Vermont Jazz Center honored its longtime artistic/executive director Eugene Uman and Elsa Borrero, a graphic designer, lighting technician, and photographer, for the couple’s work in building a vibrant jazz scene in southern Vermont.
Jeffrey Starratt
Vermont Jazz Center honored its longtime artistic/executive director Eugene Uman and Elsa Borrero, a graphic designer, lighting technician, and photographer, for the couple’s work in building a vibrant jazz scene in southern Vermont.

Helping jazz flourish - in Vermont and beyond

Eugene Uman and Elsa Borrero earn praise for their quarter century of leadership at the Vermont Jazz Center

BRATTLEBORO — A major player on Vermont's lively arts scene, the Vermont Jazz Center (VJC) has a story that goes back some 50 years.

But the driving force for its excellence, inclusivity, and education for half those years has been Eugene Uman, its artistic and executive director, and Elsa Borrero, graphic designer, lighting technician, and photographer.

At a recent private gathering of friends and family honoring the two at the VJC's headquarters at the Cotton Mill, state Reps. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, and Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, presented Uman and Borrero with a House concurrent resolution - a document to honor not only the couple's nurturing of a world-class jazz hub but also the learning community they created over the past 25 years.

Citing “their quarter century of leadership at the Vermont Jazz Center” and “their individual artistic and educational contributions,” the document outlines the couple's history with the nonprofit.

“In 1997, jazz pianist Uman assumed the directorship of the VJC [...] and Borrero became a leader at the institution,” the resolution reads. Lawmakers praised the couple for being “dedicated to creating, promoting, and preserving jazz for a broad constituency of artists, students, and the public.”

The resolution notes that “the educational offerings of the VJC range from youth ensembles to choruses to an in-house big band to a summer jazz workshop” and that “stellar performances are held in a dedicated 250-seat hall, and a library and archives offer informative resources.”

Uman has “produced over 320 VJC concerts; has written and arranged over 150 jazz compositions” and, “as an educator, has taught at the VJC, the Governor's Institute on the Arts, and Amherst College,” as well as at Marlboro College and Greenfield Community College.

He also initiated a jazz studies program at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia, and he was “honored to be named a MacDowell Fellow” at the arts residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Beyond the Legislative proclamation's accolades, Uman, originally from Irvington, New York, served as a fellow in composition not only at MacDowell but also at the Marble House Project, an artists' residency program in Dorset. In 2023, he garnered the Vermont Arts Council's Ellen McCulloch-Lovell Arts Education Award.

The resolution honors “the multi-talented Elsa Borrero,” for managing “complex logistics” as well as designing marketing materials and serving on the Center's Board. An educator herself, she “has taught courses on Latin culture, designed elementary school Spanish curriculum components, and was a leader and innovator in pedagogic education in Colombia. Her mixed-media artwork is on permanent display at museums in the United States and Colombia.”

“It was an honor to present Elsa and Eugene with a joint resolution,” Coffey said, calling them “intrinsic to our creative community.”

“Through their vision and leadership, they have not only contributed to the creative economy, they have brought important cultural diversity, artistic excellence, and vitality to our community.”

From visual artist to teacher

Borrero, from Colombia, is an integrative performing artist whose life in the arts has involved teaching movement to a range of ages and in myriad settings.

Weaving mindful “corporeal expression” - interpretive and improvisational dance - with visual art, especially photography, she has worked with various arts organizations in Colombia, where she mounted her first photography exhibit while still in college and eventually opened a studio for integrated multimedia work in Medellín.

In 1988, Borrero recalls, “Colombia was in a lot of turmoil.”

Having lived in New York City at age 7, when her father was a visiting doctor at New York Hospital, she knew all along she'd go back as an adult to that city she calls “the capital of the world.”

Drawn to the work of the late choreographer/dance innovator Alwin Nikolais, whose work with light, color, textiles, and geometric shapes paralleled her own explorations, she moved to New York to study with Nikolais while also developing her photography chops.

In more recent years, Borrero received her master's degree in teaching from the School for International Training. She has taught at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School and currently teaches Spanish at Vernon Elementary School.

From forestry to music

After earning a degree in forest science in 1982 from University of New Hampshire, Uman worked for 10 years as a forester in New Hampshire and Vermont. A lifelong musician, he was inevitably active then in the regional music scene.

“I did gigs in Burlington [...] played at the jazz festival, started a great band, Dr. Burma. I was playing a lot,” he said.

In the summer of 1987, he was running a jam session at Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction when renowned trumpet/coronet player and teacher Howard Brofsky walked in with his wife, Robin Westen.

Teaching then at the summer workshop run by jazz great Attila Zoller in southern Vermont, Brofsky was looking for “opportunities to play, for things to do musically in Vermont.”

