Bird

In the mid-1990s, I became aware of the annual Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Competition (now called the Herbie Hancock Institute), established in 1987 and recognized for discovering the next generation of Jazz masters. Each year, a specific instrument (including voice) is featured. Back then, the finals were held in either Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History or at the Kennedy Center. In the finals, only three musicians compete, whereas in the semi-finals, as many as 12 musicians compete. When held at the Kennedy Center, the finals competition was a more formal and highly commercial event taped for television, chock full of appearances by celebrities, dignitaries, personalities, corporate sponsors, and non-Jazz artists. In fact, I attended the finals competition in 1996, 1998, and 1999. For any serious Jazz fan, it became quite obvious which one, the finals or the semi-finals, was the much better experience. So, in late October 1997, while working as an FAA contractor in WDC, I somehow got wind of the semi- finals being held on a Friday afternoon somewhere inside the Kennedy Center. (NO, I do not, and never have, worked for the CIA, FBI, or Special Ops…) On Friday afternoon, October 24th, I snuck out of work early and took the DC Metro (subway) from L’Enfant Plaza to Foggy Bottom-GWU, walked at a swift pace for several blocks, and then proceeded up the many steps to the Kennedy Center (directly across from the infamous Watergate Hotel). Working in WDC, I was already dressed like a government operative (or a corporate type): suit, tie, white shirt, black shoes, government-issued badge, well-groomed, etc. This get-up will come in handy later… Since I didn’t have a clue as to when or where this semi-final event was taking place inside the huge Kennedy Center complex, I carefully entered a cracked super-tall stage door on the side of the building. Once inside, I saw stagehands and other workers walk right past me, ignoring me as if I worked there or was just another witless upper-management “suit”. I guess my dress appearance and badge were responsible for me NOT being arrested on the spot and hauled off to jail for trespassing! I politely, innocently, and awkwardly asked, “Excuse me, do you know where the Thelonious Monk competition is being held?” Most didn’t have a clue, nevertheless, pointing me in some direction, which I followed. After inquiring several times along the way and astutely following directions each time through certain doors, down hallways, up stairs, around corners, and past curtains, as well as following the faint sounds of Jazz, I eventually came upon the secret location and entered it from the rear – a huge windowless room the size of a gymnasium. A few chairs were lined up at a front table facing the band members, with a few rows behind lined with chairs. Seated at the front table were: Art Farmer, Jon Faddis, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, and Wallace Roney. WOW!!! I must be in trumpet heaven! I don’t exactly recall the rhythm section, but each prospective trumpet prodigy came in, played his tunes, blew his horn very hard, and then left. Many of the young lions traveled with their excitable and enthusiastic entourages (fellow music students) in tow. During the breaks, the trumpet masters would just mill around until they got back to work. And I couldn’t help gawking! The eventual winner of the Monk Competition for Trumpet that year was Darren Barrett. I remember that one of the members in his entourage was the lanky future tenor saxophone great, Jimmy Greene, who was the Second Place winner the previous year. On that historic and unforgettable afternoon, notwithstanding a journey full of suspense, I got to be a musical fly on the wall… :v)

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