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Thelonious Monk Institute to Host Jazz Vocals Competition and Annual Gala in Wash, DC

All-star panel of judges to include Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin
Patti Austin
Dianne Reeves St. Lucia Jazz Festival
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Al Jarreau performing at 2010 West Oak Lane Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, Pa.
Kurt Elling at 2010 Tanglewood Jazz Festival

On Monday, October 4, the Thelonious Monk Institute will host its annual Gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The Gala will include the finals for the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocals Competition, in which three finalists will compete for scholarships and prizes totaling over $100,000 including a $20,000 first place scholarship and guaranteed recording contract with Concord Music Group, a $10,000 second place scholarship, and a $5,000 third place scholarship. Those three finalists will be chosen during the semi-finals held the day before, on Sunday, October 3, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. On that day, the twelve young jazz vocalists will compete before a panel of jazz vocal greats including Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, and Dianne Reeves.

The 12 semifinalists are: Cyrille Aimée, Fontainebleau, France; Barbara Bürkle, Stuttgart, Germany; Lisa Gary, Great Neck, New York; Alexandra Isley, Los Angeles, California; Dana Lauren, Hartford, Connecticut; Tatiana Mayfield, Fort Worth, Texas; Ashton Nickolas Moore, Detroit, Michigan; Cécile McLorin Salvant, Miami, Florida; Richard Saunders, Simsbury, Connecticut; Charenée Wade, Brooklyn, New York; Kalil Wilson, Oakland, California; and Sarah Marie Young, Indianapolis, Indiana.

While the judges are deliberating on Monday night at the Kennedy Center, the Tribute to the Great American Songbook Gala Concert will bring together noted jazz artists such as Terence Blanchard, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Duke, Kevin Eubanks, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, T.S. Monk, Wayne Shorter, and many others. The concert will shine a spotlight on some of the most beloved songs and songwriters of all time. Although it’s not clear that either will be in attendance on Monday night, President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama will serve as the Honorary Chairs of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition and Tribute to the Great American Songbook Gala Concert.

In addition, Aretha Franklin will be presented with the 2010 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award in honor of her longtime support of jazz, music education, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. The award honors individuals who have made valuable contributions to jazz and jazz education. Past recipients include Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Bruce Lundvall, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, George Wein, and Clint Eastwood.

The October 4th Competition Finals and Gala Concert at the Kennedy Center will also feature the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers Competition, sponsored by BMI. This year’s winner is Vadim Neselovskyi of Ukraine, who will perform his winning composition, “Grust” (Sadness). The Composers Competition carries a prize of $10,000 and is presented to a composer who “best demonstrates originality, creativity, and excellence in jazz composition,” according to the Monk Institute’s press release.

The Thelonious Monk Institute was founded in 1986 and their annual jazz competition started a year later. Tom Carter, the executive director of the Institute, says that originally, it was to be a piano competition every year, but after three years they decided that the jazz community would be better served by rotating the theme. “The original focus on piano was a tribute to the legacy of Thelonious Monk and his instrument,” says Carter, “but what happened was that we were getting many of the same applicants year after year because there wasn’t the time period to allow a pool of players on an instrument to mature. In those early years as well as later, this competition has been successful in launching careers, the other instruments were screaming that all this emphasis and focus and that we needed to share that attention. So starting in 1990, we have rotated over the years the various instruments. And this year it’s the voice.”

This is not the first time that vocals have been the focus of the competition. Vocals were the theme of the 1994, 1998 and 2004 Competitions, won by Sara Lazarus, Teri Thornton and Gretchen Parlato, respectively. Amongst the runners-up during those years were Jane Monheit, Roberta Gambarini, Carolyn Leonhart and Cynthia Scott. Carter thinks that the category of vocals offers something different from the various instruments which have been spotlighted over the years. “The vocals competition is always the competition that generates the most interest from the applicants,” Carter explains. “This year we had applicants from 33 nations from around the world, which is very significant. It shows us the depth of the competition and how it is reaching all corners of the globe. The voice is always an instrument that seems to reach out to all people whether they’re big jazz fans or aficionados or they’re part of the broader public. We feel that there is an opportunity to bring new people and to expand our audience to see and experience jazz.”

The Institute received 237 applicants for this year’s Competition. That sounds like a lot and Carter says that the number may be more impressive when you consider the rigorous process involved in the application. A small group of artists and educators had the difficult task of winnowing that group down to the 12 semi-finalists who will compete in Washington, DC, in front of the all-star panel of judges. This year’s panel for the semi-finals and finals this year, like every year, is indeed an all-star group. Carter confirms that although stature is important, the Institute wants the panel to reflect the diversity of the music itself. “We want the judging panel to represent all styles within jazz itself,” he says. “No one could say looking at this year’s panel that it weighed heavily in the direction of either the most traditional or most avant garde. We even add a little bit beyond jazz. We’ve had Quincy Jones judge in the past and this year we have Aretha Franklin as a judge.”

