It is always tempting to find fault when something formerly counter-culture discovers itself embraced by the mainstream and honored by those who previously dismissed, devalued, or worse, denigrated it. For jazz, the fact that many of its founding fathers struggled against pernicious racism amplifies this tension, injecting the politics of civil rights into what is for other art forms merely the inevitable cycle of artistic innovation, rejection, acceptance, and finally, canonization. Add to this the venue of Washington, D.C., with its inevitable political patina, and one appreciates the complexity of the recent 20th anniversary celebration of the Thelonious Monk Institute.
The Monk Institute's formula for navigating this dynamic is deceptively simple and speaks to the creativity, professionalism, and intellectualism that underlie its two decades of accomplishment. Acknowledge the past, celebrate progress, and focus on the future. All three of these elements were in evidence at the Kennedy Center gala affair held September 17, 2006, and contributed to the success of an event that commemorated not only the annual Thelonious Monk International Music Competition, but also the significant strides the Institute continues to make to a variety of other education and music programs, of which many remain unaware.
Founded in 1987 by the Monk family and a handful of dedicated supporters, the Monk Institute has grown into one ofif not thepremier jazz education and promotion organizations in the country. Its board now consists of jazz luminaries and many of America's foremost talents, including Herbie Hancock, Bill Cosby, and Billy Dee Williams. Its prominence attracts a packed audience of Washington elite every year for the organization's center piece event, the annual competition dedicated to a single featured instrument. (This year was no exception, with the hall bursting with notables ranging from business leaders, to political sponsors, to entertainment industry glitterati.) The Institute, however, does not live and die by this one event. In recent years the Institute has founded several innovative programs to foster jazz education that not only focuses on producing the next crop of musicians, but also the next generation of audiences, and perhaps more importantly, simply strives to introduce to the younger generation, through, or perhaps with, jazz education a broader understanding of American history, cultural, social, and otherwise. This task may well be the Institute's most ambitious and important project.
Programs include the Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a college-level program providing a direct bridge between today's masters and tomorrow's brightest talents, Jazz in the Classroom, which sponsors a variety of programs in schools throughout the country, the Bebop to Hip-Hop program, which brings jazz musicians and Hip-hop artists together to bring joint education programs to high-school students, and the National Jazz Curriculum. The NJC provides via the internet (www.jazzinamerica.org) a course of study integrating social studies, history, and music focused on jazz for 5th, 8th, and 11th grade students at public schools. The course includes teaching materials, course curriculum, a resource library, and a variety of evaluation materials aligned with national standards. While still under development, this program may represent the most far-sighted of the Institute's experiments, with the potential to bring elements of jazz education into classrooms around the country.
All of this and more was highlighted during the night's celebration, and it would have been easy for the Institute to wallow in well-deserved self-congratulation. However, while a healthy collection of laurels was passed around, the Institute remained true to its mission and wisely kept the evening centered on the piano competition and the three finalists competing for the $20,000 prize, while bracketing this with rare performances by a huge array of today's jazz talent.
Thus, spaced out over the evening, the audience was treated to performances by the three finalists, alumni of the Institute including Jane Monheit, Gretchen Parlato, and Joshua Redman, the current Monk Institute Ensemble, members of the esteemed judging panel, a variety of special guests, and to top it all off, the recipient of this year's life time achievement award, surprise honoree Stevie Wonder. Add to that MCing duties by Quincy Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Billy Dee Williams, as well as former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Colin Powell, and you have a night to give even the most jaded autograph hunter pause.