Lez’hur ledger: Women, diplomacy, and all that jazz at Kennedy

September 27, 2012

If you just glanced at the ads for the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Drums Competition you might have thought it was going to be just another jazz show at the Kennedy Center—buttoned up and impersonal, but still a straightforward show and contest.

At least that’s what I thought. Turns out it was anything but. The finals of the Monk competition, which feature the top young players on a different instrument each year, are really just the Thelonious Monk Institute’s excuse to throw a ritzy, high-society awards show. The two and a half hour long program wasn’t just the drums competition, but also a salute to “women, music and diplomacy.”

Naturally, it was a convoluted evening, but the Monk Institute pulled out all the stops to make sure you wouldn’t notice. The event began, appropriately, with the competition finals. A judging panel including legends Jimmy Cobb, Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Ben Riley sat riveted as the three finalists spilled their rhythmic guts on the stage.

Then the drummers left and the contest was forgotten for about two hours during the celebration of women and jazz. A truly celestial cast of hosts including Herbie Hancock, Helen Mirren, and Tipper Gore moderated dedications to all the female jazz giants. Their star power was combated only by the musicians: Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Nneena Freelon, Randy Brecker, and many more playing the works of Mary Lou Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, and beyond.

Then, the Monk Institute honored former Secretary of State and Georgetown professor Madeleine Albright for her support of their cause and her promotion of jazz around the world (apparently, she used to take dignitaries to jazz clubs to promote goodwill). Herbie Hancock and Chris Botti played duet in her honor, and then Aretha Franklin (fucking Aretha Franklin) popped out to sing for her. Only after that were the results reported. It was like sitting at the jazz Grammys, only there was just one award and actual musicians performed.

If it all sounds like a jazz-head’s wet dream, that’s because it should have been. But, the award ceremony format was a constant annoyance. Put simply, with a lineup akin to assembling the living members of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame waiting in the wings, you didn’t care if it was Dame Mirren or some corporate sponsor hack droning on between performances. You just wanted them to get off the goddamn stage so you could hear “Lover Come Back To Me.”

And as great as the gala was, all the pageantry overshadowed what was most important—the drum contest. The Monk Competition doesn’t just deliver prestige. The winner gets a recording contract, $25,000, and is hailed as the second coming of their instrument.

With the chance of a big break on the line, the finalists didn’t disappoint. First up was Justin Brown, a smiling, afroed Californian. He laid down a steady, New Orleans style beat on the snare accentuated with thundering rolls and fills, and his frantic solos echoing the great Art Blakey were nothing if not captivating. He was maybe a bit too earnest though, and by the end he was so active and excited that it sounded like he was propelling a big band instead of a quartet.

Colin Stranahan was a different case entirely—white, bearded, and short with chunky black glasses. His complex, syncopated latin grooves and ambitious, adventurous solos tickled the brain as much as they raised the heart rate and reminded you about why you liked post-bop in the first place.

But it was all over when Jamison Ross stepped on the bandstand. If you didn’t think he was going to win when he sauntered out to the throne grinning like he knew a dirty secret about everyone in the audience, you figured it out by the time he pulled out a tambourine halfway through his first piece and made the quartet sound like a Mardi Gras parade. He took far less solo space than the other two, but only under him did the quartet sound like they’d played together before. Jamison simply walked out and sat down right in the pocket—that magical musical space where all musicians swing as one and the clocks syncopate the seconds they tick.

He never tried anything too far out, and nothing out of the jazz “tradition.” He just swung, forceful and elegant at the same time, like there was no contest at all and he just had the other guys over for a jam.

There are only a few times in your life when you get to witness a star being born. But, Ross managed to steal the show from the distractions, from all the corporate bullshit, the elitism inherent in the Kennedy Center, even the legends he shared a stage with. I get the feeling that when I tell my kids about this show, I won’t say I saw Nnnena Freelon (who I’d marry right this second) or even Aretha Franklin. I’ll say I saw Jamison Ross.

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is a former Editor in Chief of The Georgetown Voice

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