As one of the few art forms that truly originated in the United States, jazz music should speak to most Americans like a native tongue. However, because it has evolved away from its popular-music roots — namely, the blues as well as later variants such as swing music — jazz has come to be perceived by some as high art, unavailable to the uninitiated. So how can young people who may have an interest in jazz, but not necessarily any deep familiarity with it, get into the music?
Who better to ask than Ray Vega, celebrated trumpeter, percussionist, composer and arranger and one of the innovators on the contemporary international jazz and Latin music scenes. He is a veteran of bands led by greats such as Tito Puente, Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco and has performed with legendary groups and artists from the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band to Celia Cruz and Paul Simon.
As host of “Friday Night Jazz” on Vermont Public Radio, Vega is arguably the leading jazz figure in not only the state of Vermont but the entire rural Northeast and a veritable ambassador for the genre. But that latter designation implies jazz is more like a foreign country than a cherished territory within the homeland and such perceptions are something Vega is determined to overturn, particularly for younger musicians and music fans.
As a professor of jazz improvisation and instrumental music at the University of Vermont, he has been grappling with the question of how young people can connect with jazz.
“The thing is, unlike when I was coming up and there were a lot of opportunities to see instrumental music on TV, it’s a huge challenge for young people now,” Vega said.
He cited the recent example of a UVM student who told him she could not differentiate the sound of a trumpet from that of other instruments in recordings played in class.
“I’m 59 and grew up when you could see Louis Armstrong on TV, on programs like ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,’” Vega said. “Louis Armstrong was doing ‘Hello, Dolly’ on Broadway in the ‘60s. Who knew 30 years before he had revolutionized jazz?”
The point being that, even if younger viewers didn’t know about Armstrong’s seminal role in the evolution of jazz, he was accessible in a medium watched by almost every American, including a young boy from the South Bronx who would grow up to be a jazz trumpeter himself.
“It’s much more challenging for young people today to get into jazz,” Vega said.
Forging Common Bonds
One strategy Vega employs to overcome this challenge is to make connections between jazz and other, more popular forms of contemporary music — for example, by playing a recording of improvisation in jam-band music or in hip-hop and rap and then asking his students to describe what the musicians are doing.
When performers improvise in, say, folk music or bluegrass, they’re not doing jazz, Vega emphasized; yet, there’s a commonality between these different types of music in that process. A similar bond is forged when musicians combine jazz with music from other genres. Kamasi Washington is a case in point.
As an older “jazz guy” who grew up in the 19’60s and ‘70s, Vega finds that he is not drawn to Washington’s brand of music but can see why he connects so well with many young listeners.
“His music is energetic and incorporates elements of hip-hop,” Vega said.
Another example is a young trumpeter named Theo Croker, who happens to be the grandson of Doc Cheatham. In Vega’s view, Cheatham was one of the most important trumpet players in America, going back to the 1930s, and who Ray heard perform at Sweet Basil, a prominent jazz club in New York City.
“Theo is a jazz artist who combines elements of hip-hop in his music,” Vega said. “Then there’s Keyon Harrold, who incorporates elements of R&B and gospel as well as hip-hop…. You are going to hear funk and urban sounds in his music.”
Not all of the connections have to be to contemporary sounds. Vega finds that many of his UVM students come out of musical theater, in high school or community theater productions. He’ll point them to the Great American Songbook and performers who sing old tunes associated with Tin Pan Alley.
“Many of them are great jazz artists,” Vega said. “When I play one of their recordings in class, students will say, ‘I know that music.’”
A Short List to Get You Started
With college-age kids, whether they’re into hip-hop or some other form of contemporary pop music, Vega feels he is encountering them at a point in their lives when they are seeking out the new and the different — something one might label as “more serious” when it comes to music — even if the students aren’t ready to admit it themselves.
Asked if he could compile a list of classic recordings as a kind of primer for jazz neophytes, the professor immediately rattled off the following, including some with annotations:
• The Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled album (1978), which was their first
• Billie Holiday’s album, “Lady in Satin” (1958): “You can hear her singing a mix of beautiful ballads from the Great American Songbook. I’ve had head-bangers say, “‘I can really relate to that.’”
• Chet Baker’s album, “She Was Too Good to Me” (1974), on which he sings and plays trumpet: “I usually tell my first-year trumpet students to pick it up. Chet’s playing is so accessible and beautiful. Beauty always grabs people. There are two things in music that grab people: sheer power and beauty.”
