Posted by: russdavis | September 20, 2013


Russ Davis here, my fellow MOJANS, and one of our own, the esteemed writer and jazz-fan supreme, Kenneth Nero, contributes another great piece of writing as he attended the recent Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition at Washington, DC’s beautiful Kenedy Center. I was unable to attend and I asked Ken if he’d be willing to blog for us and here you go. Ken has a great way to “take us there” when he sees shows and this one was very special, as you’ll understand as you read on! ENJOY…and thanks again Ken!

Jazz Saxophone Competition Gets Two Thumbs Up

ImageI will remember this concert forever.  It was a clear blue sky with a hint of fall in the air on Sunday, September 15, 2013 in our Nation’s Capitol. And I had a decision to make.  Should I sit back on the couch, watch some NFL shenanigans, and gorge myself on an in-house party platter for one? Or, skip the 21st century gladiators and go hear 13 saxophonists from around the world vie for the top spot in the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition Semifinals at the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History? If you are addicted to jazz, and modern jazz in particular, there was nothing to think about. I passed on the comfort of home and bolted downtown to hear the future legends of MOJA! 

The Semifinals

Tickets were passed out one hour before the 1:00 pm start. It’s a good thing I didn’t procrastinate because at noon the line was longer than I expected. There were clearly more fans of jazz than I gave my hometown credit for. Once I got a ticket, a calm settled over me because I knew this was going to be a memorable afternoon. When the doors to the auditorium opened, I got seat as close as possible to the stage. In addition to the pull of jazz, I knew this concert was a must-see because my cousin, Braxton Cook, was one of the semifinalists.

ImageThe concert was hosted by Thelonious Monk, Jr. and Billy Dee Williams. Who knew that Billy Dee loved jazz and was an artist whose art graced the program? There was going to be plenty of discovery ahead! The distinguished judging panel consisted of Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Watson. The players were supported by a competition band that had Carl Allen on drums, Reginald Thomas on piano, and Rodney Whitaker on bass. The rules for the semifinalist were simple. They get 14 minutes to play three songs and one must be a Thelonious Monk tune. I could only imagine the innumerable hours of hard work and dedication these musicians put in to prepare for this competition. It was clear from the brief biographies that these were serious musicians. All began playing saxophone at an early age. Some began as young as 6 and no older than 14. The list of artists and groups who the semifinalists have played with or learned seemed like a Who’s Who of major MOJA players. Here’s a sampling: Bob Mintzer, Stanley Clarke, Wallace Roney Orchestra, Terrance Blanchard, Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Snarky Puppy, Joshua Redman, and Ron Blake.

As I listened to the players, one thing became readily apparent. The competitors exceeded my expectations. Actually, didn’t know what to expect. But as the afternoon progressed to the end, it was clear that these young cats could play and had no hesitation about letting it rip from the giddyup. With all this solid music filling up the air at Baird, I began to wonder who’s going to be selected as the top three finalists. I didn’t envy the judges’ job. They had some impressive musicians to evaluate.  Everyone was treated to a range of songs and interpretations. My ears perked up when an artist introduced their own composition or I detected some hint that this artist was not going to play it safe, but expand the boundaries of jazz. Last but not least, I tip my hat off to the trio supporting the players. Like a good boxing referee, they never interrupted the action. Each  sax player had free range to express their art without worry about whether the backup trio was going to drown their sound. The communication between soloist and trio was a picture of improvisation and hours of practice. At the end of the competition, the judges selected three finalists: Tivon Pennicott, 27. of Marietta, Georgia; Godwin Louis, 28, of Harlem, New York; and Melissa Aldana, 24, of Santiago, Chile. At stake was $100,000 in scholarship prizes.

Now I was forced to make another decision about Monday night. Is it going to be Monday night football or an evening of more saxophone competition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts? The Monday program promised more delicious saxophone competition, a Lifetime Achievement Award for the one and only Wayne Shorter, and for icing on the cake, jazz presentations from some of the all-stars of MOJA and members from what could be a virtual MOJA Hall of Fame. And, for more magic, a tribute was planned for the late great George Duke. It was going to go down at the Kennedy Center in Eisenhower Theater. Monday night football? Monday night football compared to what? Hearing some celestial jazz compared to watching behemoths wrestling in tights. Monday evening promised to be a can’t miss ticket to MOJA Land on the Potomac.

Finals, Lifetime Achievement, Heartfelt Tribute, and Jazz Utopia

The Eisenhower Theater was buzzing and with a very good reason. Monday had a promise of amazing jazz and I had to believe, given the lineup of players, this was a sure bet. We were guided by three knowledgeable hosts: Thelonius Monk, Jr, Herbie Hancock, and Billy Dee Williams. After a rousing welcome from Thelonious Monk, Jr., the night began with set performed by high school jazz musicians. They did not sound like a high school band either. The band was followed by the finalists who had approximately 14 minutes to perform for the judges and the audience. First on stage was Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax.. He delivered a musical conversation via the horn that told many stories and the ensuing applause affirmed my impression. He was followed by Godwin Louis on alto sax. Godwin delighted the crowd with a precise and passionate performance. The finals concluded with Melissa Aldana on tenor sax. She thrilled the audience with authoritative harmonies and like the prior two players, took a conductor’s command of  the competition band. At the conclusion of the three performances, the judges retreated to make a decision that I thought would be close. Before the judges rendered their verdict, however, the remainder of the evening was like an evening in MOJALand on steroids.

ImageFor starters, there were several all-star performances.  and it was the music that put me and the audience under a MOJA spell. On stage at various times, I got to see aggregations Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Beasley (musical director), Terri Lyne Carrington, Vinnie Colaiuta, Kurt Elling, Robben Ford, Cassandra Wilson, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller, Ledisi, John Patitucci, Branford Marsailis, T. Monk, Jr., Danilo Perez, Take 6, and Brian Blade. If I forgot anyone, please pardon my oversight. The performers paid tribute to the late George Duke. Herbie Hancock gave informative and inspirational comments on his life, legacy, and the many contributions he made to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. One of the memorable highlights of the evening was Herbie Hancock’s tribute and presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award (LAA) to Wayne Shorter. It was only the second time that the Institute had given the LAA. The first recipient was Quincy Jones. In his acceptance speech, Wayne Shorter spoke from the heart by sharing his insights on creativity. He urged the audience to just create something whether it be writing a book, poetry, or some art of your choosing. His advice exhorted to make the attempt to create what you wish for and how you wish the world to be as we all get ready for eternity. He described creativity as a process of removing the layers of what we think we are and becoming what we really are, eternally. After those brief remarks, the audience gave their roaring approval with a standing ovation. Before I could settled back in my seat, Wayne was surrounded on stage with the rest of his quartet – Brian Blades, John Patitucci, and Danilo Perez – and this quartet proceeded to mesmerize us accordingly. I’m now looking forward to hearing more from their latest CD, Without A Net.

It was a night of jazz and the blues, with a side of pop and gospel, but it was all in the tradition of jazz. The night concluded with many all-stars on stage along with the first place winner of the competition, Melissa Aldana. Tivon Pennicott took second place, and Louis Godwin received third place honors.

What an amazing night of MOJA on the Potomac.

Ken Nero


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