Since the 1950s, when Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie embarked on State Department-sponsored tours around the globe, jazz has been a quasi-official part of U.S. diplomatic efforts. Jazz musicians were sometimes welcome in parts of the world where other Americans were not, and Armstrong was commemorated in a musical play as “the real ambassador.”
On Sunday, during the 25th annual competition and gala of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright will receive the institute’s Maria Fisher Founder’s Award in recognition of the role of jazz has played in cultural diplomacy.
“She understands the power of jazz as a diplomatic tool,” said Thomas R. Carter, the Monk Institute’s president.
Albright was born in Czechoslovakia and, in the 1980s, became acquainted with a group of musicians in her native country known as the “Jazz Section.” The Jazz Section defied authorities to play jazz and other forms of music forbidden by the Communist regime, and their musical collaboration evolved into a political movement.
“Jazz was such a symbol of freedom,” Albright said. “It’s broken down barriers. Everything about it is a statement of freedom.”
Since she was secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Albright has called on the Monk Institute and the musicians on its star-studded list of advisers to represent the United States abroad.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined her at the 1998 Summit of the Americas in Chile.
After Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, the Monk Institute was the first U.S. arts organization to visit the country.
This year, the United Nations designated April 30 as International Jazz Day in perpetuity. This Sunday, the director general of the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Irina Bokova, will be honored at the Monk competition and gala long with Albright.
One of the hosts of Sunday’s event, whose theme is “Women, Music and Diplomacy,” will be Tipper Gore. A little-known secret about Gore is that she played drums in an all-female band when she was in high school in Alexandria.
Later, she had a drum set at the vice president’s residence in Washington, where she and her son received lessons from drummers Thelonious Monk Jr. and Terri Lyne Carrington. The voluble Monk will be present at the Kennedy Center on Sunday in his role as board chairman of the Monk Institute, and Carrington will be on hand as a judge of this year’s competition.
Another of the judges will be Ben Riley, the drummer for the original Thelonious Monk — the visionary composer and pianist for whom the institute is named — in the 1960s.
For the first time in 20 years, the featured instrument in the Monk competition will be the drums. In keeping with this year’s international theme, drums are the universal instrument, forming the rhythmic foundation of any musical culture.
This year, 12 of the finest young drummers in the world will compete for more than $100,000 in scholarships during the two-day event, which begins Saturday at Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Three finalists will perform at the Sunday night gala at Center’s Eisenhower Theater in what is widely recognized as the most prestigious jazz competition in the world.
Hand percussionists were featured in 2000, but traditional jazz drummers haven’t been on the competition stage since 1992. The winner of that contest, as it happens, has spent most of his career in Washington.
“The competition was definitely a big ‘aha’ moment in my career,” Harold Summey said.
In 1992, Summey was 28 and a member of the Navy Band at Washington Navy Yard. The Monk competition was in New York that year, and when Summey made the finals, he had to call his commanding officer to extend his leave.
“When I won the competition,” Summey said, “that’s when I got to work with Wynton Marsalis and then with Sonny.”
By “Sonny,” he means Sonny Rollins, the force-of-nature saxophonist who hired Summey for a two-year stint beginning in 1995. They made several recordings together and went on international tours.
“He is a titan,” Summey said. “Everything they say about him is true. He’s like a mentor, like a guru.”
Summey grew up in the Washington area, graduated from the private McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., and from Hampton University in Virginia. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and received a master’s degree from Howard University.
Now married and the father of five, he lives in Northern Virginia and teaches at Howard and George Mason University.
Since 2000, he has been back in uniform as the principal trap-set drummer with Pershing’s Own, the premier Army band, based at Fort Myer.
In the 1990s, Summey spent six weeks in Africa with other Monk competition winners.
“The Monk competition, for any learning musician, is such a great experience,” he said.
Two years ago, he performed in Egypt and Russia, keeping alive the long tradition of international understanding through jazz — and the power of the drums.
“One looks for a variety of ways where we can develop a mutual language,” Albright said. “There are ways of showing respect for another country while showing the best of your own culture.”
7:30 p.m., Sunday
2 hours, 20 minutes