Soon, Uman added, “we became very good friends; he'd come to my gigs, sit in to play with Dr. Burma.” Eventually, he would encourage Uman to head to Queens College in New York, where he taught.

“You don't need to audition,” Uman recalls Brofsky saying.

Recipient of a Eubie Blake Scholarship, Uman left his Vermont forestry practice to earn a master's degree in jazz performance in Brofsky's program, where the teachers, Uman recalls, were topnotch. He joined Brofsky's band and taught at Third Street Music School.

“Then there was Elsa,” Uman said. “We had a good life.”

Borrero and Uman met when they lived across the hall from each other in an 11th Street tenement in Manhattan's East Village.

“We would work 'til two, three in the morning,” Borrero recalled. Given the building's U-shaped configuration, “we could see into each other's apartments. He would be playing piano, and I would be working with my little light box and dance.”

Beginning gingerly with a passing nod or hello, the two gradually became a couple and married in 1993. They agreed that they'd spend three years in Colombia, then three in Vermont, to determine where to settle to raise a family.

For those years in Colombia - where their son, Niko, was born in 1994, to be followed by a sister, Gaia, in 1996 - Borrero taught, produced, and designed while Uman developed curriculum and taught at the University while contributing invaluably to the spread of jazz in the country.

When they arrived, three jazz groups performed in the Medellín area; by the time they left, that number had grown to 15, plus a yearly jazz festival.

Uman “provided resources throughout Colombia, resulting in a huge jazz boom in the country,” said Borrero. Many of the students he taught then are teachers in jazz programs there now. In Medellín, Borrero reported, Uman is still called “El Maestro.”

Developing a jazz family in Vermont

When the three years were up, Uman headed back to Vermont to look for work.

Brofsky and Uman had remained in close contact in a friendship built not only on music but on a love for Vermont. At the time, Brofsky was the president of the board of VJC, which guitarist and inventor Zoller had founded in the mid-1970s. Hungarian by birth, Zoller, living in Queens, New York, had discovered Newfane, which Uman recalls, “had reminded him of the hills of Hungary.”

In his place on Wiswall Hill, Zoller gathered world class jazz artists: he wanted to bring the jazz of New York into his country life to, as Uman recalled, “merge music and the natural world.”

With the help of Brosfky and Joy Wallens-Penford, VJC was created as a nonprofit, offering not only the summer workshops but regular concerts with top-flight performers.

VJC had no home at the time. Instead, the organization would offer concerts at a range of available sites, including Leland & Gray Union High School, the West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro, and the former Mole's Eyes Café.

Uman still had solid music connections throughout the state and, while staying with Brofsky and Westen in their Brattleboro home, he would check into various positions, including high school teaching.

“I had good possibilities,” Uman recalled.

Both Borrero and Uman said they always had an impulse to start a music school, a home for music where education and community ruled. “Education through the arts” would be their mission, Borrero said.

As it happened, VJC could present that opportunity.

By that time, Zoller had fallen ill and was concerned about finding a replacement to lead the organization. And one day, pretty much out of the blue, he anointed Uman as his successor.

There was no salary, since VJC had no money; in fact, the bank account was in the red.

Uman and Borrero decided to take the leap, though, and as a longtime VJC musician and board member Sherm Fox recalled, “Elsa and Eugene came in 1997 and from the start they dealt with everyone with warmth, compassion, and positive regard.”

Right away they worked to garner support. Uman's parents gave them a car; a well-heeled New York student gave them $5,000 with the promise to double the donation if they made it through year one. The Vermont Arts Council gave a small grant.

And they launched.

Despite the less-than-sanguine relationship with creditors they'd inherited, they convinced Northfield Mount Hermon to allow them to use its campus for a summer workshop, the VJC's first.

It was hand-to-mouth, Uman recalled. “We had musicians and teachers staying in our spare room,” he said.

But that 1997 summer workshop made enough to cover VJC's first year of operation with Uman as director and Borrero as office manager.

“There was a lot of sacrifice,” Borrero recalled; for a long time, their family lived on $1,000 per month to keep VJC afloat.

Loyal, grateful, supportive audiences

Soon, the VJC started to feel like family. “It was a family-run organization with a board that backed us and gave moral support,” Borrero recalled.

In 1997, VJC found its home at the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro.

“Attila got to hang out with us there,” Uman remembers. “It was right before he went into hospice at Grace Cottage, where he died in January of 1998.”

The original VJC space was 132 square feet; the center now - with performance space, offices, and archives - occupies 4,434 square feet of the Cotton Mill.

As Fox explained, VJC soon started to develop loyal, grateful, supportive audiences; many VJC student musicians have gone on to full careers in music, and established musicians “come up here to perform, go back to NYC, and let their colleagues know what a wonderful thing Eugene and Elsa have going on here: that's why musicians want to come here to perform” year after year.

