2018 was a remarkable year for the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, held Dec. 2-3 in Washington, D.C. It marked the return of jazz’s most prestigious contest after a two-year hiatus, and a delayed 30th-anniversary celebration for the event, which began in 1987. It was also the last iteration that will bear the name of Thelonious Monk; its organizer, the Thelonious Monk Institute, will rename itself after pianist Herbie Hancock (its current chairman) on Jan. 1, 2019. And for the first time, an Israeli musician—pianist Tom Oren—walked away with the top prize of a $25,000 scholarship and a contract with Concord Records.
Oren, a native of Tel Aviv, was one of three contestants to reach the Dec. 3 finals round at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, alongside second-place winner Isaiah Thompson (from West Orange, N.J.) and third-place winner Maxime Sanchez (from Toulouse, France). The finalists performed with bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, the competition’s house accompanists, flexing their chops before a panel of judges that included Hancock, Monty Alexander, Joanne Brackeen, Cyrus Chestnut, Jason Moran, Danilo Pérez, and Renee Rosnes.