Trumpeter Cuong Vu, who will be presented a University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award on June 10, has by all accounts vitalized the school's jazz program with his fresh outlook and demanding teaching style.
Several flights underground in the bunkerlike rehearsal room of the Music Building at the University of Washington, nine students in the modern-jazz-ensemble class spent most of the spring practicing an 11-movement composition they wrote to musically convey the birth of the universe.
The students, who are taught by Cuong Vu, an assistant professor of jazz studies, performed the ambitious, maybe-audacious piece titled “Expansion” last week at Meany Hall as a single, uninterrupted song that lasted the better part of an hour. As a school jazz performance, it was a demonstration of what might be called The Vu Effect.
Vu, who will be presented a University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award on Thursday, has by all accounts vitalized the school’s jazz program with his fresh outlook and demanding teaching style.
“Cuong has this forward-thinking, cutting-edge view of jazz,” said pianist and colleague Marc Seales, a UW professor of jazz studies. “We were still kind of mainstream and today. He added breadth to the program. He’s brought this diverse side that counters my side of being in the middle. I’m 55 years old. [Vu is 40.] The major impact of music in my life was in the ’70s. That was more than 30 years ago.”
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Since being hired three years ago, Vu has beefed up the instruction, adding classes in the fundamentals of improvisation and composition. He insisted students become more proficient on their instruments and challenged their notions of what jazz music can and should be. He also has used his industry connections to bring in prominent musicians like Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell to address his students. (Vu, a trumpeter, won a Grammy Award for his work with the Pat Metheny Group.)
“He does not accept uninspired playing,” said saxophonist Ivan Arteaga, a senior who helped compose “Expansion.”
Once focused on traditional, big-band and small-combo performance, the jazz-studies program has become more modern, with an emphasis on original concepts.
Which is not to say the UW made no impact on the local jazz scene before Vu arrived. The jazz program has been “quietly putting people out there,” Seales said, musicians like Mark Taylor, Dave and Tom Marriott, Gary Fukushima, Steve Korn, Aaron Parks and, more recently, Evan Flory-Barnes and Neil Welch. What Vu has done is create a sense of excitement and glamour around a program that had long been static.
“The energy of the students was pretty passive when I got here,” Vu said as he watched a rehearsal. “I spent a lot of energy motivating them, mostly by being mad and preaching and instilling a lot of fear. Now I can spend time working on things other than motivation.”
Two years ago, his students formed a registered student organization called the Improvised Music Project, from which came a regular Sunday-night jam session at Cafe Racer on Roosevelt Way. The Racer Sessions, as they are called, are always different, always crowded and attract a distinctly young, bohemian crowd, punctuating if not rewriting the jazz scene in Seattle.
The jazz-studies program celebrated its 20th anniversary this spring by hosting “A Week of Jazz” that included a jazz festival put on by the Improvised Music Project.
“Cuong has just brought an element to our jazz-studies department that was never there,” said Michael Brockman, a jazz saxophonist and professor in the UW’s School of Music. “He is very focused on the art of being a performer. It rubs off. The students feel it when he’s teaching them. They pick up that excitement.”
The university’s Distinguished Teaching Award is given annually to faculty members across all departments based on nominations by students and colleagues. Vu and six others will be honored during the UW commencement June 12.
Vu was born in Saigon and immigrated to the U.S. at age 6 when the city fell to the North Vietnamese. He started playing trumpet at age 11. After Vu graduated from Bellevue High School in 1988 — when the UW did not yet have a separate jazz-studies program — he attended the New England Conservatory of Music, then moved to New York, where he made his name working with musical heavyweights as varied as Metheny and David Bowie.
Vu moved back to take the UW job, which he said also presented him a chance for a more stable financial life. He still performs regularly, flying to England for a weekend music festival last month, for instance.
By the standards of a music conservatory, the UW School of Music is small, with about 35 full-time faculty and about 300 students. (By comparison, the Manhattan School of Music has 275 faculty and 800 students). The UW is not trying to be Julliard or the New England Conservatory — it can be more aptly compared with the small but innovative Cornish College of the Arts — but it hopes to compete with more famous schools for local talent, a goal Vu is helping achieve.
Roosevelt High School trombonist Andy Clausen, one of the most talented high-school jazz musicians in the region, nearly chose to attend the UW over Julliard, calling it a “really, really tough choice.” He was very close to staying here for school, he said, drawn by the passion and energy Vu has brought to the program.
“The school is going to focus on the music of now, and the music of our place,” said Richard Karpen, who was named to head the School of Music last year. “Our region has an amazing jazz profile in the high schools, but we were not taking advantage of it. It’s an opportunity we’ve missed.”
Hugo Kugiya: firstname.lastname@example.org