art’s student teacher in the 1990s and is now the Lincoln High band director. “Full circle,” he noted, beaming, for there’s nothing that makes Art happier than to see his students succeed and thrive.

With his students’ success always in mind, Art discovered that if he used a jazz rhythm section composed of piano, bass and drums to create cool rhythms, it resulted in immediate success for beginning band students. “They liked what they heard and kept at it instead of giving up,” he explained. He also knows the value of encouragement and shares it generously with both teachers and students. “Be true to yourself, and honest, and kind to yourself, and patient too. Then do all that with your kids,” he added with a grin.

Art has witnessed countless students whose lives were dramatically changed by music, but one stands out in particular, Luis “Tito” Talamantes. Years ago, Tito played trumpet in middle school band under Art’s guidance. Tito’s mother, Virginia, was a friend to all and very involved with the band booster program, serving as its treasurer. Art’s son, Ryan, was the same age as Tito and musically inclined as well. The two boys became good friends, bonding like brothers over the years. As Virginia struggled with diabetes and her health declined, the Coleman family informally adopted Tito as one of their own.

Tito’s passion had always been mariachi music, and despite temporarily dropping out of college to care for his mom until she passed, his dream of seeing mariachi programs in every grade never dimmed. As with many great ideas, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. At 22, with Art’s encouragement, Tito not only went back to college, but also began instructing mariachi at Chavez. His program is still in operation there, at schools across Stockton Unified as well as at UC Davis and UOP. Having completed his music undergrad studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Tito is now earning his master’s degree at UOP. He achieved his dream of teaching students to play mariachi music and then showed them how to teach that skill to others. Now, at 33, Tito is on the UOP staff, has written and published the definitive guide to teaching mariachi music and continues to expand the program to reach schools and students of every age. Art refers to Tito as “my musical son” and said that Ryan is also an extraordinary professional jazz guitarist who performs regularly in the area.

The Passion and Melody
It’s school music programs such as Tito’s and others that make Art especially pleased that Proposition 28 passed. “This means that 1 percent of public schools’ education budgets must now be spent on the arts. It’s finally there, specifically in the budget, protecting the programs like music, which typically were the first thing to be canceled whenever budget cuts came along,” he shared. “These are the programs that are such a positive experience and make our community a better place and equip students to better understand the bigger picture.”

Although Art’s wife, Kathryn, ribs him, saying he is “always at work,” he insists it isn’t true and said he has plenty of ways to enjoy life off the clock. When their daughter, Coreena, was a little girl, she learned Polynesian dancing. Art wanted to join in the fun and made a point of learning to play the instruments of Polynesia. Coreena is now grown, married and living on the east coast where, like her dad, she is an outstanding educator. Art and Kathryn are still involved with the Polynesian dance troupe, for which he enjoys playing ukulele and singing, which he finds very relaxing. He likes to ride his e-bike, travel with Kathryn, and play music with Ryan. “Those things make me smile,” he said. With Kathryn’s recent retirement, the couple is eager to revisit Hawai’i and looks forward to eventually seeing Europe.

Art finds that he has a greater appreciation for leading a balanced life these days, a lesson learned during one especially demanding period in his life when he found himself overwhelmed. “I was trying to handle too many things at once,” he explained. “It’s a typical thing with older parents. My father was 62 when I was 10, and as a young adult I helped my parents a lot. And I helped at church. And I was a husband and a teacher. It was a lot to juggle, trying to be there for them, while making them understand I had other obligations too. That time period in my life gave me some powerful lessons and a foundation I’ve used ever since.” Art leaned in, pointing upward at God and confided, “Chavez opening at exactly the right time in ’05, right when I was ready to be their band teacher, felt like the nudge I needed to move forward.”

Inspiration for Others
The way Art radiates enthusiasm when he talks about music offers a glimpse of what has drawn students to him over the decades. He shared, “What l love about music is how it makes you feel. It’s therapeutic. The feeling you get from certain jazz will make you follow your favorites! My father would play jazz all around town for people with his own twist: Gospel music with a stride piano twist. Stride piano,” he clarified, “is playing bass and tenor in the left hand while achieving the melody with the right hand. Scott Joplin was one of the first to popularize it; Fats Domino and many others all had their own genre in which they used the stride technique.”

Ever the teacher, Art has a suggestion for anyone who would like to explore jazz for the first time, saying a fun way is to “start with now and work backwards. Look up Wynton Marsalis, New Orleans, and bridge out to his brother Branford Marsalis, and their father Ellis, and just listen to all that you can. Music teaches us to strive for excellence but also to find a balance. Never stop enjoying the moment,” he urged. It’s a message that always resonated with his students but applies to everyone.

“So much of life is a full circle,” he concluded. “Going to school, then ending up teaching where I came from, literally a full circle.” He finds this analogy describes all his experiences from the earliest to his education and profession and shared this advice. “Appreciate how those circles of life teach you to appreciate life and growth and what’s important, which is people and love! I’ve been fortunate to develop my teaching around my passion and when you love something you bring something special to the table before anything even starts. Bottle that and make the passion part of your world; it’s very special.”