By Bob Blumenthal
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was created in memory of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). From its base in Washington, DC, the Institute has grown from a good idea to an essential forum for identifying the music’s new voices, honoring its present and past masters, and making the jazz aesthetic available and comprehensible in concert halls and classrooms around the world. This achievement bespeaks an organization that both understands its mission and has generated an array of effective initiatives that work together, with the ongoing health of the music as the overriding goal.
The Institute’s best-known and most longstanding initiative has been its International Jazz Competition, an annual event that bestows laurels among a field of talented young artists. With its shifting focus among instruments and voice, the Competition has in the course of its history brought important new creators including pianists Marcus Roberts, Jacky Terrasson and Eric Lewis (ELEW), tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalists Jane Monheit, Gretchen Parlato and Cécile McLorin Salvant to the public’s attention, while simultaneously revealing dozens of other promising performers. The Competition itself is one of the most intriguing and widely covered events on the annual jazz calendar; but it would be far less effective had the Institute not also realized that these young players require training and performing opportunities in order to maximize their potential. As a result, in 1995 the Institute created a two-year program in Jazz Performance that allows an ensemble of gifted young players to study and interact with an array of visiting artists on a tuition-free basis. These students have served as ambassadors, often under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations, through their participation in the Institute’s international tours to more than 30 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.
As an essential complement to its efforts in expanding the community of jazz performers, the Institute has given similar attention to the needs of the jazz audience. Jazz in the Classroom brings the architects of the music – the jazz masters themselves – together with young musicians to share their vast experiences and serve as mentors. These programs have had a tremendous impact upon the students’ grade point averages and graduation rates. Of even greater potential significance is Jazz in America, a national jazz curriculum that the Institute created as an adjunct to American history and social studies curricula at the 5th, 8th and 11th grade levels. Available free of charge at www.jazzinamerica.org, this curriculum offers eight 50 minute lesson plans at each grade level that integrate jazz, its history and major figures into the social, political and economic context of American history. The Institute’s Blues and Jazz: Two American Classics curriculum traces the development of the blues and its influence on jazz. Most recently, the Institute partnered with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to establish and promote an annual International Jazz Day in the United Nations and UNESCO’s 196 Member States, reaching more than 2.8 billion people around the world in 2015 through countless jazz performances and education programs along with global media coverage.
These and other Institute programs including multimedia instructional sessions, network television specials devoted exclusively to jazz, and peer-to-peer jazz education programs for high school students are the result of a dedicated Board of Trustees, Advisory Board, staff, and the overwhelming support of the entire jazz community. Each deserves our praise for helping the Institute not only fulfill its initial mission, but also sustain and expand its efforts. As jazz continues to reflect the best in our creative life, expect the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to continue making the point known and ensuring that the music is heard.