Renowned jazz musician Cuong Vu sets the tone for change

By Aislyn Greene
For Northwest Asian Weekly

Cuong Vu

Cuong Vu wants to start a revolution.

Through his role as a University of Washington professor and a professional musician, the Vietnamese trumpeter is on a mission to revitalize the jazz scene here in the Pacific Northwest.

“The jazz scene here, for the most part, is pretty conservative and lackadaisical,” Vu said in a recent interview. “[Musicians] are content. But, at the same time, there’s less work and, instead of going out and making things happen, a lot of them complain.”

But Vu is working hard to prepare his students to act as the catalyst for change. “My main goal is to help these guys — and the next generations that graduate — create this scene here that’s really vibrant, forward-looking, and innovative.”

A natural leader

Vu has been hailed by critics as a “progressive futurist.”

At a recent show in Wallingford’s Chapel Performance Space — part of IMPFest 2010, a collection of Seattle’s improvisational musicians — Vu stepped onstage wearing worn jeans and a button-down shirt. Slight in form and modest in demeanor, he doesn’t demand much physical space. He watched quietly as band mates Stomu Takeishi, Ted Poor, and Luke Bergman started the piece. Vu brought his Yamaha custom trumpet to his lips and began to play. His tone was strong, pure, and immediately arresting, filling the small venue with a single, high note, then dropping into a fast-paced and reverberating phrase.

Vu has carefully cultivated his unusual sound. Inspired as a young musician by the soaring distortion of rock guitar players, he frequently uses electronics. “Some critics have basically said I’m a guitar player who’s playing the trumpet,” he said with a laugh. “I try to affect my sound to have the certain impact that a distorted guitar has.”

“His sound is something that makes him unique from any other trumpet player,” said UW junior Brennan Carter. “You would be able to identify ‘OK, that’s Cuong,’ just by hearing a recording.”

His life story

In Vietnam, Vu’s mother, Nikki, often sang in nightclubs with a military band. His dad was an instrumentalist and bandleader who played the drums, guitar, bass, and trumpet.

The family fled from Saigon in 1975, after learning that the communist regime was heading toward South Vietnam. Nikki was prepared to leave, but Vu’s father, as a member of the army, stayed behind to fight. “He said, ‘Just take the kids and go, I’ll come when I can’,” she said of her former husband. Vu’s father ended up staying in Vietnam.

The family arrived in Bellevue, sponsored by Nikki’s sister, who had moved to the Northwest in 1973 following her marriage to an American man. After settling, Nikki worked as a beautician in order to support Vu and his younger sister, Jessie. Though she was forced to quit singing, she made sure to instill a love of music in her young children, first enrolling them in piano lessons and, later, purchasing Vu’s first trumpet.

When talking about her life as a musician, Nikki lights up. “I love music, I love singing,” she said, recalling her days working with the Vietnamese duo Văn Phụng and Châu Hà. “And I love the kids. I’m so proud of him and his friends, and I’m so happy every time he’s touring.”

Vu recognizes his mother’s sacrifice. “My mom has always kind of lived vicariously through me,” said Vu.

“I was always really interested in music more than anything,” said Vu, “except for maybe basketball. But then at some point, my dad said, ‘You’re too short.’ And at that point, I started to focus on music.”

Vu grew up listening to a wide range of music, including Vietnamese pop and Western artists like ABBA and Pat Metheny, with whom he later collaborated on two Grammy-winning albums. He said that his multicultural background has merged so deeply that he can no longer determine from where his music stems. “Of course, my background influences my stuff, but I don’t know in what ways because it’s so absorbed,” explained Vu.

As a student at Bellevue High School, his musical talent and leadership skills were present at an early age.

His mother remembers one incident in particular. “One time in his senior year, I had the chance to talk to the band director, Mr. Jones,” said Nikki. “He told me, ‘I learn a lot from Cuong’ — I’ll never forget that.”

Vu graduated from high school in 1988 with a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. After earning his Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, he moved to New York City in 1994, where he achieved critical success. During his time in the city, he toured often and worked with artists such as Metheny, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Mitchell Froom, and Chris Speed.

Returning to his roots

After 13 years in the Big Apple, Vu decided to return to the Northwest in 2006.

“I got tired of living in New York after 15 years,” he said. “While I was touring all over the place, I started to really take notice of the various cities, and nothing suited me as much as Seattle. So when the opportunity came to move back, it was a no-brainer.”

He was touring in Europe when he learned of the assistant jazz professor position at the University of Washington (UW) and joined the faculty in 2007, marking a change in direction for the music program.

Mark Seales is a professor of jazz studies at the UW. He was also a part of the team that selected Vu among a hundred candidates.

