Welcome to Cuong Vu’s Jazz World

Regardless of how many awards the trumpeter has won, he feels most successful when his music makes an impact on listeners.

Cuong Vu is a Vietnamese American jazz trumpeter who received two Grammy awards for Best Contemporary Jazz Album as a member of the Pat Metheny Group in 2003 and 2006. He has also played with many other world famous artists over the years, including Laurie Anderson and David Bowie. Recognized as one of the top 50 Jazz Artists in an article called “The New Masters” from the British magazine Classic CD, he was named Best International Jazz Artist by the Italian Jazz Critics’ Society in 2006.

Vu has released eight recordings as a leader, artistic director and producer. Most of them are his original compositions and conceptual approach. They received rave reviews from notable publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, BBC Music Magazine, and JazzTimes. His most recent, “Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny,” won Europe’s Echo Jazz 2017 Award for International Instrumentalist.

Vu was born in Saigon in 1969 and immigrated to the United States with his extended family in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam war when he was five years old. Raised in a musical family, he started playing trumpet when he was 11 years old. Vu went on to study music at the New England Conservatory in Boston and begin his career in New York City. He is currently a professor and the chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Washington.

In this interview, Vu gives us a glimpse into his creative process and shares advice for aspiring musicians.

What is your life slogan and/or tagline?

I’ve never thought of living by a slogan. But looking back for a common theme, I’d say I try to work rigorously at what’s important to me but always find ways to make it fun and engaging. Otherwise, I’ll experience burnout and end up hating the work which can only lead to giving up on it. 

Why did you choose jazz?

I was exposed to jazz fusion by artists such as Weather Report, Mike Brecker (along with his co-led band Steps Ahead), Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, and David Sanborn. They were all rooted in Bebop but used stylistic tendencies and elements of rock/funk music. The combination of improvisation within the harmonic language of jazz with the heavy energy of rock/funk music gave me everything that I wanted to hear and be obsessed with in music as a teenager. 

How did your career develop?

It’s a process where one thing (organically) leads to another. First it was the decision to study music on the higher education level and at a conservatory. My mentors and peers there influenced me by exposing and opening my mind up to many kinds of music that I’d never heard before. There, I was exposed to different ways of thinking, concepts and approaches. While it was sometimes overwhelming, the huge palette that I was devouring made it easier to come into my own way of processing and generating my own music. And that’s what I think every true artist wants, whether it’s in visual arts, literature or dance.

Once I finished my studies at the conservatory and moved to New York, established musicians of the older and wiser generations were able to hear my distinctly recognizable sound and way of interfacing with music. Consequently, I was hired and given a more visible platform to be heard. One thing led to another and soon I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunities that helped further build a performing career such as recording and touring as a leader with my own groups.

Do you have your own style when playing trumpet?

I don’t recall ever being specifically labelled outside of the word “jazz,” but additional adjectives to describe it could be edgy, forward-thinking, panoramic and uncompromising.  People who relate to “substyles” such as early jazz (Louis Armstrong), Bebop (Charlie Parker), classic jazz (Miles’ 50’s period), or smooth jazz will be very disappointed (and maybe even angry) if they expect to hear that when they hear my stuff.

In describing my music to interviewers or concert promoters, I would say that it’s rooted in jazz but engaged with everything that I love in music such as beautiful melodies staged with the visceral power and heaviness of rock, musical soundscapes influenced by the Romantic classical period, and the energy and spirit of the avant-garde in both free jazz and contemporary classical music.

Besides playing trumpet, you also teach Jazz studies at the University of Washington. How do you balance your passion, work and family?

Getting the position as professor of music at the University of Washington was the pivot point of my wish to be on the road less and working towards having some security. I was 34 and felt that I was on the trajectory of getting older and needing that security, as well as the concern for building my retirement fund. So, naturally, the focus away from performance started then. Once my daughter (now 10) came into our lives a few years later, both teaching and performing took somewhat of a back seat, in order for me to be the best father that I could be.

In the last three years as she became more independent, I’ve ramped up my practice and research of music and am starting to place the focus back on performance within the context and timeframe of my teaching priorities. But still, making time for my wife and daughter is the most important thing for me. That trumps music whenever they need my attention, time, and dedication . It’s not really that hard if I follow my feelings on what is most important in the moment.

How do you raise your daughter? Do you inspire her to be a musician?

I think that my daughter is inspired by whatever she’s attracted to. And since both of her parents are serious musicians (my wife is a classical concert pianist) who are interested in other art forms, my daughter has been exposed to, and is very much into, art and music. She used to do ballet (she loves to go to the ballet.) She currently plays the cello and piano. She is always singing and just being an overall ham. She loves to ham it up and perform and come up with improvised “skits” with lots of humour which can sometimes be very artistically abstract.  She’s very creative and has a lot of ingenuity, but we don’t push her to do things unless she wants to. We just keep her on task to be disciplined about doing whatever she chooses to do. 

Overall, we are raising her to be responsible, aware, and dedicated to working diligently on whatever she’s interested in, and learning for the sake of learning, while trying to find the fun in all of it. We support and encourage whatever creative aspirations she has.

You moved to America when you were a child. What do you think about Vietnamese culture? Does Vietnamese culture impact your lifestyle?

Like most kids, I don’t think that we go through our childhood thinking about our immediate home culture. We do notice differences between our home culture and the outside world. When I look at it that way, I do see some differences that I value and how it comes from Vietnamese culture. These values include a compulsory respect and honour given towards our elders and politeness towards those around us, even or especially towards strangers. Along with these, certain traditions of honouring our immediate ancestors and how we commune over food (AMAZING FOOD) give me a window into Vietnamese culture. Having visited Vietnam a couple of times, I see differences between ex-pats and homeland Vietnamese but there is a tangible extension. 

Let’s talk about your awards and honours. What is your proudest achievement?

I feel most successful when listeners (the ones whom I can tell have listened deeply) let me know that my music had a deep impact on them. Nothing beats that.

What is your advice to young musicians who aspire to follow your path?

There are a few crucial points to stick to that will allow you to be as great as you want to be at anything. For music, are you obsessed with unlocking the mysteries behind it? If yes, then you’re 90 per cent there. The other two are easy. Don’t look at [practice] as conquering impossible heights. Instead, create positive daily habits that help your search for answers, understanding and skills attainment. They tend to be little habits that build the bigger, meaningful processes towards your goals. These are moving goal posts in accordance with your continuous growth.

The secret ingredient in all of this is to make every context of practice, research, and performance fun. There are things that you will have to do to build your foundation that are overly repetitive or taxing on your ability to focus. If you can make it fun, you will stay in the “zone,” or the state of “flow” and the hours fly by as you are fully engaged. Spend more time figuring out how to make every task, every exercise, every practice session fun rather than wasting time forcing yourself to do things that you have no passion for.

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