Competition - History

Since its inception in 1987, the Institute’s International Competition has been widely acknowledged as the most prestigious jazz competition in the world. Each year, more than $100,000 in scholarships and prizes are awarded to talented young musicians. The scholarships help pay tuition for college-level jazz education studies and provide funds for private, specialized instruction. The competition focuses on a different instrument every year and features an outstanding all-star judging panel. Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Diana Krall have all served as judges at past competitions.

The Institute has presented competitions for piano, bass, drums, hand drums, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, vocals and trombone. In 2015, the competition once again showcased vocalists, with the semifinals taking place at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall and the finals held at the Dolby Theatre.

Representatives from major jazz labels attend the competition each year because it is one of the most highly respected events in the worldwide music community and the place to discover the rising stars of tomorrow. Additionally, prominent members of the business, entertainment, and political communities are on hand to support the Institute’s mission and the future of jazz.

The competition is internationally recognized as the most significant event for identifying and launching the careers of young aspiring jazz artists. The accomplishments of Joshua Redman, winner of the 1991 saxophone competition, are very impressive. Redman signed with Warner Bros. Records, released a series of #1 Billboard albums, and was named DownBeat Artist of the Year in 1994. Marcus Roberts, winner of the 1987 piano competition, released numerous #1 albums on the jazz charts and served as Artistic Director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Other past competition winners, including C├ęcile McLorin Salvant, Joey DeFrancesco, Jane Monheit, Chris Potter, Jorge Rossy and Jacky Terrasson, each enjoy a strong recording and touring presence. Dozens of other semifinalists have forged successful careers as jazz performers and educators and are making a lasting impact on jazz.

At past Competitions, the Institute has presented its Maria Fisher Founder’s Award to an individual who has made essential and valuable contributions to jazz education and the jazz tradition. Recipients include Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall; keyboardist and composer Herbie Hancock; legendary recording artists Stevie Wonder and George Benson; actor/artist Billy Dee Williams; producer George Wein; bassist Percy Heath; saxophonists and composers Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath and Benny Carter; drummer Max Roach; trumpeter Clark Terry; jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood; composer and U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch and renowned jazz educator Dr. David Baker.

Each year the competition receives an extraordinary amount of publicity and press coverage in a variety of publications from The New York Times and The Washington Post to People magazine. The competition is covered by the major networks, as well as radio and interactive media. In addition, National Public Radio has presented one-hour specials on past competitions that have reached 20 million listeners. Hosts of these special programs have included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Branford Marsalis and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Black Entertainment Television has produced numerous documentaries about the competition, featuring performance clips and interviews with the contestants and judges.

Watch archive footage from past competitions here.