by J. Andrew Dickenson
“I love to play music for people.”
Jason Vieaux smiles and takes a swig from the Dos Equis he just ordered. I’m sitting across from him at Sosa Borella, a clandestine restaurant on Greenwich Street that took me two cabs and a five block walk past a gang of bikers revving their Harleys to locate. His eyes sparkle as he talks about the instrument he adores. “I love the guitar — what it does, what it’s capable of doing. And I get excited about it … I mean, all the time!”
Jason leapt into the attention of the guitar public in 1992, when, barely old enough to vote, he took first prize at the GFA Competition in New Orleans. A player already mature beyond his years, his triumph is even more astounding when witnesses describe the unexpected event of the evening: Halfway through his set, to both the performer’s and audience’s stunned surprise, one of Jason’s strings on his guitar suddenly snapped in two.
“Jason … completed his live audition with confidence and astute brilliance, seemingly untainted by the events that had just occurred,” said Leon Bernardyn, a member of the New York Guitar Quartet, who was in the audience when Jason won. “And in a very, very close final round, Jason exhibited a champion’s resolve and was crowned 1st prize winner. I have not witnessed anything like him since.”
Since this stunning commencement of his career, Jason has risen rapidly in the music world. A steady flow of concerts take him across the United States and to international locales such as Spain, France, Japan and Mexico. He performs not only solo, but in a variety of chamber music settings including duos with flutist Gary Schocker and performances with the Shanghai Quartet. He has also been spotted with major orchestras in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Cleveland for concerto appearances and has been heard over the airwaves on NPR’s Performance Today. With six CDs at the record store and a teaching position at his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is head of the Guitar Department, Jason has already accomplished more than most musicians twice his age.
“Basically, I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing the last 5 or 10 years, just more of it.” Jason says, modestly understating his success.
Motown and the Buffalo Guitar Scene
When Jason was five, his mother caught him raiding her record collection, which was packed with classic Motown singers and Beatles albums. She was a secretary and a cautious mother, but as a teenager she could have been found in dance halls that blasted Aretha Franklin, Lovin’ Spoonful and Wilson Pickett. Eager to foster her son’s musical interests, she purchased a three-quarter size guitar for the young entertainer.
“I don’t know if she knew that it was a classical guitar or not,” Jason says. “In fact, she used to tell people that if money wasn’t an issue, she would have bought a piano.”
After playing by ear a few months, Jason began taking lessons with a jazz guitarist who taught him the rudiments of music and solfège. In a household that reverberated with Wilson Picket and Seals and Croft, however, there was no classical music to be heard, and with the exception of his father, who had a brief stint as a trumpet player in a semi-professional drum corps unit (“He just wanted to ride the bus and drink beer with the other guys,” Jason confides), his family wasn’t musically inclined. When he was eight, however, the Buffalo Guitar Quartet came to play at his school, changing his life forever.
“My mom just walked up to one of the quartet members, Jeremy Sparks, and asked if he would come to the house to give private lessons,” Jason laughs.
The Buffalo guitarist quickly became an inspiration to Jason, firmly instilling fundamental elements of music, technique, classical phrasing, and a practice regimen that continues to undergird his study today. When he left his hometown of Buffalo for the big city of Cleveland, he continued his education with John Holmquist, a teacher who complemented his former teacher harmoniously. The chance cooperation between the two instructors molded Jason into a performer with proficient skills, dedication, and love, essential elements that he now instills in his own students.
Practice Makes Perfect
“I feel as if I’m learning things all the time,” Jason says. “I’m learning from the young players, learning from people like Barrueco and Russell, and I’m still learning aspects of performance from Segovia and Bream.”
The fact that Jason continues to discover aspects of himself after all he has accomplished only gives him more credibility as a professional. He never lets himself settle, continuously pushing his boundaries toward higher and higher ground. The knowledge he acquires is fed directly into his students like an I.V. of information, and they benefit from his studious nature, his accomplishments, and even his mistakes.