“He had a lot of experience that looked good on paper,” said Seales. But, ultimately, it was Vu’s personality and vision for the future of the program that got him the job.

“When he taught, he was very focused and charismatic and he had a different approach — very forward thinking, very demanding,” said Seales. “We needed somebody who is going to bring a certain sort of vision for the future, and he fit perfectly.”

Students responded immediately to Vu. In 2010, the university awarded him a UW Distinguished Teaching Award. “[The students] were the ones who nominated him,” said Seales, “and they responded outrageously.”

Teaching the building blocks

Vu currently teaches a full load of classes. During a recent jazz ensemble class, a small group of students sat in a semi-circle in a UW auditorium. The topic of the day was a new piece, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” As they played, Vu paced behind them — wearing socks but no shoes — and occasionally leaned in to whisper a suggestion in the ear of a musician.

“Why did that sound so much better this time?” he asked. His tone was encouraging, but intense. “Everyone should have the power to stop the band and say something! Let’s try it again.”

Vu’s style is to simulate the real world as much as possible and he pushes his students to behave like the professionals they soon will be. Classes are structured in the same way a professional band might rehearse. The students choose their music, develop it, and lead it in their own way.

“I go into everything intuitively,” he said of his teaching style. “Pretty much how I approach music is trying to be in the moment and really feeling out other people and how they approach music and life … and then go from there.”

But he also emphasizes the structure of music. He begins with a conceptual base and then allows his students to improvise more freely.

“A lot of what I do is filtered through free improvisation, collective free improvisation,” said Vu. “When [the students] do that, then they really have to draw on their instincts and really find out the building blocks of music. That really wipes out all of the lines that divide genres.”

A distinguished teacher

According to UW senior Scott Macpherson, Vu is “entirely responsible for this huge change that’s happened here in the past two or three years.”

Only in his third year as a professor, Vu is highly regarded by his students.

“He’s an incredibly dedicated and effective teacher who, at the same time, is a perfect model for everything that he tries to impart to his students,” said senior Ivan Arteaga. “He’s always learning and adapting how he’s teaching, which is based on the people he’s teaching.”

For some students, Vu seemed initially inaccessible. “He’s such a fierce professional,” said Macpherson.

“For some of us, it was kind of intimidating.” But Macpherson has nothing but rave reviews for the young professor. “Every day, he brings the same intensity with him and the same expectations. He’ll get frustrated with us, but he’ll never give up.”

For Vu, his relationships with his students and the music they create enrich his own life as a musician.

“These students are really bright,” he said. “They’re really adventurous, they’re fearless, so whenever I present them with a new idea, it doesn’t take a lot of time for them to absorb and then bring it back in a whole different form — and then I’m starting to learn something.”

Creativity sparks everything else

Vu recognizes that the music his students produce doesn’t always sound like jazz — and that is his intention. “A lot of people kind of want jazz to stay the same, but we’re not living in the 1940s anymore.”

He encourages his students to introduce their own influences, be it Rihanna or Stravinsky, into the music they create.

“Jazz is a constantly evolving art form, which means that it absorbs and is informed by all other music that is around,” said Vu. “So whatever the musician is checking out, that is going to become a part of jazz.”

His hope for the future is that his students will be pioneers for this evolving form of jazz, especially in Seattle.

“We have to, as a society, start taking notice of what young people are doing and … we need to support it,” he said. “Creativity really spawns everything else — I just want people to start taking notice and help.”

His philosophy includes maintaining relationships with his students after they leave the university. “I expect them to work hard,” he said, “so, once they get out in the world, I feel like I owe it to them, to continue to help them as much as I can.”

His students have recognized this. “He’s embracing all of his students as musicians as they come up,” said Arteaga. “He really just goes to town for his students … and uses the means that he has to successfully fuel our own careers and music community that’s being built here.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Vu struggles to balance life as both a professor and a musician. “It’s hard,” he said of his schedule. “I don’t get a break.” Though he was ready for the transition to academia, he misses his life as a touring musician. “Musicians have to perform. They really need that connection of people reacting to them.” For Vu, that means continuing to perform when he can. He has plans for a European tour during the summer and he frequently participates in Sunday jam sessions at Café Racer.

But, his passion for his students sees him through the difficult days. “They’re the next generation of artists,” he said. “They have something different to say, and that’s interesting to me.” When asked if he could impart one piece of wisdom to them, Vu took a moment to reflect, and said, “Everything’s going to be OK. Enjoy the moment.”

With Vu at the helm, that won’t be hard to do. ♦

Aislyn Greene is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

A Vietnamese version of this story ran in Northwest Vietnamese News/Nguoi Viet Tay Bac.

Greene can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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