Fran Vielma, a lecturer in Jazz Studies at Peabody and a recipient of the 2021 New Jazz Works fellowship from Chamber Music America, is a multi-percussionist, composer, and educator who grew up in Mérida, Venezuela, and has been on a musical journey ever since he can remember.
Early on, Vielma was a member of a children’s choir, learning voice via singing a repertoire of sacred music from the Renaissance, as well as traditional repertoire from Venezuela and Hispanic America. Over time, his voice changed and soon he picked up percussion, starting a musical group, Nuevas Almas, in his late teens. Even while playing professionally, he studied harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration at the Arts University in Caracas, Venezuela, where he majored in composition. The courses allowed Vielma to expand his abilities and write for other instruments, and to get acquainted with western classical music structures.
By this point, Vielma was already familiar with Afro-American music. “In my teens, I started doing extensive independent research, and at the Arts University, I began to explore in depth a blend of improvisational jazz elements with styles of Afro-diasporic musical traditions,” he explains.
Performing Success and a Chance Meeting
In 2018, Vielma released his debut album, Tendencias, with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective. The group quickly established itself as a powerhouse of world-class musicians, based in the United States and directed by Vielma, which highlights Venezuelan jazz, with its rich sound, culture, and tradition. Tendencias was named one of the top-rated releases of 2018 by Downbeat Magazine.
Vielma’s repertoire earned him the Jazz Road Tour Grant in 2019 from the South Arts Foundation, which put the Venezuelan Jazz Collective on tour to showcase his work as a bandleader. On that tour, he started to work with Sean Jones, the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair of Jazz Studies. They met through Miguel Zenón while Jones was performing with the San Francisco Jazz Collective in Washington, D.C. That chance meeting led to an opportunity for Vielma to teach at Peabody in 2020. That same year, Vielma earned the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities 2020 Fellowship.
Through his continued work with the Venezuelan Jazz Collective, Vielma most recently became the recipient of the New Jazz Works fellowship from Chamber Music America. He now has the support to create his newest upcoming work, the five-movement piece Common Grounds.
“I’m trying to present the core relationship of the music from countries around my native Venezuela,” he says. “We have a lot in common because of the African heritage. The suite I’m writing collects elements of Puerto Rican music, Haitian music, Cuban, Colombian, and Peruvian. Each part will showcase that connection.”
Teaching and Touring
In addition to teaching at Peabody, Vielma recently created his Jazz Orchestra, which features his own writing as well as works by Pan-American jazz composers and arrangers, performed by a cast of world-class players from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. He is the director of the Hidden Treasures Music Workshop, through which he creates an environment for his students to engage and learn about world music through composition and different styles of hand percussion. Outside of teaching, Vielma will begin touring again in the later months of 2022. “We’re premiering Common Grounds at SFJAZZ on November 3,” he says. “And we’re going to be doing a tour on the West Coast that week. And then we want to present it to the East Coast as well.”
– Jordannah Elizabeth