The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz celebrated its 20th anniversary this past week, boasting all-star performances at the anniversary celebration in the East Wing of the White House as well as during the finals of the annual Monk competition at the Kennedy Center. The most prestigious competition in jazz offers its contestants a combined $35,000 in scholarships and the opportunity to perform in front of numerous jazz greats and a sold-out crowd at DC’s Eisenhower Theater.
This year’s competition showcased Monk’s very own instrument, piano, and featured three young finalists battling it out in front of a panel of judges including Herbie Hancock and Andrew Hill.
Winning the contest has traditionally had great implications for the career of the prizewinner, as past recipients include Joshua Redman, Jane Monheit and Jacky Terrasson, all of whom offered performances as a part of Saturday’s program. Presenters Quincy Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Billy Dee Williams were brought in to boost the evening’s star power.
After performances from all three finalists, 19-year-old Tigran Hamasyan (pictured, photo by Michel Vonlanthan) was declared the winner. Born in Armenia, Hamasyan grew up playing piano to his favorite classic rock songs before discovering jazz at age 7. He had been studying at the University of California in Los Angeles, and released his first CD featuring Ben Wendel (sax), Francois Moutin (bass), Ari Hoenig (drums) and Rouben Hairapetyan (duduk, zurna) in March. Whether Hamasyan will fade into jazz obscurity or leap into stardom is unknown, but $20,000 in scholarship cash certainly isn’t a bad start.