December 1999 By Lee Mergner
Sharing the Competition
In our current poll-crazy media culture, it seems there's a poll for just about everything under the sun and many of us are getting a little tired of it. So, we weren't particularly surprised when several musicians reacted negatively to the idea of picking a “Jazz Artist of the Century.” Some wondered how we could isolate one artist from all others. Jazz shouldn't be reduced to a competitive sport, said others. One of those dissenters was Geri Allen (her comments are on page 39). Coincidently, Geri was recently in DC, serving as a judge for the Thelonious Monk Competition and I spoke with her about the role of competition in jazz.
"Well this type of thing has been done in classical music for years, so it's nothing new,“ she said. For me, I thought they were all winners. Each one of them had something unique, which is what it's all about. This is a new environment for the music. And I support it because when you look at what's out there today for young people, where can they sit in or where can they go to develop their craft? Where can they go to be exposed to the world at large? I think this is one of the few places for that to happen."
And sitting in has always been competitive as well. "Yes, that was competitive. Just in terms of survival out here in the world at large, it's competitive. In some sense, maybe this is a realistic environment for them to start with. All the way through school and learning on the street, we were all friends learning to play together. We grew helping each other to develop. But there's always a healthy air of competition in all of us, that makes you want not necessarily to compete against someone else specifically, but more to compete with yourself to make yourself grow into a strong player. So, I don't think it's an unhealthy thing. I think it's just difficult when you have to tell players that are gifted and talented that 'we had to go past you this time but to please understand that this has nothing to do with your potential in the future.'"
Did she have any ambivalent feelings when asked to judge these young artists? "At first I got a little thing in my stomach. But when I thought about what Monk represents to us in the community, he's such a pillar of pride and creativity. He represents everything that's the best about the music. I am very, very glad that I participated. It allowed for this talent to be recognized"
Fellow judge Herbie Hancock, while accepting the Founder's Award from the Monk Institute for his support of jazz education, summed it up best when he said, "We call this a competition, but deep down we musicians know that we're not competing, we're sharing."
Originally published in December 1999