Out of a widow’s wish grew the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which has become one of the most important behind-the-scenes forces in promoting the music that Monk helped define. The Washington-based institute is best known for its annual international competition, which has launched the careers of such jazz stars as Joshua Redman, Jane Monheit and Eric Lewis, and is by far the most significant musical contest in the jazz world.
“It was a huge moment in my life as a jazz musician,” says Redman, who won the 1991 saxophone competition. “I was out of college only a few months. At the time, I had every intention of going to law school the next year.”
Redman was taking a year off to explore his interest in jazz and entered the competition “as a lark,” competing against such stellar saxophonists as Eric Alexander, Chris Potter and Tim Warfield.
“I often feel a little sheepish about it,” Redman says. “I had a great time, but I honestly feel I shouldn’t have won.”
Ready for the spotlight or not, Redman became an instant star in the jazz world, and the Monk competition has come to be recognized as the nation’s top forum for discovering new jazz talent.
Redman will be among two dozen past competitors returning to Washington this weekend as the Monk Institute celebrates its 25th anniversary. Twelve young pianists from around the world will take part in this year’s competition, which begins Sunday at 1 p.m. at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium. Three finalists will perform Monday night at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, where the winner will be chosen.
The competition, which is modeled after the Van Cliburn and Tchaikovsky contests in classical music, guarantees its winners a recording contract, concert bookings and scholarship money.
“It’s one of the best things happening in jazz for younger musicians,” says Monheit, whose second-place finish in 1998 helped propel her international career. “I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
In recent years, the Monk competition has emerged as something more than a listening party for jazz buffs. It has also become one of Washington’s most glittering celebrity spectacles, bringing together luminaries from jazz, entertainment and diplomacy. The co-chairs of this year’s gala are Quincy Jones, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Debra Lee, the chief executive of BET. A special honor will be given to singer Aretha Franklin on Monday.
“What started as an idea to honor Thelonious Monk has grown into a major institution,” says Carter, who has been president of the Monk Institute since its inception. “There’s no more fitting place for jazz, America’s music, to play a major role than here in Washington.”