JazzReview.com: I read somewhere that you were a frustrated saxophone player.
Ray Vega : I’m not a frustrated saxophone player anymore. But, I do listen to a lot of saxophone players that have influence me in a big way: Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, people like Wayne Shorter and of course . . . Coltrane . . Bird . . . a lot of saxophone players. When I first saw the Machito Orchestra in summer 1973, I saw the great Marion Bowser playing sax. I thought that it was so majestic the way he played.
JazzReview.com: How old were you then?
Ray Vega : I was going from the sixth grade to the seventh grade . . . this is my thirtieth year of studying trumpet.
JazzReview.com: You were exposed to jazz early on?
Ray Vega : I was exposed to jazz and to Latin music early on. But, the Latin music was always played in the house and my brother, Ralph, was a big jazz fiend. He started bringing a lot of stuff into the house. The stuff he brought was more big band oriented.
JazzReview.com: You also had exposure to the Latin music, which you combine into what you now call Latin Bop.
Ray Vega : I take the sounds of the rhythmical elements that I grew up playing. In New York, we called it Salsa. It’s Afro-Carribbean rhythms, then add the harmonic element of the American music, which is jazz.
JazzReview.com: Your harmonies are completely different. It took me listening to your CD twice, before I could figure out the harmony.
Ray Vega : The way I look at it, my music is jazz that has a Latin influence rhythmically. But as far as harmonically, the way it is put together, it is strictly from an American jazz perspective. We have fun with it.
JazzReview.com: It’s completely wicked and different.
Ray Vega : We have fun with it . . . Hopefully, we’ll get more people turned on to this music. We’re not a commercial dance band. If we were doing that, the availability of work would be a lot more. I’ve chosen not to do a commercial dance band, but people can dance at the gig . . . but, that’s not my main goal. My main goal is to play some creative music. It just happens to have these great, Latin, danceable rhythms. If people want to dance to it . . . that is cool, too.
JazzReview.com: What is important to you?
Ray Vega : The most important thing in music is that the artist remains true to themselves - that it’s got some kind of passion, and that they are really are trying to say something. They are putting their art first. That to me is important. That to me is super important.
JazzReview.com: Do you live passionately?
Ray Vega : You have to . . . if you have no passion as an artist, there is nothing that is going to drive you forward. You have to have passion.
JazzReview.com: What are the three most important things in your life?
Ray Vega : My family, my relationship with God . . . (pause) . . . and, the three most important things? Yeah, and my art.
JazzReview.com: It is interesting that you put art third and named your family first. That is what impressed me the most about you.
Ray Vega : We have three kids. I’ve been married 20 years now. If you come to my house, you wouldn’t know a jazz trumpeter lives there. Music definitely does not come first. Then, you become self-absorbed. What are you going to write about?
JazzReview.com: Where do you find your energy?
Ray Vega : What drives me is the beauty of what is out there. And really an important thing to me is the legacy that has been placed before me by the masters of this music, and my responsibility to them. Many of them were my good friends. I feel a responsibility to them. There is a huge responsibility to make the music real and to keep it for real, and to always put that first. That’s my driving force. You have to straighten up and fly right and really focus. I tell my students, "Please don’t strive for perfection, that’s futile. But, please strive for excellence . . .excellence works. Excellence is obtainable."
JazzReview.com: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Ray Vega : In five years? At the rate that we’re going right now, I’m going to be more involved in education, which is something I thoroughly love. I see myself doing a lot more things that are involved in education. I see myself getting more involved in composition.
I want to be able to keep my band working a little more than usual . . . I want my children to respect me that I’m pursuing my art, not pursuing the easiest way to make money.
JazzReview.com: Do you have a degree in music?
Ray Vega : My degree in music was given to me at UCLA.
Ray Vega : The University of the Corner of Lexington Avenue! (Laughing) Yes, that was my degree in music. I went to college for two years at the Long Island University . . . I was at the Brooklyn Center. I was there on a double scholarship for classical and for jazz. I left to pursue work and to get out playing.
My finishing schools were Mongo Santamaria . . . all the great salsa bands. That was the beginning of my undergraduate studies. For me, the great salsa bands were great undergraduate studies. Then, I went into the Master’s program with Mungo Santamaria, Ray Barretto and Mario Bauza. The Ph.D. came with Tito Puente. He took us all to school every night. At 77 years old, which is how old he was when he passed away, he still delivered the goods every night, 175%. Even the last night he ever played music, he went out there and he gave his heart to the music.
JazzReview.com: That’s what you want to be doing when you’re 77?
Ray Vega : What do I want to do when I’m 77? If I could live my life vicariously, I’d love to be Clark Terry. He’s a wonderful trumpeter from St. Louis . . . Clark is well in his 80’s creating wonderful music, traveling around the world and if I could be doing that, it would be great. I don’t believe in retirement.
JazzReview.com: Tell me about the new album just released under the Palmetto Records label, "Squeeze, Squeeze."
Ray Vega : The new CD is a celebration of people, places and things that are dear to me. Two tunes are dedicated to two of my sons. One tune is Squeeze, Squeeze. [It] is for Aaron. Sky is for my four-year-old son, Tommy.
Smile, You’re in Beruit is about my wonderful trip to Beruit, Lebanon in 2002. I had a ball with that. I enjoy people and these wonderful places and I just figured I’d let it [the album] be that. I always tell people, "Listen, my record is called Squeeze, Squeeze and no it doesn’t have a picture of Janet Jackson on the cover."
JazzReview.com: No malfunctions, right? (Laughing)
Ray Vega : Yeah, that’s right. (Laughing) It is all good. They [the fans] say, "Who’s those hands on the cover?" I say, "Well, that’s my hand with my son . . ."
It’s [the album] hardcore Latin jazz. It’s Latin jazz with energy . . . straight up in your face. I’m coming from a different kind of place.
JazzReview.com: Very few CDs make it to my car and it’s in my car.
Ray Vega : Cool. Right on. Well, that’s an honor. Thank you. I say quite honestly [that] I love reaching jazz musicians and people that listen to jazz. But to me, the biggest compliment is when people who don’t listen to me come back and go, "You know, I’m digging that record."
JazzReview.com: The folks certainly enjoyed you in St. Louis.
Ray Vega : It was nothing but a pure love fest from the minute we got there. We had a ball.
JazzReview.com: Thank you for taking the time to join us here at JazzReview, as well.