Jazz has come a long way since its first smoky days confined to cramped bars and back-alley saloons where its practitioners struggled equally against the insidious prejudices of establishment art, class, and race. Jazz can now be found occupying our most prestigious and celebrated concert halls, embraced by our university curriculums, and honored by our most respected artistic institutions.
Certainly, jazz, like the whole of our society, has by no means freed itself entirely from the bounds of inequity, and many artists still struggle to survive, spending entire lifetimes trapped by those same small clubs and rickety joints trying desperately to make ends meet. But many also find themselves in the spotlight and heralded as the next representatives of a long and illustrious history, a history deeply intertwined with America's consciousness.
Few events could better exemplify this progress than the annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Each year, the Thelonious Monk Institute holds a competition for aspiring jazz musicians showcasing a different instrument and additionally honors an up-and-coming composer. In the hands of the Institute's co-founder and irrepressible spokesman, T.S. Monk, the event accomplishes far more, however, than simply recognizing young talent and awarding scholarships. With the support of jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Clark Terry, the Monk Institute Competition has been transformed into a thoughtful celebration of jazz and an artistic and political statement in and of itself.
Hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and sponsored by corporate interests, BET, and a host of Senators and other benefactors, the 2005 competition focused on the role of guitar in jazz history. Smoothly timed, the night began with performances by the competition's three guitar semi-finalists, followed by the presentation of a composer's award and an award to an outstanding contributor to the world of guitar. The event was completed with an extraordinary exposition of jazz guitar.
Accompanied by Bob James on piano, James Genus on bass, Terri Lyn-Carrington on drums, and Chris Potter on saxophone, each of the semi-finalists, New Orleans native David Mooney, Lage Lund of Skein, Norway, and Seattle-born Miles Okazaki, played a selection of pieces for the packed concert hall and a panel of judges including guitar greats Bill Frisell, Stanley Jordan, Earl Klugh, Russell Malone, Pat Martino, and John Pizzarelli.
All three performers exhibited exceptional skills and rose to the challenge of matching notes with some of jazz's greatest talents. Particularly entertaining were the interactions between the young musicians and Chris Potter, who masterfully adapted to each contestant's style, while clearly putting each through his paces as they exchanged solos.
Following the three performances, the judges retired from the audience to deliberate "behind closed doors , while Japanese pianist and composer Junko Moria took the stage to receive this year's Jazz Composition award. After a heartfelt acceptance speech, Moria took the piano bench and led the aforementioned super-band in a performance of the winning tune "Playground . Spinning through this high energy, dynamic piece, it became quickly apparent why Moria was selected for the award, and why she has ascended to great acclaim in her native country.
For most award ceremonies, that would have been enough. But for the Monk Institute, the night's highlights were still to come.
Taking the stage next, Honorary Monk Institute Chairman Billy Dee Williams presented the 2005 Maria Fisher Founder's award to George Benson for his contributions to guitar and jazz. Benson, decked out in sunglasses and an all-black suede outfit, grinned ear to ear, graciously accepted the award, promptly plugged in his guitar, took the mike, and made it clear just what those contributions are. Blazing through a rollicking rendition of "On Broadway Benson accompanied his own powerful vocals and fiery scat with blistering guitar solos. Always a commanding showman, before the last cord had faded, Benson had the crowd on its feet for the first of the night's many subsequent standing ovations.