For the love of jazz


Teen hopes to shape talent, love of music, into career opportunity

By Ben McNeely
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Steven Vaughn Ray took the stage alone — him and his guitar.

He announced his song, the back-up music started and he began playing “Bernie’s Tune” by jazz composer Bernie Miller.

He played the main melody, then slipped easily into a solo — something jazz musicians spend all their lives trying to master.

But Steven Ray is a 14-year-old high school freshman and he is turning his love of jazz and skill with the guitar into a career on the side.

Ray called “Fine Dining, Diamonds and Sapphires” and debuted some of the tracks from the album at Midtown Sundries in Cornelius.

This six-foot-five musician is quiet, but determined. And when he plays the guitar, it looks, sounds and feels like he has been playing for years.

His father, James, 50, himself a folk artist, said he learned to play guitar and to read music notation starting at 8 years old.

“I took an old Power Mac and put a piece of software on it and got a MIDI guitar and set up so he could learn where the notes were,” James said. “He learned visually where the notes were on the staff and where they were on the guitar.“

James started putting jazz charts in front of Steven and he learned them.

Steven, who also plays baseball and basketball, said he listens to jazz because “it’s different — more melodic,” something that separates him from his friends.

“With jazz, you can experiment more than with rock, which is why it works better than being in smoky bars and playing rock,” he said.

At Midtown, Steven played jazz standards, like “The Girl From Ipanema” by Carlos Jobin, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” by Duke Ellington and “Mr. P.C.” by John Coltrane — all jazz masters. And he played them — fingers flying across the fret board, like he was in front of a big band in a smoky jazz bar or night club in 1930s Harlem.

“I want to go to college for music,” he said before the show, “you know, to go around the world playing music. I’m not really a front man, although I could be. I’d like to play big parties.”

This summer, Steven auditioned for the Gibson-Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, the group made of student jazz performers that plays the pre- and post-Grammy parties. He was finalist for two guitar spot open in the band — out of 50 who auditioned.

“I imagine it was because of his age,” James, his dad, who also is his manager, said.

Older students — 17, 18 and 19 year-olds — apply for that band, James said.

Steven hasn’t composed anything of substance yet, he said.

“All the stuff I’ve written sound like acoustic coffee shop music, nothing hardcore,” he said. “But in the future, I want to transpose some jazz solos.”

Solos by his favorites, his influences: Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter John Coltrane.

And his name may end up on that list someday.

• Contact reporter Ben McNeely: 704-789-9131

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