A few eyebrows might have raised seeing Aretha Franklin on a panel of jazz singers, but Carter feels that Franklin is a great choice for a judge. “With Aretha, people don’t realize her roots in jazz, blues and gospel,” Carter says. “During the early days of her career and even throughout her career, she has expressed her love for jazz and has incorporated jazz into her music and played with jazz musicians. I think that some people will be surprised at her as a panelist, while others that know the depth of Aretha’s music will be pleased that she’s a part of the panel. She’s very honored to be part of this panel. She’s very serious about it and looking forward to it.” Certainly, genres cast aside, for any young singer to know that Aretha Franklin is listening has to be a real thrill and inspiration.

There are some people in the jazz world who cringe at the competition structure of the event and who object to the horse race elements celebrated in a music that is known for its cooperative and collaborative aspects. Carter is fully aware of this reaction. “We’ve dealt with this from the very first year,” he says. “It’s not so much that we support the concept of a competition, but we look at this as an opportunity to bring together some of the world’s most talented younger musicians who are in the early aspects of their career.. And, yes, it is a competition and there are individuals who walk away with scholarships and recording contracts, but it’s an opportunity for them to establish relationships and hopefully friendships with individuals on their given instrument and also within the field of jazz that we hope will be lifetime collaborations. It’s a way of establishing these friendships and relationships and collaborations at this young juncture of their lives.

Carter also sees the Competition as facilitating mentorships in the community, at a time when big bands and touring bands are no longer providing opportunities for apprenticeships as in years past. “It’s an opportunity [for the young musicians] to meet and interact with some of the leading musicians on their instrument as well as across the board,” he says. “We have the judging panel whom they perform in front of. It also gives them an opportunity to meet artists on other instruments, whether it’s Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter or Jimmy Heath. We’ll have some of our previous winners on hand, including Jon Irabagon who won our saxophone competition a few years ago, as well as Ben Williams (bass) and Ambrose Akinshire (trumpet). It’s a chance to get together with a broader jazz community.”

Finally, Carter sees the Competition as doing more than picking a winner, but rather providing a unique and effective showcase of young talent, “It’s not always the winner who walks away with a recording contract,” he notes. “We’ve had many semi-finalists and finalists receive recording contracts or have established themselves as major musicians over the years. It’s really an experience that is under the name of a competition.”

Carter says that Aretha Franklin was an easy choice for the Institute’s Founders Award, given annually to a supporter of music education and the Institute’s outreach programs. He cites several factors in the decision. “One, for the world to become aware of Aretha Franklin’s roots in jazz and how she has performed jazz and blues over the years,” he explains. “The other is Aretha’s enormous commitment to jazz and music education and to the Thelonious Monk Institute. Over the years, Aretha has performed in our television specials as well as other events for the Institute. She’s personally contributed funds for scholarships for vocalists in our college program. She’s also raised money and contributed funds for our public schools program. It being a vocal competition, it was a way for the Institute to say thank you for all she’s done.”

Tickets are $35-$75 and may be purchased via the Kennedy Center box office in person, by calling 800.444.1324, or online at the Kennedy Center web site. Information regarding VIP packages, which include admission to the post-event VIP Cast Party, is available from the Institute at 202.364.7272 x107 or [email protected].

Proceeds from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition and Tribute to the Great American Songbook Gala Concert will help fund public school jazz and blues education programs throughout Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta.

Here is a list of the twelve semi-finalists along with their short bios provided by the Monk Institute:

Cyrille Aimée, 26, was born in Fontainebleau, France and began singing at the age of 16. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Jazz Conservatory at SUNY Purchase, where she studied with Jimmy Greene, Pete Malinverni, Jon Faddis, and Ray Vega, among others. Aimée won the Montreux Jazz Voice Competition and has toured Europe as lead singer of the French chart-topping band Caravan Palace. She has performed at the Django Reinhardt Festival and the Umbria Jazz Festival. Aimée performs regularly at New York jazz clubs including Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and Smalls with artists such as Joel Frahm, Spike Wilner, Tom Kennedy, Anat Cohen, and Harvie S.

Barbara Bürkle, 30, was born near Stuttgart, Germany and began her vocal training at age 20 at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Mannheim. She has studied with Sheila Jordan, Roberta Gambarini, and New York Voices, and for nearly 10 years has been a vocal instructor at the “Go Vocal” school in Germany. As a member of the Youth Jazz Orchestra of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bürkle has toured Europe, Asia, and Africa. She is a member of Klangbezirk, which has won the 7th Taiwan International Choral Ensemble Competition and the International Contest for Vocal Ensembles. Bürkle placed first in the Voices Now-Brussels International Young Jazz Singers Competition, and was a semifinalist in the Montreux Jazz Voice Competition.

Lisa Gary, 22, grew up in a musical household in a suburb of New York City, and began playing the trumpet at age 9 under the tutelage of her father. She began studying and performing jazz as a vocalist at age 16 and soon after was honored by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts in the Vocal Jazz category. In 2008, Gary was selected as a semifinalist in the renowned Montreux Jazz Voice Competition in Montreux, Switzerland. Gary received her bachelor’s degree in jazz voice performance from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal, Canada. Her work has been featured in two segments of Canada’s CBC Television documentary series “Dieu et Nous, Un Passé Catholique.”

