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Cuong Vu: Agogic Logic

By Published: August 8, 2011
AAJ: You took up a role as Assistant Professor of Jazz at Washington University, Seattle; what was the jazz program like when you first arrived and how has it developed in the four or five years since you've been there?

CV: It's a small, flexible and nimble program with between thirty to forty students each year and two full time professors in the jazz division supported by adjunct instructors. Before I got there, it was very conservative. There are always exceptions, but generally speaking, I don't think that most people outside of big metropolitan areas really strive for newness in their music. There are extremely few artists who shoot for innovation or dare to engage in music that's not easily accessible. In Seattle that was no different for the most part. Pretty much the only thing they were doing at the school was mainstream and straight-ahead.

Since I've been there, the kids have really gravitated to what I've brought to the table and the kind of music I want them to check out. They've especially responded to my encouragement to try and come up with their own music using their own language based on the kind of music they grew up on that moved them, even though they are technically majoring specifically in jazz or classical music. They just exploded with all this energy and excitement and out of that there's a community of young jazz musicians who are really pushing the jazz scene here and doing some really, really great work. The scene is still small compared to NY, but pound per pound it's as creative and concentrated.

Now we have a new Director of the School of Music, Richard Karpen, who is an amazing electro-acoustic contemporary composer and a fantastic improviser. He's completely supportive of the jazz program. He really wants to see us expand, so he's doing everything to support the growth of the program. We share a vision in morphing certain aspects of the Composition Division, the University Of Washington's Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media—which is the leading program of its kind in the world—and the Jazz Division into a whole new program with a new approach to music education. We aim to produce a new generation of musicians that are both serious composers and improvisers/performers, unlike what we've seen so far. Not that the crux of this idea is new, but there hasn't been a program fully capable of taking on that challenge. He [Karpen] and I believe that we can do this at the University of Washington.

AAJ: That all sounds extremely exciting. How do you see your role there; is it technical coaching, or is it more developing the student's attitude and approach to making music?

CV: It's everything. I want them to know the fundamentals and have skills, and know the history of jazz and how to address jazz in that context. But even if they ultimately decide that it isn't within their aesthetic to pursue innovation, it's crucial to me that they spend this time in their lives examining the innovations of the past and the innovators of the present and understand the importance of nurturing the music, and assisting in its continuing progress and evolution instead of resting on the successes of what's been done. Or should I emphasize, overdone? It's important to me, for instance, that they are looking towards the contemporary composers and contemporary music and music of all different cultures. And popular music, the music of our times, and try to make sense of it all and come up with their own stuff. So basically, I challenge them and I challenge their aesthetics. A lot of technical information that is concerned with fundamental skills is exchanged too; how to work on time, how to work on your ears in the most efficient but thorough way, examining the kind of music one wants to produce and what it's going to take to be a great musician and artist.

AAJ: How much of a challenge was it for you to go from an improvising, experimental musician's life in New York to a Professorship in Seattle teaching theory and discipline?

CV: It wasn't hard. It was pretty cool because Marc Seales, the Jazz Chair at the University of Washington, was really supportive and let me do whatever I wanted. I just dived in, head first, went with my intuition based on my experiences and just went for it full force. It's been one big experiment. Like the majority of antiquated college music programs, the music program was very dominated by concert band music and orchestral music and there wasn't really much support for jazz, but nobody stood in my way. The Jazz Chair told me to do whatever I thought would work. What made it work were the students being completely into it right away. Their energy really carried me and they pushed each other. The amount of growth that happened in the first couple of years was incredible, how much they expanded their knowledge, how open and hungry they were to newer ideas and how much they improved, which in turn positively affected the program itself. At this point it's become a thing that almost completely fuels itself. I still have to push and I still have to guide but we've created this environment where they are all supportive but also fiercely challenging each other. There's no mean-spirited competition; it's very competitive but at the same time it's very supportive.

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