Until October 2010, jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant had never performed at the Kennedy Center. She did not have a recording contract. She was, in fact, thousands of miles away, studying and performing in Aix-en-Provence, France.
But then, until that date, McLorin Salvant had not yet won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, a spinoff of the prestigious instrumental competition named after the legendary jazz pianist. When she did, all that changed.
On Friday night, the 22-year-old singer — who has since moved to New York and signed with a jazz record label — returns to sing two concerts at the Kennedy Center.
“Before the competition, I was slowly moving forward, but it was a slow process that would have still been very slow,” says McLorin Salvant. “The competition kind of gave me a little boost — a big boost.”
The night of the competition finals was not unlike a scene out of “American Idol.” Upon winning a record deal and $20,000 in scholarship money and cash, McLorin Salvant was approached by agents and managers. In place of Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, judges Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin, Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau showered her with praise.
But while “American Idol” has crowned so many winners it’s easy to lose track, the winners of the Monk vocals competition form a much smaller club of four. Each year, the Monk focuses on a different instrument, which means there have been only four vocals competitions in the 25-year history of what has become arguably the most prestigious competition in the jazz world. For the winners and some finalists, the Monk has provided an invaluable spotlight that has unilaterally thrust them into the global jazz consciousness.
In an effort to catch singers just starting out in their careers, the competition requires entrants to be 30 or younger and not signed to a major record label. Approximately 10 semifinalists are selected to come to Washington in the fall to vie for the title in two rounds of live performances.
“In the bigger picture, looking back, it was good timing, good luck, and things really just kind of aligned,” says 2004 winner Gretchen Parlato on her participation. (Parlato applied unsuccessfully in 1998, then came back to win six years later.)
Making it as a jazz singer has never been more difficult. The market is saturated with scores of talented, well-educated singers brandishing degrees from the top music schools and putting out their own independent albums.
With record labels’ power to dictate listeners’ choices weakened in recent years, how does today’s jazz artist reach a large audience in one fell swoop? It can’t hurt to be recommended directly by the jazz luminaries who judge the Monk competition each year.
“For mainstream listeners, that’s actually how it works,” says Parlato. “Think of Oprah’s book of the month. If it’s supported by really big people, then the general audience is going to perk up a little bit.”
The winner of the first competition in 1994 was Sara Lazarus, a Delaware-born Harvard graduate with a penchant for swing who, like McLorin Salvant, was also living in France at the time. When she won, she was grateful to receive a kind of validation seldom proffered in the jazz community.
“The Monk competition is sort of a seal of approval,” she says. “It was a very good, positive thing for me because it was basically having my peers, and some of my heroes, say, ‘You’re okay.’ ”
In 1998, the Monk Institute did away with the age limit altogether to allow more seasoned vocalists a chance to compete. It was a one-time experiment. Between 600 and 700 vocalists applied, the most of any year in the history of the competition. In the end, both young and old prevailed: The winner was Teri Thornton, a thunderous singer in her 60s, who after a promising start in her youth had virtually disappeared from public view (Thornton died in 2000). Second place went to a silky-voiced Jane Monheit, then 20, a last-minute addition to the semifinalists.
“There was such a contrast between me and Teri that I got almost as much attention, I think, as she did,” says Monheit. “She was such a clear, standout, unbelievable, incredible musician, that it was like her — and of course she won — and then there was the rest of us.”
As was the case with Monheit, the attention is not always limited to the competition winner. Several semifinalists, among them Monheit and fellow 1998 entrant Tierney Sutton, have had more commercial success than some of the winners.
“The main thing that the competition does is allow for a platform for these people to be heard,” says competition organizer Leonard Brown.
The post-competition buzz is a given, but it is up to the singer to capitalize on it. When Lazarus won, she says, she was approached by all sorts of industry representatives. But they all wanted her to move to New York, and Lazarus’s husband and baby were back in France. Lazarus has found her own way, recording two albums on a French label, but she hasn’t gained the international name recognition of the Los Angeles-based Parlato, for example, who has put out three albums and tours aggressively around the world.
McLorin Salvant, it seems, could be on track to take after both Parlato and Lazarus. From New York, she has begun crafting her first album since the competition, which will be released on Mack Avenue Records at the beginning of next year. And she’s been performing all over, including a stint with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and an upcoming appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra alongside Natalie Cole and Wynton Marsalis.
But she’s also not ready to say goodbye to life in France. “I love living in France, and I don’t want to stop that, and I don’t think I have to,” says McLorin Salvant. “I just think there will be a lot of traveling involved.”
Friday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club, 2700 F St. NW, 202-467-4600, www.kennedy-center.org.