‘Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drum Competition Finals and All-Star Gala Concert’ by Francine Schwartz

The sold out 2012 Thelonius Monk International Drum Competition,  sponsored by Cadillac, United Airlines, Northrup Grumman and Centric TV, took place Sunday night at The Kennedy Center. With a large cast of jazz luminaries the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz put on a spectacular 3-hour event subtitled A Celebration of Woman, Jazz, and Diplomacy. Since 1987, the competition has offered hundreds of young musicians from 30 different countries the opportunity to interact with jazz masters, develop working relationships with other aspiring artists. It has helped to launch careers in jazz performance and education. Last year was the 25th anniversary of this event. By the way, the top three – selected from 12 finalists – get to win some serious money.

Helen Mirren, Herbie Hancock, Madeleine Albright, Aretha Franklin, Tipper Gore, and Chris Botti presenting Dr. Albright with the 2012 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award. Photo by Steve Mundinger.

Previous winners have included pianists Marcus Roberts, Jacky Terrasson, and Eric Lewis. Originally an annual piano competition, in the past years there have been competitions for bass, drums, hand drums, saxophone, guitar, trombone, and vocals. Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist Jane Monheit and Gretchen Parlat are previous winners. This year’s judges were an all-star panel of drummers: Carl Allen, Brian Blade, Terri Lyne Carrington, Ptert Erskine, Roy Haynes and Ben Riley. Directed by George Duke, the enormous cast included Geri Allen, Patti Austin, Jane Ira Bloom, James Carter, Vinnie Colaiuta, Claire Daley, Akua Dixon, Nnenna Freelon, James Genus, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Ingrid Jenson, Linda Oh, Lee Ritenour, Ada Rovatti, and Wayne Shorter, as well as special guest Chris Botti.

Herbie Hancock, Justin Brown (2nd place); Colin Stranahan (3rd place); and Jamison Ross (1st place). Photo by Steve Mundinger.

Herby Hancock was the moderator, sharing the role with Thelonius Monk, Jr., Tipper Gore, and Helen Mirren. Pointing out that she ought to know a queen when she saw one, Mirren introduced the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. There was also an appearance by the Unesco Director General, Irina Bokova.

The winner of the 2012 jazz composers competition, Yusuke Nakamura of Tokyo Japan perforned his winning composition, “Heavenly Seven,” which earned him a $10,000 prize.

The three finalists, Justin Brown, Jamison Ross, and Colin Stranahan also performed with a trio. The panel chose Jamison Ross of Jacksonville, Florida, as the winner, awarding him $25,000 first prize and a recording contract.

Madeleine Albright sitting in on the drums during the gala. Photo by Steve Mundinger.

In addition to the performers, this celebration focused on the role of jazz in cultural diplomacy and honored Madeleine Albright, who as Secretary of State was deeply involved with The Monk Institute and made possible State Department diplomatic, educational and cultural tours. Through her advocacy and contacts many educational programs were begun, sharing America’s music with the world. In recognition of her longtime support of the Institute, jazz education, and the fostering of jazz talent through the world, Madeleine K. Albright received the Maria Fisher Founder’s Award.

A little known fact about Dr. Albright is that she plays the drums. We were treated to her solo as part of a performance of “Nessun Dorma,” after which she insisted on retaining the sticks as a treasured souvenir. She claims that the only man she ever played with before was Chris Botti. But, she’s a natural.

Lena Horne’s pathmaker role was acknowledged by Billie Dee Williams, with a tribute featuring “Stormy Weather.” There were also tributes to Ella Fitzgerald – “Lady Be Good To Me,” and a tribute to Anita O’Day’ – “Lover Come Back To Me.” Aretha Franklin, who was vigorous and having fun, needed no introduction. She thrilled the crowd with “Respect” and “My Funny Valentine.”

It’s hard to single out performers with this deep field of talent. However the spectacular talents of vocalists Patti Austin, Nnenna Freelon, Roberta Gambarini, and Gretchen Parlato were wildly applauded from the audience. I also enjoyed trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, jazz violinist Mark O’Connor and Akua Dixon, playing what appeared to be a skeletal cello. Vocalist Roberta Gambarini was especially glamorous and charismatic. What a great evening!

International Composers Competion winner Yusuke Nakamura performs at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition and Gala Concert at The Kennedy Center on September 23, 2012 in Washington, DC.
(September 22, 2012 – Source: Paul Morigi/Getty Images North America).

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours.

Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition Finals and Women, Music and Diplomacy All-Star Gala Concert, played on Sunday, September 23, 2012 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F St. NW, in Washington, DC.



  1. I am so happy to have seen this site ! I watched the video and was so happy to see that the levels etc. that i have envisioned while playing have also been seen by others.
    I see music as patterns of levels. They all lead to the deep. The universe actually is pretty interesting ! I think so too !


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