Ray Vega

Ray Vega, August 2021

Latin Jazz musician and teacher Ray Vega from South Burlington is the recipient of the 2021 Herb Lockwood Prize in the Arts.

He received the $10,000 prize during a reception on Sept. 8 at the Burlington City Arts Center.

This marks the eighth time the prize has been awarded since 2014.

The Herb Lockwood Prize rewards the pinnacle of arts leadership in Vermont by honoring the state’s most influential artists, recognizing those who produce significant work in the areas of visual arts, music, writing, drama, dance, film and fine woodworking while also having a beneficent influence on the Vermont community.

The recipient of the 2020 prize was dancer and choreographer Hannah Dennison from Chelsea.

Ray Vega was present at the presentation as well as Herb Lockwood’s brother Todd R. Lockwood, BCA Executive Director Doreen Kraft, and Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan who was a lifetime friend to Herb Lockwood, and 2020 Herb Lockwood Prize recipient Hannah Dennison. Members and friends of the Vermont music community also attended.

On June 12, 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, nearly to Church Street.

What inspired this improvised dance? A musician on stage had suggested it about 30 seconds before. And while his band played hot Latin jazz, the crowd shimmied and shook and smiled.

Vega has performed in bands with Ray Berretto, 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 more.

And you don’t play with the likes of the Duke Ellington Orchestra if you don’t have serious chops.

He’s has released several recordings and 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.

Then he found Vermont, first as a featured guest artist at the Flynn Jazz Summer Camp, and 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.

One important criterion for the prize is the extent to which an artist has elevated the art form in Vermont or has created a community of artists working at a higher level.

At the University of Vermont, he has taught more than a decade of students, an army of musicians with a broader 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 university history in any discipline honored with the distinguished title of university scholar.

“His improvisation style is lyrical, spontaneous, 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,” said a press release announcing the prize.

National jazz touring acts at the Flynn often ask for him to sit in — which he’ll gladly do, and happily blow the house down.

Meanwhile Latin dancing has grown in Vermont. The audience has likewise expanded.

“If there is any doubt about whether Vega has elevated this art form widely across Vermont, that conga line is all the evidence anyone could need. The street was full of dancers on that June afternoon, and City Hall Park was packed with toe-tapping listeners,” according to the press release. “But within seconds of when he called through the microphone, ‘How can there not be a conga line 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.”

Herb Lockwood Prize

The prize was founded in 2014 by Todd R. Lockwood and some like-minded friends from the Vermont arts community. The prize has no application process, and artists do not know they are being considered. It honors Herb Lockwood, a figure in the Burlington arts and music scene in the 1980s who gained recognition in a variety of art forms: cartooning, painting, writing, woodworking, sculpture, storytelling and music.

Lockwood died at 27 in a Burlington workplace accident in 1987.

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