It was an evening of glory, with an eye toward the future. Marcus Roberts, 24, pianist with the Wynton Marsalis Quartet, was awarded first-place honors at last night's first Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, held at the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History.
Roberts, clad in a gray suit, was all smiles as the packed house gave him a standing ovation seconds after Maria Fisher of the Washington Beethoven Society pronounced him the winner. The slender jazzman, who is blind, was escorted to center stage by a friend. He bowed low and slowly to the standing throng, clearly humbled. Only minutes earlier, he'd captivated the audience with a stirring, powerful demonstration of modern-day jazz wizardry.
The award, which carries a $10,000 first prize, is almost certain to become one of the most prestigious in jazz, and the event's organizers hope the competition will reinvigorate the jazz tradition in the United States.
The presentation, named after the jazz genius who died in 1982, was the finale in a two-day competition involving 22 semifinalists from as far away as Australia and Japan. It was sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, the Beethoven Society of Washington and the Washington-based Thelonious Monk Center for Jazz Studies, which is scheduled to open in 1990.
Roberts won over four other finalists, all outstanding players. Second-place honors and a $5,000 prize went to the only European finalist, Dutch pianist Rob van Bavel, 22. The $3,000 third prize was awarded to pianist John Colianni of the Lionel Hampton Big Band, who edged out Philadelphia's 16-year-old whiz-kid Joey De Francesco in what must have been a heated discussion during the judges' deliberation. The panel requested that both De Francesco and Colianni return to the stage to perform a second time. Finalist Harry Appelman also performed quite admirably.
Roberts performed a sensitive and powerful version of Monk's "Round Midnight," and rocked the house with a strident version of the blues. He demonstrated everything -- technique, power, creativity, quickness of hand and a searching sensitivity -- in his playing, as did the runner-up van Bavel, who performed with great verve.
The five had beaten out some of the finest jazz pianists in the world, and the judges remarked after the proceedings that picking finalists was a difficult task: "This is the most opinionated panel of judges I have ever seen," remarked one of them, Roger Kellaway, afterward. "There are no sidemen in this group."
Added another, Sir Roland Hanna, "They were all fine young players. It was difficult to make a decision about who did what the best." Ultimately, however, it appeared the judges approved of pianists who expressed emotion and creativity in their playing as opposed to technical virtuosity.
It seemed in line with the legacy of Monk, who made his mark with his ability to communicate depth and feeling with economy and use of space.
"The greatest orators are people who know how to deal with space," Barry Harris, one of the judges, told the contestants as they assembled after the semifinals. "The emptiness to me is as important as how to use notes. "
Organizers hope the contest will focus attention on the second-class citizen status of jazz in the United States as well as raise the $14 million needed to establish the Monk Center.
But last night's gala left everyone a winner. "Our society has an unfortunate concept about winning," Kellaway told the pianists before they departed. "If you're not number one, you're nobody. But you're already a winner if you're here."