Ray Vega in Vermont
Release Date: 11-24-2008
It seems somehow unlikely that trumpet virtuoso and lifelong New Yorker Ray Vega, one of world’s great jazz and Latin jazz artists, would trade 47 years at the center of the jazz universe for a new start in the slightly smaller world of Burlington, Vt. But the newest member of UVM’s Jazz Studies Program, who began teaching at the university in September, has his reasons.
There’s Vega’s appraisal of his musical colleagues in the department, whom he calls “world class.” There’s the Burlington arts scene, which he describes as “thriving.” And then there’s the wall-to-wall window in his new office in the Music Building, which filled the room with a view of the flaming Green Mountains one afternoon in late fall.
“I love Vermont,” he says. “It’s been the most spectacular autumn I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of autumns.”
Vega has been an admirer of the state and city since 2002, when he began serving as guest artist for the Flynn Theater’s annual Latin Jazz camp, which brought him to Burlington from his home in the South Bronx for several weeks each summer. When a position opened in the Jazz Studies department last year, Vega jumped at the chance to move his young family to the area, to join an up-and-coming jazz program, and to immerse himself in a small but dynamic music scene.
Playing backup With a reputation as a first-class jazz educator — Vega taught at SUNY Purchase before coming to UVM — and recording credits on over 100 CDs both with his own bands and as a featured sideman with such Latin jazz and jazz greats as Tito Puente and Joe Henderson, it’s hard to overstate Vega’s stature in the jazz world.
But you’d never know it from his rumpled style, warmth, and utter lack of pretension.
Take his approach to one of the three student groups he conducts, the Post-Bop Ensemble. At a recent rehearsal, Vega sat inconspicuously in a clump of six student musicians, clapped loudly to spur the music on, and often stopped the group to make adjustments. He occasionally stepped forward to solo with a cascade of masterful notes, but mostly played backup, while the other students took their turn in the limelight.
Teaching by doing is central to his approach.
“I basically run that ensemble as if it’s my working band,” he says. “I want them to learn how to cut to the chase faster and get the music together. A lot of times, they may not know how to raise the bar. I’m just trying to shed a little light on that.”
Fuzzy If the student musicians in the Post-Bop Ensemble are well aware of who Vega is and how lucky they are to be working with him — “It’s been the one of the most productive experiences I’ve had,” says junior bassist and music major Ian Kovac — many of the 60-plus students in the Jazz History class he teaches are fuzzier.
During one class, a 75-minute spin through a topic Vega knows as well as anyone on the planet, Latin jazz, students were treated to an organized presentation of the facts embroidered with frequent personal anecdotes.
Kacia Yazbak, a pre-med junior who sat attentively in the front row and “loves” the class, said she didn’t have a clue who Vega was but is “beginning to figure it out.” One hint: the Smithsonian-produced documentary Vega showed during a portion of class featured several interviews with the trumpeter.
Vega’s new home hasn’t exactly caused him to retire from the world stage. Several weeks before the fall semester’s end, he’d already performed in Adelaide, Australia, Detroit, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with dates in New York and Pittsburgh to come.
Mixing a hectic performance schedule with his teaching doesn’t faze Vega — who’s also putting together a quartet with his Jazz Studies colleagues he hopes will gig regularly in Burlington — or distract him from his goal of further raising the profile of UVM’s ascendant jazz program.
The word is already out. Just weeks after Vega started, high school musicians with new interest in UVM began “showing up on our doorstep,” says an elated Alex Stewart, director of the Jazz Studies department, which a famed jazz artist now calls home.