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The “Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition” is anything but low- profile. It’s been credited with launching the careers of young jazz musicians like saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Marcus Roberts. It was dubbed “jazz’s answer to Star Search” by USA Today. And none other than Al and Tipper Gore are the honorary chairpersons of this year’s contest. Yet like the innovative pianist/composer whose name it bears, the D.C.-based Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, which stages the competition each year, is almost reclusive.
From a suite of offices in upper Northwest Washington, a staff of five manages the organization’s sprawling affairs. There, Executive Producer Shelby Fischer performs the Herculean task of coordinating the annual competition—an undertaking that includes everything from printing souvenir programs to selecting judges (this year’s batch includes vocalists Jon Hendricks, Shirley Horn, and Jimmy Scott) to screening entrants’ innumerable audition tapes.
The affable Fischer, a classical pianist, maintains that her love of the arts was enriched by early exposure to her family’s retail business. The complex—and problematic—connection between commerce and the arts fascinated Fischer, who earned an M.A. in arts management from American University before going on to intern at C-SPAN. That stint, she says, taught her the guerrilla fund-raising tactics that are an invaluable skill in the nonprofit world. A job with the Washington Opera honed those skills and confirmed Fischer’s admitted “love for planning special events.” It also taught her something important: “You learn to never take no for an answer,” she recalls.
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Judging from the Monk competition’s growth, Fischer hasn’t been on the receiving end of too many “no” ‘s. The contest began in 1987 as a piano tournament, but soon expanded to accommodate other instruments. “We served such a small segment of aspiring musicians by limiting the competition to piano,” Fischer explains. Since then, it has showcased the saxophone, the trumpet, and this year’s choice—vocals. The event has undergone several venue changes as well, each representative of its increasing stature. Originally held in the Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, it moved to New York City’s Lincoln Center (which, coincidentally, sits near the former Monk family residence in Manhattan’s San Juan Hill) and finally to the Kennedy Center. Fischer says the event’s nomadic status is a thing of the past: “We’re permanently here,” she says of the current site.
The institute was founded by philanthropist Maria Fisher in 1986 (she also established the Beethoven Society of America, so perhaps it owes its existence to the edict that “jazz is America’s classical music”). The founders’ original goal was to identify exceptional talents in the jazz idiom and promote their artistic development with competitions and scholarship programs. But though its annual competition is the Monk Institute’s best-known venture, the staff is committed to extending the organization’s reach—particularly with educational programs that expose school-age children to jazz. One such project, the “Jazz in the Classroom” public-school program, will commence locally this February. The week-long event—which will include workshops with drummer Thelonious Monk Jr. (the institute’s chairman of the board), flugelhornist Clark Terry, bassist Keter Betts, and pianist Sir Roland Hanna —is designed to reach over 5,000 students and marks the organization’s inaugural collaboration with D.C. Public Schools. Despite the glamour of the international-scale competition, it is for community-based endeavors like this that the institute would prefer to be known.
“It’s important that the community know that we’re here,” Fischer says of the institute, “and that we’re around and active in periods other than November.”
The “Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition” will take place Monday, Nov. 21, at 8:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. $7.50-20. (202) 467-4600.