Ray Vega and the Art of Listening
On a Wednesday evening in late March, the lobby of Hotel Vermont is bustling. The fireside benches are full, so too the seats along the tall windows; beyond those windows, though now obscured by night, the cool waters of Lake Champlain lap at the shore. Soon, every seat in the place is taken, and there are more than a handful of folks standing at the sides of the room, tapping their toes and bobbing their heads as the Ray Vega Quintet fills the space with a lively, tempo-changing tune, the notes from Vega’s trumpet reverberating off the walls and ceiling.
Earlier in the evening, I’d watched as the band—Vega on his horn, James Harvey on the keys, Robinson Morse on the upright bass, and Geza Carr on drums—set up and the audience began to assemble, more than a few of whom approached Vega for a handshake or a hug, or to exchange a few words. The tight-knit relationship between Vega and his audience was clear, existing in part because Vega is a fixture at Hotel Vermont and in the Burlington music scene—his run at the hotel is entering its sixth year, and he holds a position as senior lecturer at the University of Vermont. But it also exists because of Vega’s congeniality and the joyful energy he brings to his craft, which has carried him through performances with jazz greats such as Tito Puente and locally as a featured soloist with the Burlington Chamber Orchestra.
It’s been a long and winding road for the New York City–born 57-year-old, who’s been blowing on his trumpet since middle school and working as a full-time musician since 1988. “My parents were from Puerto Rico, and there was a lot of great music in our house. In that era I grew up in—the ’60s and ’70s—the radio was gold, and in a city like New York, you’re exposed to so much great music.” Vega immersed himself in the diversity, honing his chops in R&B, salsa, jazz, and rock bands.
Being raised in this era also instilled in Vega an appreciation for what he considers a vanishing art: Not just playing, but listening to music. “When I was growing up, we listened to the radio or to records on a stereo system,” explains Vega. “There’s really no such thing as a stereo anymore; everyone’s listening alone with ear buds. In the old days, people would put on a record and sit down in front of a killer stereo as a community. We’d ponder the sequence of the songs and why the artist arranged the album that way. I tell my students ‘please don’t shuffle. Listen to the story they’re telling you.’ That’s the big challenge of the new generation: How they listen to music.”
Of course, the digitized, internet-based era of music isn’t all bad, acknowledges Vega. “This is a really interesting time for music. There’s a lot of it, and the access is easy. Everyone has an opportunity to get their music out there. We just need to get people to really listen.”
That challenge—getting people to really listen—is part of what draws Vega to Hotel Vermont again and again. “When we started, about ten percent of the crowd was listening, and the other ninety was screaming at the top of their lungs. Now, we’ve got ninety percent listing and ten percent talking. In five years, we’ve been able to create a scene there. I’m particular about where I play; I want the talent and the space to support one another. That’s what we’ve been able to do, and that’s why we love to keep going back over and over.”
As I sat and listened on that late March evening, I could see exactly what Vega meant. The crowd was quiet and many of those gathered had their eyes closed, intent on the music, interrupting only to applaud in appreciation of the solos. Chatter was limited to the brief spaces between songs, and it seemed to me as if Vega had done something remarkable: He’d recaptured the sense of communal appreciation around music that had made such a profound impression on his younger self.
I remembered something he’d told me about his goals as a professor: “What I hope happens at the end of my class is that at least one student tells me they’re listening differently, they’ve slowed down, and are paying attention to detail. That’s what I want to hear most.” Maybe those gathered in the Hotel Vermont lobby weren’t formal students, and maybe Vega wasn’t attending to them in the role of professor. But there was little doubt in my mind that knowledge and experience were being transmitted through the music, and that everyone in the room was learning to listen in new and different ways.