Something strange is happening at Muddy Waters.
Normally a serene refuge of exposed beams and hanging plants, Burlington's crunchiest coffee house is playing host this hot summer evening to a rambunctious jazz quintet. As the musicians work their way through tunes by Miles, Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter with perfect artistry and fiery abandon, they earn double-takes from passersby outside and nods of appreciation from latte-sipping aficionados enjoying the show.
Almost as odd as the band's weekly gig at this place, affectionately known to locals as "Muddy's," is its May-December membership: three grizzled veterans on trumpet, tenor sax, and piano, along with two fresh-faced college students on bass and drums.
The intergenerational complexion is no accident. It's not the point of the ensemble exactly, but it's close, according to band leader Ray Vega, a renowned jazz and Latin jazz trumpet player, who joined the Jazz Studies faculty in UVM's Music Department three years ago.
Vega, whose latest album reached #1 on the JazzWeek charts in July, says there's only one way for aspiring players like the band's bassist, senior English/music double major Chris Barosky, and drummer Eric Reeves, to learn to play jazz at a high level: by sharing the bandstand with seasoned, demanding professionals -- an opportunity Vega extends to advanced UVM Jazz Studies students with regularity.
"Should not have been on the stage"
Call it returning the favor. As a young teenager growing up in the South Bronx, Vega played in a band that featured players like alto saxophonist James Spaulding, a regular Blue Note recording artist.
"I should not have been on the stage with any of those guys," Vega says. "But they saw something in me and were willing to teach me."
Teaching is something Vega does a lot of at UVM -- each semester he directs four jazz ensembles and teaches a jazz history course -- and he makes mentoring young people his top priority, even as he retains his chops as an "A"-list player with an international touring schedule.
The Jazz Studies faculty mixes jazz scholars with impressive playing credentials -- the program's director, saxophonist Alex Stewart, toured with the legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton -- with highly accomplished professionals who play out every week, like pianist Tom Cleary of the Muddy's quintet and bassist John Rivers, Barosky's teacher.
In addition to its accomplished faculty, UVM offers aspiring young players an added benefit many music schools would kill for, says Vega: the ability to play out regularly at the area's many venues, like Muddy Waters, that showcase live music.
Barosky typically performs four or even five times a week, which amazes his music school friends. If he were in school in New York, he says, "I'd probably be playing one jam session a week, really late."
Tough Love U
And the tough-love jazz university of Vega's student-populated professional ensembles and those of other faculty like Stewart, who calls UVM's apprenticeship teaching model both a hallmark of jazz's history and one of the program's strengths, offers a learning environment like no other.
"You learn to show up on time, and show up to play," says Barosky, who's been provoked to up his game mid-tune by the Miles Davis-like glares Vega has occasionally shot his way. Barosky is quick to add that Vega is also generous with praise -- when his playing merits it.
Rising to the expectations of a perfection-demanding band leader is an experience Vega knows well.
For years, he played lead trumpet in Tito Puente's band, perhaps the most prominent Latin jazz ensemble in the world.
The leadership position meant "that when the baritone sax player was screwing up," Vega says, Puente "didn't turn around to (the sax player), he turned to me and would go" -- Vega shoves his arms in front of him, contorts his face into a scowl, and utters an obscene interrogative. "I had to keep it together."
"If you don't show up prepared," Vega says, summing up the life lesson he imparts to his student bandmates, "you're not holding up your end of the bargain."
In Barosky's case the pressure, along with the other instruction he's receiving from Rivers and other teachers, appears to have created a gem of a player. At Muddy Waters, the young bassist swings effortlessly through complex chord changes, his fluid lines providing both groove and harmonic underpinning, inspiring flights of improvisational fancy from Vega, Cleary, and tenor saxophonist Brian McCarthy.
Playing with Vega offers a peak artistic experience students never forget.
"It's crazy," Barosky says. "It's like playing along with a Freddie Hubbard record."