Jazz competition pumps new blood into the music

Thelonious Monk Institute launches genre's hot stars

Pop Music

September 12, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Jazz hasn't been a hip thing in pop culture for more than 50 years - not since Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were the undisputed kings of cool. These days, there are still young, vibrant jazz artists out there - Joshua Redman, Marcus Roberts and Jane Monheit among them. But it's a sure bet that none will crack Billboard's Hot 100.

Jazz - the art and its relentlessly creative spirit - is not lost today. It may not be all over MTV or BET, but there still is a charged, exciting community out there pushing the music, keeping the proverbial flame burning. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is dedicated to doing just that.

In fact, the aforementioned artists were launched into jazz stardom thanks to the non-profit jazz education organization. For the past 18 years, the TMIOJ, with offices in D.C. and Los Angeles, has been "cranking out young jazz musicians who can enter the marketplace and play," says drummer Thelonious Monk Jr., who along with his family and the late opera singer Maria Fisher founded the institute in 1986. It's named after his father, the pioneering and legendarily quirky jazz pianist and composer, who died in 1982.

Every year since its inception, the TMIOJ has held widely respected competitions showcasing the best emerging talent in jazz. This year, for the first time since 1998, the D.C.-based competition, sponsored by General Motors, will spotlight vocalists. (Six years ago, the late singer Teri Thornton took first place and Monheit was the first runner up.)

Make it entertaining

Today at 1 p.m., there will be semifinals (free to the public) inside the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. At a ticketed event at the Kennedy Center Monday night, three finalists will perform, backed by an all-star rhythm section featuring such luminaries as George Duke, Terence Blanchard and Clark Terry. The illustrious panel of judges, including Grammy winners Al Jarreau and Dee Dee Bridgewater, will select the winner, who will receive $20,000. (Second place gets $10,000, third $5,000.) Hosts for the evening will be Herbie Hancock and Billy Dee Williams, with special guest Quincy Jones.

"One of the things the contestants have to do is to make the music entertaining and accessible," says Thomas Carter, the institute's president. "There is this reputation that jazz is highbrow, but it started as entertainment."

To enter the contest, artists filled out applications and submitted a CD or tape of their performance. An audio screening panel selected 13 contestants from 177 applicants.

"I can tell you that it wasn't an easy process," says Carter, 49, who worked on Capitol Hill before becoming president of TMIOJ in 1986. "Contestants have to be prepared on so many levels. You're singing in front of judges who are the best jazz artists in the world, plus the media from all over the world and an audience."

Semifinalists must sing three selections: a ballad, a mid-tempo and an up-tempo number. And finalists must be prepared to sing three more tunes.

Carter says, "The judges will look at them from the style standpoint, intonation, the interaction between the vocalist and rhythm section, the interaction with the audience, every dimension. They're looking for creativity, something unique and innovative."

Jazz is spreading

One of Monk's goals when he launched the institute was to "weave jazz education into the American musical tapestry," says the 54-year-old musician-composer, calling from his home in South Orange, N.J. "The future of jazz is extraordinarily healthy. Traveling the country over the years, I found that a lot of high schools have jazz bands now. It wasn't like that when I, a baby boomer, was in high school, understand? We've gotten tremendous support in high schools."

The institute conducts several jazz outreach programs in public schools around the country. And, at the University of Southern California, there's a two-year, college-level, performance-based program for a select group of musicians. (Last year, Baltimore trumpeter-composer Dontae Winslow was among those chosen for it.)

"We haven't been cranking out teachers," Monk says. "We've been cranking out stars. We're pushing the art form forward. Our programs are completely immersed in the company of the best living jazz musicians on the planet. And proximity is the name of the game, man. If you're playing with such artisans, it pushes you and your art."

Best known for such compositions as "'Round Midnight," Monk's father was a famously focused musician, completely devoted to his craft - so much so that he went through long periods without speaking or interacting with others. His music was tricky - exuberantly complex. Even today, his work retains an electric vibrancy.

Monk says, "My father told me when I was growing up that if you take care of the music, the music takes care of everybody. The institute isn't about bottling the music. My father would slap me seven ways to Sunday if we were fossilizing the music."

How to get tickets for the competition

Tickets for the Sept. 12 semifinals are free and will be distributed at the Baird Auditorium, 10th St. and Constitution Ave. in D.C., by the Smithsonian Associates (202-357-3030) on a first- come, first-served basis beginning at 11:30 a.m.

Tickets ($30-$50) for the Sept. 13 finals at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F. St. N.W. in D.C., may be purchased at the Kennedy Center box office by calling 202-467-4600 or by visiting www.kennedy-center.org.

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