Alexandra Isley, 23, grew up in Los Angeles and was surrounded by music since her early childhood. At age 5, Isley was already performing publicly at school talent shows, and soon started piano lessons. Isley attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she studied classical, jazz and gospel, and was selected for the Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Vocal Ensemble. She received her bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from UCLA. Isley has performed with Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson, and has appeared at Catalina’s Bar and Grill, the Jazz Bakery, the Pasadena Jazz Festival, and the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. In 2005, she was named DownBeat magazine’s “Best Jazz Vocalist” for the 28th Annual Student Music Awards.

Dana Lauren, 22, was born in Hartford, Connecticut and began her classical training at age 15. She currently studies at the Berklee College of Music, where she plans to complete her degree in vocal performance this fall. In 2008, her band, the Dana Lauren Sextet, was chosen as one of four groups to study with Christian McBride and other jazz greats at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Academy. Lauren has performed and recorded with a variety of jazz artists, and toured nationally with Arturo Sandoval. She has played at jazz clubs around the country, including the Regattabar and Scullers in Cambridge, and the Blue Note, Iridium, and Birdland in New York.

Tatiana Mayfield, 23, is from Fort Worth, Texas, and began singing jazz at the age of 13. She received her bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from the University of North Texas, where she was the recipient of the Outstanding Undergraduate Student in Jazz Studies award. Mayfield also received Outstanding Performance awards in the college Jazz Vocal Soloist category in DownBeat magazine’s 2009 and 2010 Student Awards issue, and she won a Silver Award for Jazz Voice from the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts. Mayfield has performed on the popular “Showtime at The Apollo” television show, and has appeared at festivals and clubs nationwide.

Ashton Nickolas Moore, 27, was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and began lessons in violin, piano, percussion, and voice as a child. He received his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in jazz studies from Michigan State University. Moore has shared the stage with jazz greats Jon Hendricks, Rodney Whitaker, Wycliffe Gordon, Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride, and Dianne Reeves, and was selected as a featured soloist for Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign rally at Michigan State University. He has performed at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Club, Detroit Symphony Hall, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, and the Lansing Blues Festival. Moore lives and works in Tokyo as a singer, vocal instructor, and songwriter.

Cécile McLorin Salvant, 21, is a native of Miami, Florida, and began studying piano at age 5 and singing in a choir at age 8. She graduated from Coral Reef International Baccalaureate Academy, where she received the prestigious National Achievement Scholarship, and currently studies vocal jazz, piano jazz, and lyrical voice at the Music Conservatory of Aix-en-Provence, France. Salvant enjoys growing popularity in France and has performed at the legendary Paris jazz club Le Petit Journal Saint Michel. She has also performed at Switzerland’s Ascona Jazz Festival, the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, and the Montuban Jazz Festival, and was a semifinalist in the Crest Vocal Jazz Competition.

Richard Saunders, 20, was born in Simsbury, Connecticut and started singing at age 2. He attended the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, where he began studying jazz. Saunders was the first vocalist to sing with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra at the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival and North Sea Jazz Festival. He performed at the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland as part of Future: America’s Young All-Star Jazz Ensemble. Saunders performed at the Kennedy Center as a 2008 White House Presidential Scholar, and with the Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensemble. He is a winner of the Silver Award in the Jazz Voice Category from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Saunders studies at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Charenée Wade, 28, grew up in Brooklyn and began singing jazz at age 12. She studied jazz and classical music at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Harlem School of the Arts. After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, Wade was accepted into Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Program and was an awardee of the Wynton Kelly Jazz Foundation. In 2004, she was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. Wade has performed at prestigious venues including the Jazz Gallery, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and Carnegie Hall. She recently served as a judge at the Jazzmobile Vocal Competition alongside Dr. Billy Taylor and Grady Tate.

Kalil Wilson, 28, is from Oakland, California and started voice lessons at the age of 12. He has performed lead tenor roles and oratorio with the Los Angeles Opera and the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Wilson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethnomusicology and Vocal Performance from UCLA. He has also studied at the Young Musician’s Program at the University of California Berkeley. Wilson won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Western Regional Auditions, and the National Association of Negro Musicians Vocal Scholarship. He has performed at a variety of venues including the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Disney Hall, the Getty Center, Yoshi’s, the Jazz Bakery, and Catalina’s Jazz Club.

Sarah Marie Young, 28, is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended Broad Ripple Magnet High School, where she studied classical voice and piano. Young studied at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance. While at Columbia, she performed with Christian McBride, Cedar Walton, the Yellowjackets, Buddy Guy, Bootsy Collins, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Young was the first place winner in the 2000 Gospel Meets Classical Competition in Indiana, and served as the women’s section leader in the Columbia College Chicago Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Young recently wrote, directed, produced, and performed in a Sarah Vaughan tribute show, “Sarah Sings Sarah” at the Jazz Showcase.

Originally Published