Thanks to the generosity of loyal donors, grant support, and income from educational programs and a robust audience base, VJC is financially stable for the time being.

As is typical with nonprofit arts organizations, though, Uman adds, the earned income doesn't take care of meeting the budget. He remarked that he is especially grateful for the community support, which accounts for about half of the organization's income.

Uman noted that “the McKenzie Family Charitable Trust has been responsible for supplying us with pianos and a generous donation towards operating expenses.”

All about balance

Under Uman's direction, VJC received an Acclaim award from Chamber Music America and the state of Vermont, honoring its impact on the community and jazz music.

He talked about the balance needed in programming, noting that the organization presents new work with a deep respect for jazz roots.

Mixing more accessible fare with the cutting edge, VJC aims not only to entertain but also to educate on both new and traditional work. Uman said he's always looking “for high-level artistry and some sense of innovation, even if using older styles.”

A self-professed jazz nerd, Uman pinpoints up-and-coming performers through Jazz Times, Downbeat magazine, and on the internet. He attends gatherings of jazz educators, checks performers out on YouTube, and has good relationships with excellent artists' managers “who know what I'm looking for.”

His commitment to doing his homework is evident in each thoughtful, thorough write-up he submits to area newspapers, including The Commons, to promote an upcoming performance.

Friends offer tributes

Tributes flowed at the celebration when the start of Borrero and Uman's next quarter century was announced.

Westen started coming to southeastern Vermont nearly 30 years ago with Brofsky, to whom she'd been married for 33 years before he died in 2013. The award-winning Brooklyn-based writer still spends summers here.

Recalling the impact of Uman and Borrero on VJC, Westen said, “What grew the Jazz Center was love,” citing the “huge capacity of Borrero and Uman for love - love of family, friends, music, community, the arts.”

“Before Eugene and Elsa, the music was solid, of course,” she added - but, she said, “it was lacking heart.”

Praising the range of skills each brought to the VJC, she added that “Eugene has a world view of music” and is a fine communicator, attracting world class musicians. Above all, Westen praises the couple's “commitment to inclusivity. And we need inclusivity now more than ever.”

Current VJC Board President Julian Gerstin moved to Vermont from California in 2004.

“I left behind a big, vibrant music scene. I was very worried about moving where there might be no musicians who played jazz,” he said. “I found out about VJC, and knowing it was here was a lifeline.”

Gerstin said that Uman and Borrero are “at the center of this.”

“They're people people. Eugene delights in teaching - we all know he's a great performer, but he's also a fabulous teacher, and teaching is more his day-to-day role. And he delights in getting to know people, bringing out their creativity, introducing them to other people.”

He described the VJC as “a joint dream project for the two of them, something they planned towards for years before it happened, and Elsa was equally a part of that.”

And, he said, “In fact, she was the one with the production expertise who knew how to put together shows. She got Eugene started in that role.”

Borrero currently is “our design guru, our financial whip-cracker who makes us toe the line, and the one who poses the essential questions,” Gerstin said.

He credits several others who make the VJC tick, among them Ginger Morawski, the organization's administrator who is “not only a great organizer, she's another people person.”

For her part, of Uman and Borrero, Morawski said that “they bring their ideals and principles to the creation of the VJC and give freely of themselves to its nurturance. It's an extension of themselves and their partnership.”

Board Vice President Rob Freeberg added that “Eugene's musicianship and ability to hire world class instructors and performers has transformed the educational programs and monthly concerts, while Elsa's professional design chops and pragmatic outlook complement Eugene's skills.”

“They make a great team,” he said.

At the June 17 commemorative gathering, several took the stage to pay brief tributes, among them Jan Salzman of North Pomfret and Burlington, with whom Uman lived while establishing himself in forestry in the 1980s, in whose living room his band Dr. Burma was formed, and at whose farm Borrero and Uman were married.

Smiling broadly, she praised the duo for “putting forth your dream, living it, breathing it.”

Preserving a legacy

The Vermont Jazz Centert has become widely known for concerts, classes, ensembles, workshops, livestreams, jam sessions, and summer camps. Now, it has added another initiative to enhance its mission and assure its legacy.

For the past seven years, the Vermont Jazz Center has been developing a jazz archive of recordings and video from more than 40 years of concerts and educational programs.

This collection draws from careful video/audio documentation of more than 250 concerts and also includes gifts of jazz-related recordings and research materials, such as collections of jazz books, CDs and LPs.

VJC is also the caretaker of the Attila Zoller Archive, gifted to them by his daughter, Alicia Zoller Carusona. Thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, these historic records are now digitally available for scholars and aficionados.

Looking to the future, Uman and Borrero are committed to realizing a full 50-year VJC archive to be open to researchers and academics, and a series of curated highlights to be offered clustered in series, free to the public at

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