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District Jazz

2012 Thelonious Monk International Drums Competition

By Published: October 23, 2012
Describing the piece, Nakamura explained his purpose with casual humor, "This year we had competition for drummers so my first goal was to make the drummer suffer. I had everything in odd time signature, which is seven...And I kinda got obsessed with this number seven so I took all the melodies either as a keynote or as a passing note of the chords, so when there is [a]chord progression going I always nailed the melody going 7th note to 7th note. The challenge was to make it sound good but also stick to my rules."

Part of that challenge included avoiding standard jazz forms, while crafting a piece that would still foster soloing. "This tune is not based on traditional chord progression. That is why it sounded [classical]," Nakamura said, "But I can say this, if you get tired of playing 'Giant Steps,' which is a hard tune to play, you can always play my piece. It's also hard to solo on!"

Nakamura and his trio-mates, who delivered well-crafted solos each in turn, aptly met this challenge. The composition and the trio's performance cast a spotlight on the Japanese jazz scene which, despite having produced many individual players of renown, according to Nakamura, still suffers from a lack of recognition. Nakamura hopes that his success will help because, he says, "if you go to smaller clubs in Tokyo, you get to find many young, talented, great Japanese musicians, but they don't get too much attention and I really feel sad that those musicians can't make their way up."

The Blues

In recent years, the Monk Institute has expanded its focus to more explicitly incorporate the blues, particularly into its educational programs. As impresario Herbie Hancock summarized, the historic and ongoing link between blues and jazz is profound and inarguable. For this reason, in 2007, the Institute launched a Blues and Jazz curriculum that acts as a companion to its already existing jazz history curriculum developed for use in public schools. The Institute has since sponsored multiple educational tours visiting public schools in Mississippi, Chicago, Kansas City, Washington, D.C. and more. The goal is to provide students an introduction to both the music and the social and historical context within which it developed.

In addition, the Institute has formed close ties with the Dockery Farms Foundation, which seeks to restore and preserve the historic plantation often labeled the birthplace of Delta Blues for use as an educational and tourist destination.

To commemorate these activities, the gala concert included a performance of "Hey, Hey the Blues is All Right," by guitarist/vocalist Joe Louis Walker
Joe Louis Walker
Joe Louis Walker
guitar, electric
, backed by an all- star cast including keyboardist George Duke
George Duke
George Duke
1946 - 2013
, trumpeter Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
, saxophonist James Carter
James Carter
James Carter
sax, tenor
, bassist James Genus
James Genus
James Genus
and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta
. A rousing electric blues romp, the piece made for an energetic transition to the next segment of the show.

Women in Jazz

Designed to culminate with the presentation of the Maria Fisher Founder's Award to Madeline K. Albright for her support of jazz as a diplomatic tool, the second portion of the evening was both homage to women's historical role in the development of jazz and a platform to showcase the diversity of female contributors today.

Efforts to focus on women in jazz have been more prevalent in recent years. Building on the Kennedy Center's longstanding Mary Lou Williams festival, there have been a recent JazzTimes women's issue, the establishment of a women-focused concert at the Lincoln Center, and other similar forums highlighting women in jazz. It is clear that the jazz world is waking up to the many contributions women have made and continue to make. The Monk Institute's addition to this welcome theme was both thoughtful and reflective of their overall approach. Each performance matched a contemporary artist with an historic figure, thus tracing a loose history of women in jazz through representative figures, while simultaneously providing a cross-section of the many female artists working today across a wide spectrum of instruments and styles.

An added benefit to this innovative structure was that, as the evening progressed, the guest artists appeared multiple times, sitting in on different tunes. The result was a series of impressive individual performances, memorable surprise moments, and an overall successful reminder that women have always played a role in jazz and their impact only continues to grow, hopefully to such a degree that in the future their presence will no longer be noteworthy, but instead assumed.

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