“You try to take what you know about performing and teach students how to perform. As a teacher, I find I have to really think about things that I can say are consistently working and try to pass that onto students. I spend hours thinking about it, too.”
Jason’s dedication to his students is one of the most encouraging things about him. Even more heartening is the fact that he seems to be one of the few who excel at both performing and teaching. His persistent dedication to his instrument is a beacon of light for students, encouraging them to reach inside themselves and embrace the talent they possess.
“Every student deserves the opportunity and the chance to play great. It’s my responsibility as a teacher to verbalize and articulate information that I know about performance, practicing, interpretation, seating position — whatever. If I don’t, I feel like I’m cheating them.”
Jason acknowledges that there are endless connections between performance and teaching, and admits that he tends to drill proper practice etiquette into his students with overzealous enthusiasm. But the most important thing, he says — whether you’re a student, performer, or teacher — is to listen.
“I keep listening to music to hear what I haven’t heard before,” Jason says, as he begins to reminisce about his teenage idols.
Inspiration and Guilty Pleasures
“Probably by the time I was 11, I was regularly listening to recordings by Parkening, Segovia, Bream, Williams, and Barrueco,” Jason remembers. “I had tons of heroes.”
When his teacher began dubbing cassettes from the library, Jason’s ears were treated to a taste of the greatness he could aspire to. He eagerly indulged on a healthy diet of the masters of guitar as enthusiastically as other boys his age were indulging on candy.
“Vox had a compellation called Spotlight on Guitar, and this was a seminal guitar recording for me. It had Barrueco’s Albeniz performances on it, which were amazing. I would listen to it all the time.”
Although hard to narrow down to favorites, there were two musicians that made a significant impact on Jason during his teenage years: On the stage, it was David Russell, who would visit nearby Rochester on his tours, dazzling the audience, and Jason in particular, with his virtuosity and unparalleled musicality. On record, though, it was Julian Bream who inspired the young talent to push his boundaries.
“I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it when I was fourteen, but if you listen to the great recordings by Bream, they sound like pure commitment. It’s like, this man is completely committed to what he believes in the music. That aspect of being a musician is very important.”
But don’t let all this talk of high-brow classical music fool you — the head of CIM’s guitar department is notorious for his encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop music.
“I’ll own up to it; I have a lot of guilty pleasures!” Jason confesses with a smile. “But I’m no more into rap than I am into any other kind of music. The very best of it, though, defines why that music is even in existence today. That’s the stuff I’m interested in hearing. It’s just something that, believe it or not, I grew up with — and we’re going to see more and more of that as these 10-year-old classical musicians get older.”
When I ask Jason if we can expect to hear some Jay-Z at his New York debut, he takes my question a little too seriously.
“Hell, no,” he quickly answers, nearly choking on a piece of salmon. “Never. The idea of it is hilarious to me. I’ll just listen to it.”
The New York Debut
What we can expect, however, is what looks like a phenomenal concert. Chestnuts of the guitar repertoire will be intertwined with a couple of contemporary compositions, traditional Spanish tunes, Bach, Sor (“A piece I absolutely love!”), and a few of his new Albéniz arrangements that have just been released on his most recent CD.
“I basically try to put together a program that I would like to hear,” Jason says. “I like to hear different music. I mean, don’t get me wrong — Eduardo Fernandez came to CIM and played all four lute suites, and it was awesome. He could have played the whole thing through twice and I wouldn’t have looked at my watch.”
Jason’s deep love for music and the guitar is obvious, and on stage it’s expressed with an authoritative stage presence, bold tone, meticulous technique and elegant phrasing.
“It’s an honor to play in Merkin Hall, and it’s an honor to play for anyone who comes,” Jason says. “It’s an honor and a privilege to play music. I would be flattered if anyone would consider coming to my concert.
“I know the joy that I felt when I listened to Bream, Russell, and Barrueco: the feeling of inspiration and comfort when you go to a performance of a really great musician. If one person thought of me that way in 20 years,” he muses, “that’d make my day.”