• The album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” (1963), featuring one of jazz’s all-time great saxophonists Coltrane and the lesser-known, but highly regarded vocalist Hartman: “A great way for people to start listening to jazz. Then experiment and check out Kamasi Washington and Keyon Harrold.”
Another thing Vega likes to point out to his students about jazz is that it’s no longer a male-dominated genre. There are plenty of young female musicians who play really well and are on the rise: Tia Fuller, for one.
“She’s a fabulous saxophonist who has played with Beyoncé,” Vega said.
Another young jazz artist came to mind, but Vega could not immediately recall her name and that of Bria Skonberg was suggested by his interviewer.
“Oh, she’s my buddy,” Vega chuckled. “She sat in with my band in New York. She’s a wonderful trumpeter.”
Her latest recording; however, is not really jazz, in Vega’s view — it’s more of a singer-songwriter-type pop record on which Skonberg sings as well as plays trumpet. The young jazz artist whose name remained on the tip of Vega’s tongue is a saxophonist who combines a lot of different music, including hip-hop.
“She’s a really good answer,” he said. “She was supposed to play in the jazz festival… in early June.”
The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the biggest annual jazz event in the region if you don’t count the Montreal Jazz Festival, was canceled for this year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked if he was scheduled to play in it, Vega replied that he was slated to host the “meet-the-artist thing. I try not to play in it. I’ve done it as a guest.”
One local gig that he has been a regular at is Wednesday evenings at the Hotel Vermont, in downtown Burlington. That series, too, has been a casualty of the coronavirus outbreak and Vega can’t wait for it to resume.
“In fact, we were just about to celebrate our seventh anniversary,” he said.
If things get back to anything resembling normalcy, folks on the New York side of Lake Champlain may be able to catch Vega and his band as part of the Ballard Park outdoor music series in Westport this summer.
“That’s a great gig, and I love those folks over there,” Vega said, at which point the name of the young saxophonist came to him: Lakecia Benjamin. “She is the living embodiment of music now and young people now and jazz.”
Keep Connecting, Keep Evolving
Because the incorporation of hip-hop in particular seemed to be a running theme of much of the contemporary jazz music Vega cited, he was asked about the implications of what seemed to his interviewer to be a kind of accommodation.
“Hip-hop is the music of the day,” Vega said. “If you choose to play a more traditional type of jazz, your life is (still affected by what’s on) the internet and you still have to know the music of the day.”
When he was growing up, he listened to a variety of pop music: Earth, Wind & Fire, Ohio Players, Chicago; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chaka Khan, the Beatles, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Carole King, to name several. But Vega also listened to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker — all giants of jazz.
He related an anecdote involving Charlie Parker being on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. “They stopped somewhere in Middle America, and Charlie Parker put country and western music on the jukebox,” Vega said. “When someone asked him why, he said, ‘I like the lyrics.’”
Vega recalled how Gillespie, who is regarded as one of the leading exponents of bebop jazz, championed the cause of Afro-Cuban music, Latin jazz and even funk. “Dizzy was connecting with the audience of the day,” he said. “There are a lot of ways for young people to connect with jazz, but they have to be open-minded.”
They also can’t be snobs about their kind of music. He cited a classical trumpet student at UVM who’s also into Metallica. And then there are those times in which Vega is made to listen to a recording of contemporary performers who his students think are totally original — only to have their ol’ professor tell them it sounds like a recording from the 60s or ‘70s. “‘Go buy “Tapestry’ with Carole King,’ I tell them,” Vega said, adding that he even has to tell some of his students who the Beatles were and bemoaning how simplistic and “manufactured” he finds a lot of contemporary pop music to be.
Jazz, on the other hand, when it’s at its best is always evolving. “It’s a museum thing if jazz doesn’t innovate,” Vega said. “Music has to constantly change. If not, everything would sound like the 1917 Preservation Hall Jazz Band.”
He recalled how, back around 2002, when he had started teaching at SUNY Purchase, one of his students formed a jazz band called New Standard Alliance — “NSA” for short, because the student’s dad worked for the National Security Agency. Many of Vega’s music students at the time were into bands like Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. This student and his bandmates rewrote songs by those artists for their jazz band, and Vega would sit in with them.
“We’d go play places, and young people would come up to us — not necessarily the kind of people who would go to a jazz concert — and they were blown away,” he said.
Keep connecting with young people — people your own age, Vega advises his students who play jazz. “I tell young musicians: play the music of the day,” he said. “They are the ones who will keep this thing we call jazz alive.”