Blake Takes the $20,000 Cake: Seamus Blake Wins Monk Contest

They played standards, originals, ballads and blues. Most of all, they played a lot of notes. Accompanied by the house band of Eric Reed, Robert Hurst and Carl Allen, the five finalists in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition seemingly played every lick known to the Western world, all within the 15 minutes allotted each entrant. There were so many notes, bent and otherwise, played at the Baird Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24 it could hardly have come as a surprise that the winner was the one who left some spaces in his solos.

Seamus Blake (pictured left) took home the $20,000 first prize, thanks to spirited and evocative versions of Ellington’s “The Feeling of Jazz,” Monk’s “Ask Me Now” and his own “Vanguard Blues.” Clearly the most professionally accomplished of the semifinalists, Blake is a veteran of John Scofield’s group and the Mingus Big Band and has been living and working in the New York area for several years now. As one jazz media wonk said during the postshow reception at the State Department, “He has a discography!”

Blake was not the only entrant with impressive credentials. The other finalists-second-place winner John Ellis, third-place finisher Marcus Strickland, plus Aaron Fletcher and Jaleel Shaw-have been seen in bands led by Roy Hargrove, Roy Haynes, Clark Terry, Lonnie Plaxico and Charlie Hunter. Faced with making the tough choice of picking the “best” saxophonist from a group of 12 impressive young saxophonists, the panel of judges included former winner Joshua Redman, George Coleman, James Spaulding, Don Braden and Wayne Shorter.

Shorter was also honored by the Monk Institute with their Maria Fisher Founder’s Award for his contributions to jazz. General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an amateur saxophonist, gave Shorter the award. After witnessing the competition, Myers said he will no longer tell anyone that he plays the saxophone. Myers also pointedly mentioned Shorter’s time, albeit brief, as a member of the Army band. Shorter acknowledged the impact on his life of having served in the Air Force ROTC under a Tuskegee Airman. A band consisting of students from the Monk Institute jazz program, led by Terence Blanchard, saluted Shorter with a remarkably fresh arrangement of “JuJu” and “Footprints” that brought a smile to the composer’s face.

Boston-based guitarist Jim Robitaille led a band drawn from those same students in an impressive performance of his “Arthur C,” a composition dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke and winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers Competition and its accompanying $10,000 grant. Like a cross between “Naima” and a Joe Henderson tune, Robitaille’s tune indeed sounded like something that jazz players would opt to play, as opposed to some of the more idiosyncratic winners in years past. Maybe it was just the result of fewer notes.