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Donald Vega Class of '99

Donald Vega Class of '99

Jazz Hands

You can’t see them in the dark of Mount Vernon, New York’s Bassline Cafe, but jazz pianist Donald Vega ’99 has angels on his shoulder. This cat may swing into a solo with the balletic grace of Oscar Peterson, and lead his trio like he was born backstage at a nightclub, but he’s traveled a difficult road to get here tonight. After an immaculate version of his composition “The Will to Nurture” from his debut CD, Tomorrows, we repair to a back room to talk about Vega’s hardscrabble yesterdays. And how much he feels he owes to the angels he found at USC.

“I think I’m lucky to have made it to the United States at all, much less USC,” says the dapper, 35-year-old Vega. He was born in Managua, Nicaragua, where he studied classical piano with his uncle and grandfather, both well-known musicians. However, as a teenager, his safety was imperiled. In the 1980s, the Nicaraguan military would pick up boys who were 14 and older to fight in the country’s civil war. To avoid that fate, Vega’s mother moved to the United States, then helped him flee and join her.

After locating in Los Angeles, learning English and changing his focus to jazz piano at the Colburn School of the Performing Arts, Vega was accepted into the USC Thornton School of Music, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies. He credits various angels with his getting in and staying in.

He said he was indebted to USC’s Mexican American Alumni Association (, particularly Raul Vargas, the now-retired founding director, for arranging scholarships for him. “It couldn’t have happened otherwise,” Vega says.

At his audition, Vega recalls that USC Thornton professor John Thomas started listening, then stopped him momentarily to find a tape recorder and recorded the audition so the jazz piano professors could hear it. “His help and foresight were an integral part of me getting into USC,” Vega says.

Once he was in, USC Thornton professors Aaron Serfaty, Tom Mason, Shelley Berg and John Clayton were unending sources of emotional support and inspiration, the musician says.

Then, there was the matter of having a birth defect fixed. Which, Vega says, solved more than a cosmetic problem. “I was born with a cleft palate,” he says. “I was actually having trouble hearing music, because the problem affected my ears. As a result of getting a Spotlight Award [a recognition from the Los Angeles Music Center that highlights Southern California’s top student talent], a philanthropist donated money for my operation. That’s a debt I can’t repay.”

It wasn’t only faculty members who insured his time at USC would be productive. Vega connected with students who were spiritual, studied the Bible and followed good moral principles. This strong set of values has helped him in his new life in the New York jazz scene, where there are a lot of ways to get lost if you don’t have a good read on things, he notes.

Vega straightens his tie, to get ready for the next set of songs from Tomorrows. Not long after this gig, he would tour Europe and work on his second album, to be released this summer.

When Vega thinks about all the luck he’s had and everyone who has helped him, he feels blessed. Every time he’s needed a break, something has always worked out, he observes. Vega says he hopes in the future to be able to help other youngsters in need of similar breaks.

Call it a cosmic debt he wants to repay.

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