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The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition seems to have settled on a geographic rotation. It’s held for two or three years in Los Angeles, then comes back to D.C. for another two or three. In 2015’s Vocal Competitoin, Los Angeles has the honors—but the District, per the New York Times, looks primed to steal the spotlight. Of the eleven semifinalists, three—Christie Dashiell, Lena Seikaly, and Danielle Wertz are members of the D.C. scene.
The Monk Competition has become an unusual contest in that it matches unknowns and amateurs—even students—against rather established jazz professionals. The three singers from D.C. lie somewhere in between those two extremes, but Dashiell is the most high profile among them. She’s an alumnus of Howard University, where she was a student of Connaitre Miller and Jessica Boykin-Settles; “she kicked my butt,” the latter has remarked. She’s also a veteran of Howard’s a capella jazz ensemble Afro-Blue, joining them for their 2011 participation in NBC’s The Sing Off and in their post-show professional restructuring as Traces of Blue. More recently, this summer Dashiell appeared with tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland on an acclaimed compilation of progressive jazz, Revive Music Presents Supreme Sonacy (Vol 1). Her talent and versatility, and downright soul, are hard to overstate.
Seikaly is not far behind Dashiell in terms of profile, certainly in the D.C. area. She’s one of the most in-demand vocalists for local gigs, particularly big bands and singers’ showcases (like the many outlets of pianist Chris Grasso), with her full alto voice and rhythmic precision. (Seikaly can also sing mezzo-soprano…and has the training and frequent opportunities to do so as a classical and opera singer.) The University of Maryland graduate (and erstwhile vocal instructor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts) has recorded and released three CDs, most recently 2013’s Looking Back. That one, however, is the first not to showcase Seikaly’s talents as a composer as well, meriting acclaim from her colleagues that ultimately gave her second album, Lovely Changes, its title.
Wertz has probably the smallest recognition of the three, largely because of her age (she’s a junior in college) and her current distance from the scene (that college is the University of Miami, where she’s studying Jazz Vocal Performance at the prestigious Frost School of Music).
But her voice is the most subtle instrument of the three, a soft delivery with a flawless articulation—it’s a late-night voice. It defies her relative youth, as do her accomplishments: Wertz was a member of the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra and the Annandale Jazz Ambassadors, traveling the world with the latter; she was the inaugural winner, in 2012, of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival’s Young Artist Contest; and this year received a student award from Downbeat magazine. Wertz is also, when she’s in town, a featured vocalist with the D.C.-area big band Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes.
So what to make of our fair city’s conquest of over a quarter of the semifinals of the most famous and prestigious jazz competition in the world? Well, on the one hand it plays to one of the Monk competition’ most glaring weaknesses: With the exception of Melissa Aldana, who won the 2013 saxophone competition, female contestants tend to be banished to the vocalist competition, where they have precious few male rivals (this year there are two), with just the opposite happening in the instrumental competitions.
But this should not be taken as a knock against these three women, who are all overwhelmingly gifted and deserving, and sterling ambassadors for D.C. “As if we needed any more proof,” says Seikaly of the announcement, “it’s a sign that the scene here is thriving.”