On the afternoon of June 12th this year, at the peak of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, a conga line formed on Main Street. Hundreds of people joined in, dancing as they marched, in what was probably the longest conga line in Vermont history. At one point it stretched from St. Paul Street past the Flynn Theater, and nearly to Church Street.
What inspired this conga line? A musician on stage had suggested it to the audience only moments before. When his band began pumping out hot Latin jazz, the crowd knew exactly what to do.
That is the power of this year’s Herb Lockwood Prize winner. He has performed in the bands of such greats as Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Chico O’Farrill and the legendary Tito Puente. His other bandmates over the years have included such luminaries as Joe Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme, Paquito D’Rivera, Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri, and many many more. This guy – and his horns – get around. And you don’t play with the likes of the Duke Ellington Orchestra if you don’t have some serious chops.
With a growing reputation for fresh takes on Latin Jazz, he has released two recordings on the Concord Picante label (one of which earned four stars in Downbeat Magazine) and two more recordings on the Origin label – hitting Number 1 on the Jazzweek radio charts.
He has also taught master classes at Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School of Music, the New School, the universities of North Carolina and Notre Dame, as well as conservatories.
And then something happened. He found Vermont. First, he was a featured guest artist at the Flynn Jazz Summer Camp, where kids learned the complicated rhythms of Latin jazz. Then the University of Vermont offered him a position as senior lecturer. The man from the South Bronx moved north, bringing with him a lifetime’s experience in the joys and improvisations of salsa jazz.
One criterion for the Herb Lockwood Prize is excellence in the person’s field of art. But another important factor is the extent to which this person has elevated the art form in Vermont or has created a community of artists working at a higher level.
This second criterion is where this year’s winner truly shines. At UVM he has taught more than a decade of students, an army of musicians with a broad exposure to Latin rhythms and aesthetics. He teaches jazz history, directs three different jazz groups, and runs the jazz trumpet studio. He has also formed bands with other faculty, further extending his influence and the community’s appreciation for the jazz talent working quietly up the hill. In fact, he is the only artist in UVM’s history in any discipline honored with the distinguished title of University Scholar.
He sits in with local bands, he advises and mentors local musicians, and he entertains local audiences. As host of the weekly Friday Night Jazz program on Vermont Public Radio, he has broadened the tastes of listeners across the region.
His improvisation style is lyrical, spontaneous, and expressive, his tone as clear as water, his solos colored by quick shapes and precise notes, usually played with his eyebrows high – like he is in a state of perpetual surprise. The music always swings. National touring acts arrive at the Flynn and often ask for him to sit in—which he’ll gladly do, and happily blow the house down—but then he’s off the stage and not seeking any extra limelight. In fact, he often deflects applause after a particularly hot solo by pointing to whomever should solo next.
If there is any doubt about whether he has elevated this art form widely across Vermont, that conga line is all the evidence anyone could need. While the street was full of dancers on that June afternoon, and City Hall Park was packed with toe-tapping listeners, within seconds of when he called through the microphone, “How can there not be a conga line out here today?” literally hundreds of people were threading through the crowd, hands on the hips of the stranger in front of them, and every single person in that line was smiling.
This musician is a Vermont treasure, a true original, a unique artist who has created a community of players and audiences, all accomplished with humility and joy. Please join us in congratulating the man who brought salsa to Vermont, and put a shimmy in our step, the winner of the 2021 Herb Lockwood Prize, Mr. Ray Vega.