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What Did The Monk Competition Ever Do For You?

Emmet Cohen performs in the final round of the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, where he placed third. The 2012 competition takes place this weekend.
Brendan Hoffman
Emmet Cohen performs in the final round of the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, where he placed third. The 2012 competition takes place this weekend.

Pianist Ethan Iverson launched a debate last month when he evoked "the dark side" of musical competition — specifically, of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, whose semifinals and finals take place this weekend in Washington, D.C. Iverson took issue with overemphasizing technical convention, and with the very nature of judging art, making the somewhat hyperbolic suggestion that Monk couldn't have competed in the contest named for him. (Iverson has since walked that comment back.) It inspired heavy discussion on social media and the jazz blogosphere (including A Blog Supreme), enough so that Iverson himself commented twice more.

One element was largely missing from that back-and-forth, though: the actual alumni of the Monk Competition. A few weighed in, notably past winners Eric "ELEW" Lewis (piano) and Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), as well as last year's second-place finisher, pianist Joshua White. For the most part, though, the public conversation lacked the people with the most obvious insight into the subject. Surely, the competitors have important thoughts on the value of the competition to a jazz musician's career.

So I asked some of them. Here, five past contestants in the Monk Competition share their thoughts on the pros and cons of musical competition and how it can affect an artist's work and opportunity:

  • Eric Reed: semifinalist, 1988 piano competition
  • Tim Warfield: third place (tie), 1991 saxophone competition
  • Harold Summey: winner, 1992 drum competition
  • Ryan Keberle: semifinalist, 2003 trombone competition
  • Philip Dizack: semifinalist, 2007 trumpet competition
  • Judging Art

    The group concurs with Iverson's thesis that getting judged for your art is problematic — to a degree. "I don't believe in judging arts," Warfield says. "When you get to a certain level in your technical process where it transcends mechanics and starts to become artistic, it's really a matter of personal preference. Judging based on that makes no sense."

    "When everyone is making art, you can't really decide who's the 'winner,'" Dizack says. "It's completely subjective, and you have to understand that if you're going to be part of [the competition]."

    Warfield and Dizack found judgment more futile than troublesome. Summey, however, sees potential for the latter. "I think jazz as sports is not a good thing," he says. "Individual musicians can ... be damaged by the experience. If you're winning, you get the idea, 'Okay, well, this is how I did it. I need to play everything perfectly.' Well, no. That's not how jazz and creative music works."

    As difficult as it is to judge something like that, [individualism] will absolutely stick out, and you will get points for how original you are.

    This gets to the heart of Iverson's "dark side." A competition, he suggests, likely prioritizes playing "correctly" — i.e., with technical proficiency and conventional jazz devices — over playing that evinces creativity and innovation. He implies that competition has a chilling effect on original thinking in music. "If any of [this year's semifinalists] are thinking outside the box, my sympathies," he wrote. "I sincerely hope that at least some of these semifinalists ... have bigger fish to fry than just playing jazz 'correctly.'"

    As Warfield points out, however, every contestant is at a technical peak. Moreover, even Summey admits that emphasis on "correctness" was not his experience. "I didn't feel any pressure at all," he says. "Except to try to be as truthful as I could. To do my best at being creative within the framework of playing jazz." In fact, he found that contestants who were too beholden to convention were unlikely to succeed: Some were clearly regurgitating the recordings of songs they played. "That's not jazz," he says. "You've gotta listen to what has come before you, and you synthesize out of that a personal approach. It's not enough to just try to sound like Philly Joe Jones."

    "That's absolutely the bottom line. It's important to be yourself," says Reed, who has also served as a judge and musical accompanist for the Monk Competition. "You've got to be individual; as difficult as it is to judge something like that, it will absolutely stick out, and you will get points for how original you are."

    The Impact Of The Competition

    As for whether it has a larger effect on the jazz world, Keberle expresses doubts. "Maybe there is not as much of an appreciation for creativity, or people thinking outside the box — but maybe not," he says. "You look at the people who are getting the most press at the moment, guys like Vijay Iyer — this guy is completelyfresh, completely new. So I always tend to be a little skeptical when people start dragging the industry down."

    Seeing many unfamiliar names among past winners, Iverson wonders, "Did any of these bright talents get discouraged and out of the game thanks to the post-competition blues?" He specifically notes that Summey, after his win, had few recordings and built his career back home in D.C. rather than going big-league. This is true, Summey acknowledges, but he also spent two years touring with Sonny Rollins and worked with "Fathead" Newman, James Moody and Wynton Marsalis, all of whom heard him because of the competition. He remained in Washington not because he lacked opportunity, but because he'd built a life there, working in the Navy band and as a teacher, and settling down with a wife and children.

    All of the other former contestants speak of the Monk Competition as a valuable experience. Dizack and Keberle both made valuable contacts and heard performances that still resonate with them today. For Reed, it continued to be a presence in his life as a judge and accompanist. Warfield considers it an important point on his musical résumé. "In terms of how much significance it actually has? I don't know," he says. "But do I consider it something prestigious to say that I was a part of it and to say that I placed? Absolutely."

    There may be a dark side to musical competition, as Iverson suggests — or at least a less-than-ideal side — but for these Monk Competition alumni, the positive takes precedence. Certainly, it's a plus for the audience, which gets to see 12 extraordinary drummers exhibit their craft onstage, and likely at least one future star in the making. And this, Warfield says, is the reason it's a net positive for the music, too.

    "The arts in general are suffering," he says. "This competition gets attention every year, and I think it's very easy to say that the good outweighs the bad. Because the question is, what would we do if the Thelonious Monk Competition didn't exist?"

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Michael J. West