The Gig—Well, You Needn't Compete

How good is good enough for the Monk Competition? How good is too good?

How good is good enough for the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition? How good, for that matter, is too good?

The first of these rhetorical questions has played out publicly each year since 1987, when pianist Marcus Roberts became the first of many important artists in the winner’s circle. The second question has always been more of a parlor game—though it gained some real traction this year, not so much because of who was among the talented contenders but because of who wasn’t, and why.

There’s a good conversation to be had about the intrinsic value of an adjudicated contest for younger jazz artists, and about the hidden costs that may come along with it. For our purposes here, I’m going to ignore that debate and accept that the competition—administered by the nonprofit Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, with support from both government and corporate partners—is an important feature of our landscape, though hardly the last word on any career. Saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who at 24 became the first-ever female winner in an instrumental category in September, seems likely to be one of the event’s success stories.

Now let’s skip back to mid-August, when the Monk Institute announced its 14 semifinalists. As per the competition guidelines, all were under 30. But some came with substantially higher profiles than others, and a few stood out in particular: Aldana, Grace Kelly and Godwin Louis, each of whom has been reviewed or featured in the New York Times and elsewhere. Looking over these and other names—including Ben Van Gelder and Tivon Pennicott, both regulars at Smalls—you might have assumed, as I did, that age was the only restriction in play.

But within hours of the semifinals announcement, I heard from Noah Preminger, a tenor saxophonist with a mature and lyrical style. Preminger said he’d wanted to enter this year’s Monk competition but was told he couldn’t. The problem hinged on his two recent albums on Palmetto Records. Not so long ago, Monk competition guidelines disqualified any applicant who had released an album on a major label. In recent years, as the industry buckled and small-batch releases became the norm, that guideline grew hazier.

During a series of phone and e-mail exchanges with Leonard Brown—the Monk Institute’s director of special projects, who organizes the competition—Preminger took pains to point out that Palmetto is by no means a major label. When asked for SoundScan sales figures, he provided them. At a certain point, according to Preminger, Brown told him that one of the judges took specific issue with his eligibility: “He said, ‘Jimmy Heath saw an article in DownBeat about you, and said that somebody who has an article in DownBeat doesn’t need the exposure or benefits of the Monk competition.’”

Brown, whom I reached by phone the day after the competition finals, disputed that story, saying it had been a hypothetical. Palmetto, he argued, was a label prominent enough to release albums by Fred Hersch and Bobby Watson, both celebrated veterans. “It’s not a major label, but it’s definitely an independent with widespread distribution,” said Brown. “It just becomes a situation where we’re trying to adjust our competition to the reality of the landscape we’re dealing with now, in terms of recorded music. I’m not gonna lie, it’s difficult.”

As if to underscore that point, there was another eligibility hiccup during the semifinals this year, when Kelly, easily the most widely recognized competitor, was inexplicably absent. “She was unable to sign a mandatory contract commitment with Concord Music Group,” Bob Kelly, her manager and stepfather, said in response to an inquiry by JazzTimes. “According to the Monk Institute she needed to sign this contract before the competition in order to compete.” Kelly, who has done pretty well, thanks, with her own independent releases, was simply not prepared to make the binding commitment.

Which raises the question of how she cleared the bar that Preminger couldn’t. “That was allowable,” Brown argued, “for someone who hasn’t recorded for Palmetto but has a larger professional presence.” I doubt that hedge will satisfy Preminger or any of the dozens of musicians who piped up on his Facebook feed, including some, like trombonist Josh Roseman, who said they’d run up against similar roadblocks in years past. The problem, it seems to me, is that there’s no way to draw a straight line in shifting sands—which is another way of saying that record-label affiliations should no longer be held as a trustworthy metric for achievement, if indeed they ever were.

But what’s the alternative? Surely nobody wants to see the Monk competition become more nebulous in its criteria. And while transparency would help, it’s impractical to suggest that the preliminaries, in which several judges sit in a hotel room sifting through hundreds of audition tapes, should be any more accessible than the closed-door deliberations.

One option, if the highest priority for the Monk competition is to draw out undiscovered talent, would be to bar applicants with any albums to their name. Another option, if the priority is more toward finding the prime movers of the near future, would be to let age be the sole restriction. Building on that idea, the age limit could be lowered, perhaps to 25.

“It’s a larger discussion, and that’s a year away,” said Brown when I asked whether there might be a tweak to the formula in 2014. True enough, but I’m not alone in hoping that the Monk competition gives serious thought to its qualification process, for the good of the event and the community it serves.

Originally published in November 2013

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