News | Monk competition this weekend spotlights the nation’s greatest rising drum talents

Herbie Hancock, left, and Wayne Shorter jam at last year’s Monk competition with the pianist Kris Bowers, who won first place. Courtesy monkinstitute.org

by Alexandra Warner Nash
CapitalBop contributor

Turn on the television on any given night and it is hard to avoid competition-themed shows such as America’s Got Talent, The Voice, The X Factor and American Idol. The programs can often seem contrived or hokey, and the results dispiriting. Washington, D.C. residents may not be aware that once a year, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz puts on one of most compelling competitions a music fan could hope to witness.

It’s called the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and every September it trains its spotlight on the rising stars of a particular instrument. This year’s 25th annual contest is focused on the drum kit, and this Saturday, 12 of the world’s best young jazz drummers will face off at the National Museum of Natural History in the Monk competition’s semi-finals. The event is free and open to the public.

Each contestant has 15 minutes to impress a panel of judges that represents a multi-generational sampling of jazz excellence, including Roy Haynes, Ben Riley, Peter Erskine, Carl Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington and Brian Blade. From the group of 12 semi-finalist drummers, the judges will select three to compete in the final round, scheduled for the following evening at the Kennedy Center. (This year’s finals are part of a special gala called “Women, Music, and Diplomacy” in honor of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.) The winner of the drum competition receives a $25,000 music scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Music Group.

Carrington told CapitalBop that she will be judging contestants on the well-roundedness of their abilities. “I am looking for someone that has a strong grasp of the tradition while being open to as many other influences as possible,” she said in an email. “Someone that is trying to reach for new ground but not at the expense of the music. Someone that is musical and not a show off, but has all the tools to capture our attention while being totally appropriate musically.”

The careers of some of the most respected jazz musicians in the world have been launched at the Monk competition, including the saxophonist Joshua Redman, the pianist Marcus Roberts and the vocalist Jane Monheit. Representatives from all of the major jazz labels attend the event, because they know the competition is the best place to see and discover the jazz world’s rising stars.

“We are looking forward to an inspiring and memorable night of music,” Tom Carter, president of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, said in a statement. “This year’s competition highlights the drums – the heartbeat of the bandstand – and we have some exciting surprises in store for our audience.”

The institute, named for the brilliant and influential jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, was founded four years after his death in order to honor his achievements and promote jazz through educational programs in the United States and around the world. In addition to the annual competition, the institute offers a two-year program in jazz performance. Formerly located at Loyola University, it’s now housed at UCLA as part of the Herb Alpert School of Music. The graduate level program allows six to eight students pursuing a master of music in jazz to study and perform together in an ensemble, taught by some of the greatest jazz artists in the world, including Kenny Burrell and James Newton, as well as a list of redoubtable guest artists such as Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Danilo Perez. These masters of jazz pass on their expertise to a new generation the way Thelonious Monk did in the legendary jam sessions he hosted in his New York City apartment in the 1950s and ’60s.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has also developed a series of highly regarded programs, called Jazz in the Classroom, which are tailored to elementary, middle and high school and college students. The programs are designed to help them develop a better understanding and appreciation for jazz music. In an era of drastic reductions in public funding for music education, these programs often represent the most considerable exposure to jazz that students ever receive.

Admission is free to the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition Semifinals, which will be held at 12 p.m. on Saturday at the Natural History Museum, but tickets are required. They will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 11 a.m. More information on that show is available here. The competition finals and special gala will be held at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night, and tickets range from $50 to $75. More information on that show is available here. You can find a full schedule, biography of all contestants and more at the Monk Institute’s website.

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Giovanni Russonello

About Giovanni Russonello

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Giovanni is the founder of CapitalBop, and a music critic for the New York Times. He previously served as a contributor to the Washington Post, the FADER, JazzTimes, NPR Music and others, and hosted “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM. As head of CapitalBop, he has covered the D.C. jazz scene since 2010. (He is no longer directly involved in the presenting of CapitalBop's concerts.) He graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history. Reach Giovanni at editor@capitalbop.com. Read him at giovannirussonello.com or nytimes.com/by/giovanni-russonello. Follow him on Twitter at @giorussonello.

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