Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Cuong Vu

The influential trumpeter and UW professor breaks down the Seattle jazz scene.

By Seth Sommerfeld May 14, 2013

Seattle has a storied jazz past, from the genre’s infancy in the early 20th century, when Jackson Street was the West Coast’s premier jazz scene, to our nationally ranked high school jazz programs. But trumpeter Cuong Vu may transform the city into a beacon for jazz’s future. The Saigon native grew up in Bellevue before studying music in the Northeast, where he developed a style all his own, one that recalls Baroque classics but can quickly turn into a loop machine–aided rock trip. He toured and recorded with the Pat Metheny Group and others before joining the UW faculty in 2007. He recently became an associate professor and chair of the jazz studies program, where he strives to push Seattle’s musical boundaries without pushing anyone away. On May 16, Vu will play and discuss his music at Henry Art Gallery as part of UW’s Music of Today series.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Vu about the essential role of experimentation, the need for a jazzy Neumos, and Nirvana.

What excites you right now about the jazz scene?

The youngsters, starting with the high school kids. They’re just so much more advanced now than I remember when I was in high school. The high school programs here, the ones that win all those contests, are really strong and the parents are so supportive. They put money into it and they have good teachers.  Then they kind of feed into the college level. A lot of the musicians that are out now went through the program at UW—the one that when I came, I kind of put a whole different perspective on things. They’ve absorbed that kind of searching for innovation, pushing music forward, not settling for status quo, and really trying to find their own voice and uniqueness in music.

What is the jazz scene missing right now?

I think that it all revolves around a center. It doesn’t have to be a big place, but it should be big enough—kind of like Neumos on Capitol Hill. We need one of those types of spaces for this kind of music that’s not easily defined or categorized, that comes out of improvisation, comes out of jazz, but also comes out of classical music as well. Basically a center where it’s a performance with rooms where we can have workshops for younger students or rehearsal spaces. And then, of course, all of this stuff revolves around hanging out, so there’s gotta be some kind of a bar/food area. That kind of funding, it doesn’t require a buttload of money. For somebody who’s really wealthy like Paul Allen, that’s pocket change. These kids have to somehow figure out on their end how to make this happen.

Are there any up-and-coming local acts we should check out?

There’s a group led by a singer-songwriter named Katie Jacobson called Honey Noble, and her music is fantastic. There’s also Heatwarmer led by Luke Bergman; he writes really eclectic music and they’re extremely good. There’s a group called Insistent Caterpillars, as well as Chemical Clock, and both groups are led by a really creative young pianist named Cameron Sharif. There are some youngsters coming out with their own perspective and sound.

If you weren’t a musician, what other line of work might you have pursued?

I guess I was into making stuff, carpentry. I still watch those home improvement shows and I’m totally into it.

How has Seattle influenced your music?

In the late '80s to early '90s, there was a really energetic scene of jazz musicians. It just seemed like they were playing all the time and things were really vibrant. There were many more clubs and there were festivals featuring locals. That was inspiring. But my main influences came when I went off to college. I’m not sure I can say that Seattle had a big impact, except for until that whole grunge scene came and Nirvana became really big. I put off listening to them for a long time because I never get into hype, but then once I did listen to their music, I was completely in. Completely in. Their sound and their energy really affected how I thought about music.

Why do you think experimentation and improvisation are so vital to the music you make?

I think experimentation is the only way to push any type of situation forward. You can sit there and try and analyze the past and keep harping on what’s been done and refine it more, and more, and more, but there’s not gonna be much movement. ... For me, the music doesn’t have to be experimental; the artist doesn’t have to be experimental to be legit. I just want everything to be honest to the artistic vision and maybe less about trying to make a product that sells. It’s not like, ‘Oh my god, if you’re not avant-garde or you’re not doing the weirdest shit possible, then you’re worthless.’ It’s about just being free and trying things out to see where you can go.

Music of Today with Cuong Vu
May 16 at 7, Henry Art Gallery, free

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