Elsa Borrero and Eugene Uman, the recipients of the 2024 Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) Jazz Heroes Award.
Courtesy photo
Elsa Borrero and Eugene Uman, the recipients of the 2024 Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) Jazz Heroes Award.

‘All of this is bearing fruit’

Uman, Borrero to receive JJA Jazz Heroes Award for their quarter-century of creating community at the Vermont Jazz Center

BRATTLEBORO-Always a special home-team event at the Vermont Jazz Center (VJC), this year's performance of the Eugene Uman Convergence Project on June 15 [story, this issue] will be even more so.

On that night, Eugene Uman, VJC musical and artistic director, and Elsa Borrero, operations manager, graphic designer, and consultant in multimedia production, will be granted a 2024 Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) Jazz Heroes Award.

Among a class of 33 "activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz" (jjajazzawards.org) that includes Branford Marsalis, Kenny Barron, and Herbie Hancock, the husband-and-wife team will be recognized for their outstanding work in nurturing the VJC.

David Beckett of Burlington, a perennial jazz fan and writer, wrote in the award narrative that the couple "has worked tirelessly to build the VJC's community."

"For 27 years, they've held weekly jam sessions, afternoon ensembles, a summer jazz workshop, and hosted a regional big band," he wrote.

He also pointed out that the Jazz Center presents "a yearly solo jazz piano festival and an emerging jazz artist festival, and has hosted hundreds of world-class jazz artists in concert."

'We inherited good will'

Uman and Borrero met 34 years ago in New York City's East Village.

A former forester working in Vermont and New Hampshire, Uman had been invited by his music mentor, trumpeter Howard "Dr. Bebop" Brofsky, to study in the graduate jazz program at New York City's Queens College while Borrero was studying with groundbreaking performing artists Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais.

After Uman received his master's degree in 1992, they moved to Medellín, Colombia, Borrero's hometown, where they had two children and sparked jazz interest, audiences, and education that endures today.

On their return to the states, Uman reconnected through Brofsky with Attila Zoller, whom he'd met years earlier.

Hungarian-born Zoller, a renowned jazz guitarist, had come to southern Vermont in the 1970s from New York City to cultivate an extra-urban jazz scene at a summer workshop run by the nascent VJC.

In 1997, in learning he had late-stage cancer, Zoller anointed Uman as executive director to carry the VJC forward.

"We inherited good will," Borrero recalls.

Zoller, who died in Townshend in 1998, already had people lined up who were game to play in Brattleboro "and we committed to keeping this at a real high level," she said.

"Over the years [we have] garnered enthusiasm because of the quality of artists we present. We're not going to just present people who are easy to hire," Borrero adds.

Honors and accolades

Previously, Uman had received the 2022 Vermont Arts Council's Ellen McCulloch-Lovell Arts Education Award, and just a year ago Uman and Borrero were honored with a Vermont legislative resolution honoring the couple's 26 years of arts and educational leadership.

Widely published jazz critic/writer Bob Blumenthal put Uman and Borrero up for the JJA Jazz Hero award. And it is he who will present the award to the couple at the VJC.

His writing on jazz has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, DownBeat, and JazzTimes.

Blumenthal "is aware of the work we do," says Uman. The two had met through Tom Reney, who hosts "Jazz à la Mode" on New England Public Media and is, as Uman describes, "a champion of the VJC."

Borrero describes the journey through the VJC as "a road worked step by step."

"Many times we struggled, and we'd ask, 'Why do we even do this?,' but such recognition says it's all worth it," she says. "I'd do it all over again - yes, for the arts, but also for the community."

Similarly, Uman says that the VJC "feels like it's been such a long journey, such an effort, but so focused, so intent on bringing together community that it finally feels like we've achieved our goals."

That idea "extends to the volunteers, the board members, supporters.

"We have a great team, and everybody on the team does it without aggrandizing," Uman observes.

"We're creating something. We're all in this together, and everybody knows their part; they want the whole thing to succeed," he adds. "The audience feels that, and the musicians feel that."

Borrero adds that "musicians love to play the Jazz Center - they say, 'Wow, what an audience.' Every group that comes says, 'We love your audience' and that word spreads."

"For Eugene, this is his passion; for me, it's art and the love of the project of this man," says Borrero, calling her husband a "jazz nerd."

"There are two things he reads about: jazz and Buddhism," she says.

For Borrero, as for Uman, the educational component of the VJC mission is an essential driving force. Far from being just a venue for world-class jazz, the VJC has, from the beginning, fulfilled their wish to run a music school.

Zoller had that going, and they inherited it: serendipity kicked in to realize a dream.

"I believe firmly in education for the arts," Borrero says of a field she sowed as a young artist in Colombia.

"Eugene has a deep knowledge," which he shares and couples with research in informative, in-depth press releases and feature stories - another manifestation of the VJC's mission to educate as well as entertain.

'All this is bearing fruit'

That community building has led to growth.

In the beginning, the VJC attracted audiences of 20, if that. Now they draw 10 times that, if not more.

Borrero is grateful to have worked with some "awesome people," she says.

"It takes a village, and we have a solid core," she adds, and she and Uman start to name some of the many volunteers who've contributed over the years.

But "we wouldn't even exist without Elsa, because she is the doer," Uman says.

Behind the scenes, he explains, it's been Borrero who has made some of the VJC's most pivotal decisions over the years - such as their decision in 1998 to base the VJC at Cotton Mill Hill.

From aesthetics to operations, she covers a lot of ground, he says.

"Our reach has solidified," Uman adds, "to the point where people trust our programming."

Looking to her husband, Borrero says, "Jazz is your passion."

And, "to feel that all this is bearing fruit, that there are people out there who appreciate what you do and that there's a community of people who've learned about the music, learned to appreciate what the VJC presents - yeah, that must feel good," Borrero says.

This Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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