Thelonious Monk Institute Honors B.B. King The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz nurtures the next generation of jazz musicians. This weekend, the Institute is honoring B.B. King and holding the finals of its annual performance competition. Monk Institute President Tom Carter explains.
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Thelonious Monk Institute Honors B.B. King

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Thelonious Monk Institute Honors B.B. King

Thelonious Monk Institute Honors B.B. King

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. The roots of jazz reach down on to the Mississippi Delta and the West Coast of Africa. Now, the many sounds that make up modern jazz can be heard virtually anywhere in the world. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz keeps the music alive and nurtures the next generation of jazz musicians. And this weekend, the institute is honoring B.B. King, plus, holding the finals of its annual performance competition. Joining us now is Monk Institute President Tom Carter.

Mr. TOM CARTER (President, Monk Institute): Hi. It's a pleasure to be here.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Yeah. You're right here in the studio. So we've been hearing a little bit of the great B.B. King, who I've had the pleasure of watching play. And you're honoring him in Los Angeles this weekend at a concert called 'The Blues and Jazz, Two American Classics.' Tell me a little bit more about how got things structured.

Mr. CARTER: Absolutely. It's going to be an incredible weekend. We have saxophone competition which we'll be talking about. But as a part of the competition, we also have a major tribute concert each year and this year, it's dedicated to B.B. King and to the blues. The blues have had a huge influence on jazz, and we established last year an education program in Mississippi Delta called 'The Blues and Jazz, Two American Classics,' which is the theme of this weekend. And there, we worked with young kids and really introduced them, originally in the Mississippi Delta to their great roots and heritage and the life of B.B. King, who is from Indianola.

And then from there, that program has branched out nationally and we have public school programs in Memphis and Chicago, Kansas City daily. But with B.B. King this weekend, we're bringing a large array of artist to pay tribute to him. We've got everybody from Keb Mo and Robert Cray to the great Joe Louis Walker. Bono and The Edge are coming in to represent the rock community.

CHIDEYA: That's great.

Mr. CARTER: And from the jazz community, it's Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and many others. And we'll all be paying tribute to B.B. and his great influence on especially jazz music.

CHIDEYA: I guess you just have to skimp on the talent. It's not like you don't have enough people in that. But you also have this competition that you do. And you've been doing it annually since 1990. So, first of all, I understand the winners guaranteed a recording contract. But before we get to that, what is this competition about? How is it structured?

Mr. CARTER: The competition actually began in 1987. This is our 21st competition.


Mr. CARTER: When it originated in 1987, the concept was to have a piano competition every year and it was in the memory of Thelonious Monk, who our institute is named after. And we wanted to recognize the young talent and really help them establish careers, and to receive recording contracts, and to really get out on to the scene. So the first three years were piano competitions, and by 1990 all of the other instruments were screaming that these record contracts were being signed and major scholarships. And so we made the decision in 1990 to rotate to various instruments.

So over the years, we've had competitions on piano, bass, drums, trumpet, saxophone, hand drums, vocals and have launched a number of careers. Marcus Roberts won our very first competition and Joshua Redman won the competition on sax in 1991. And there are many others from Jackie Terrason to Jay Manhide(ph) and others. And so, this year is the saxophone. We have a great panel of judges - the great Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Jane Ira Bloom, David Sanchez and Greg Osby are all coming out to judge this group of students.

They will be of young people. They must be under the age of 30, and they've been guaranteed a recording contract by the Concord Music Group. So the first place winner walks away with a recording contract along with a $20,000 scholarship. The second place has a $10,000 scholarship, and the third is five.

CHIDEYA: All right, I actually want to talk about someone. You've talked about a bunch of people who have been involved with this competition. But one of them is Lionel Loueke, a guitarist from Benin. And he thought that you were Herbie Hancock after he had auditioned for the Monk Institute. He's gone on to record a debut album for Blue Note, and let's listen to a little bit of him playing live in the NPR Studios in New York.

(Soundbite of Lionel Loueke music)

CHIDEYA: So, what do you hear when you hear his music?

Mr. CARTER: Well, Lionel is one of the most incredible young players in the world. He actually auditioned for our college program and studied with us for two years. When he first started playing in the audition, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terrence Blanchard were there for the audition process. And it's probably one of the few times I've ever seen all three of them literally just stop. You could have heard a pin drop. They heard the most unique sound with Lionel, it was a combination of jazz with enormous influence of his birth and origins in Africa, Benin, West Africa.

But they heard the sound, and everyone in the room heard this sound that was probably one of the most unique sounds of all time. And after he finished, there was again silence. And Herby and Wayne looked at one another and they knew they were seeing the beginnings of a great jazz player, but not only a jazz player, but a great world player. And since his time with us, he's played with everyone from Sting to Carlos Santana. Quincy Jones has had a tremendous interest in Lionel's career. And of course, he was signed by Blue Note Records.

CHIDEYA: So, how you'd get in to this? What's your path?

Mr. CARTER: I've been with the institute from the very beginning. I've been with the institute for 22 years. My background, originally, was political and corporate America. When the Monk family approached me, along with a woman name Maria Fisher who was a founder of the Beethoven Society of America, they wanted someone who had a great love for music but was not wedded to any certain style of jazz or to any certain artist. And so, in the beginning, the real commitment was to establish a major program in Thelonious Monk's name and it actually wasn't an institute at that time.

The Monk family, it was Art Monk, who played for the Washington Redskins, and Thelonius Monk Jr. and others wanted to establish something in Thelonious's name. And all they said is they wanted it to be living and vibrant and involve young people. And so, over the years there were many concepts from a full conservatory, to other concepts. But what happened was, we established what the Washington Post and the New York Times have called the Global Campus. And we have education programs today, literally all over the world. And there's not a single day that somewhere in the world, there's not a young person studying with the institute.

CHIDEYA: When you think about the other aspects of what you do, which is not just helping artists or bubbling up new artists, but also helping a wider array of people understand jazz. Tell us about what you're doing on that score.

Mr. CARTER: Certainly. It's a combination of one audience development, but more than that it's really looking at the enormous history of jazz - its roots in American music from the African-American community, and how it has been embraced around the world as truly America's music. We have a number of programs, but one that especially comes to mind is a program called Jazz in America, it's And we're teaching young kids in grades 5th, 8th, and 11th about the history of this music, the importance of music, the artists, and it's taught by American historian and social studies teachers. So by the time they graduate from high school, they would have studied jazz music and the artists and the history at least three times.

CHIDEYA: Well, Tom. It's great to talk to you. Thank you.

Mr. CARTER: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: That was Tom Carter, president of Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and he joined us in our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.

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