UW News

January 12, 2022

Q&A: Cuong Vu looks back at playing trumpet on new record by the late David Bowie

Cuong Vu plays trumpet against a dark background

Cuong Vu is a professor of music at the University of Washington and chair of the jazz studies department. In 2000, he played on the album “Toy” by the late David Bowie, which was released on Jan. 7.

In 2000, the music industry was changing. The model for acquiring music was transitioning from the CD to downloading and file-sharing, paving the way for the streaming era we have today. In this environment, David Bowie’s album “Toy” was recorded and then shelved by his record label, EMI/Virgin. Although the album remained unreleased, Bowie went on to put out five more albums before his death in 2016.

Now, fans of the legendary performer and songwriter can hear “Toy,” which was finally released on Jan. 7. It features Cuong Vu, professor of music and chair of the jazz studies department at the University of Washington.

Vu is a trumpeter who has led groups, toured the world and released eight of his own albums. Along with Bowie, he has played with avant-garde artists like Laurie Anderson and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album as part of the Pat Metheny Group.

Vu met Bowie while living in New York City and playing with Holly Palmer, who was part of Bowie’s backing band. Bowie then invited Vu into the studio for the “Toy” sessions. Vu’s trumpet is featured on several tracks, including the title track, “Toy (Your Turn to Drive).”

UW Notebook talked to Vu over Zoom about Bowie, the music industry and music education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you sum up the experience of working with David Bowie?

CV: I find that creative people like David Bowie are always experimenting, so they’ll call people in and just say “try something.” I was doing really weird stuff that not many players do. The fact that he was into avant-garde, classical and jazz was special, because he really wanted me to try different things.

I have to admit that even though I was starstruck, I was never that into his music. But he was so sincere and honest and real and just a dude. He was extremely educated and extremely knowledgeable about so many different things. He’s not just a musician; he knows about art, he knows about literature, he knows about all these things at a high level. And then to have all that knowledge, success and money and still be a grounded, kind, cool person — I was totally blown away. There was a respect that he was giving. I think that’s how he dealt with people in his life.

Working with him was a lot of fun and it made me feel then like, “This is why I’m putting up with being in New York. I can do this. I can be here.” Seeing the album released now brought that back and made me miss that lifestyle and all the things that were going on. I was still young. I was 29, 30, so everything felt really fresh and energetic. I had the state of mind, “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just going to go.” I’m old now, but I remembered what it was like to just take this journey where you weren’t sure how it was going to end. It was so exciting, and there was so much risk.

“Toy” wasn’t released at the time due to the financial struggles of Bowie’s record company. How have changes in the way people listen to music, and how people make money from music, affected you?

It’s been really hard for the older generation of musicians. Our whole business practice and our whole learning about how to exist in this world and make it has been predicated on putting out records and people buying records. And for jazz, it’s not even about making money from records — it’s about records as business cards that then get you the fans and allow you to tour.

Many of them have not been able to transition, and I would say that I’m one of those people, too, because my mindset is not to get on YouTube and show myself physically. I look at making a CD as if I’m writing a symphony with many movements in it. The CD represents a whole narrative, not just a collection of tunes. Now musicians have to release one track that has to kind of say everything.

On the flip side it’s been great for all these young musicians, because they grew up with this kind of thing, and it’s been shaping how they approach it. Spotify, YouTube and such are ways they can get their music out there. They’re savvy with how to put together videos and put together content. The new generations are figuring out how to make it work for them in this industry.

It totally took out the record companies. I guess the jury’s still out on the psychological aspects of all this social media, but in terms of putting out your music, it’s great.

Has music education evolved to go along with changes in the music industry?

You know, we’re still teaching the old way of doing things. We need to have classes on the business, taught by people who know how to capture eyeballs. Back when I was making a career for myself, I had to network. I had to find all the contacts, call everybody on the phone, mail out my record and so on. Today young people have to do their version of what I did.

What do you teach your students about the experience of being a musician?

That’s a huge part of what I’ve been trying to communicate to students. We set up the Improvised Music Project festival to help them realize what it’s like to be in the real world. We haven’t done it for two or three years now due to the pandemic, but we would bring in real-world, legendary, visionary artists. I set up bands that the artists would be leading, and the students would play with them. They’d spend a week rehearsing — really working hard to get the music figured out — and then the festival would happen and they’d perform with these artists.

It really gave students a window into what it takes, and they came to play. They worked their butts off, and they got to experience what it’s like to work with a real leader and how much work it takes to get good at something and deliver a good performance. I can only replicate that experience for them for two weeks, but in New York it’s like that every day.

Whatever students end up doing over the course of their careers, I think these experiences give them extremely valuable skills. With the arts, it’s like everything is there: science, research into your emotions, delivering a result. So if you can navigate that, you can transfer that into any other part of the career world.