Below, a letter I sent last week to the Monk Institute.
As you'll read below, I'm too old to take part in jazz' premier (really "only") competition. I felt there was an argument to be made that by enforcing the age limit rigidly, the Institute was actually undermining the stated spirit of the competition.
Why am I posting online? I was torn about this, and want to underscore that the Monk Institute is in no way obligated to reply to me, and I'm not entitled to a response. That's why I want to make clear that I carry nothing but respect and admiration for the Monk Institute and what they've done to increase the exposure (and financial success) of not only the musicians who've participated in the contest, but of America's Music as a whole. Moreover, as a private foundation, they're entitled to run their contest any way they see fit.
Still, the Monk Organization benefits mightily from being seen as an impartial arbiter of talent, and I feel if they're willing to make decisions that affect musicians' careers, they should be willing and able to face public scrutiny for those decisions. One has to wonder whether a contest that claims to "idenfity new voices in jazz", but only considers entrants under 30, is really doing what it claims to do, and, further, whether we as a society value artists only when their talent is manifest at an early age - if we're willing to allow all institutional "doors" to be "closed" to late-bloomers.
Ok - preface over.
June 28, 2012
I am a jazz drummer interested in participating in this year's Thelonious Monk Competition. A native of Montana, I moved to New York in 2003 to study with at . Since then I've dedicated my life to the study of the drums. Every year the Monk Competition instruments are announced, I've watched eagerly, hoping it would be drums. When the last Monk drum competition took place, introducing the world to Harold Summey and Jorge Rossy, I was 13 years old. The same year, I received my first jazz recording - a cassette tape of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue - as birthday present from my dad.
I think you already know where this is going. Finally, it's time again for the drum competition - the first such competition since 1992. I'm now 33 years old. And I'm writing to make a plea for an exception to the age restriction.
I'm going to make three sucinct arguments that answer three questions I would likely have if I were in your position.
The first deals with sheer logistics. Had the competition for drums been held every 4, 6, or even 10 years, it would be fair to say that I'd seen several opportunities to participate come and go, and made an affirmative decision to sit them out. The 20-year hiatus, however, leaves me in a catch-22. I was, of course, far too young to participate the first time around, and now, by dint only of my birth date, I find myself three years too old.
The second argument is about the spirit of the rule. The mission of the Monk Institute is "to identify jazz' new voices," and to "reveal...promisiong performers." It stands to reason, then, that you would want to limit the competition to participants who are not already veterans of the music. The restriction on performance on a major label serves to confine the competition to "new voices," not those already identified by major labels or already hired by established stars. As best I understand it, the age restriction is another means of ensuring the competition focuses on discovering new talent by preventing performers who might have been gigging on a local scene for many years from using their superior experience to "poach" the prize. There are plenty of opportunities for established musicians. The Monk Competition is meant to focus on the not-yet-established ones.
To begin to explain why I believe I fall comfortably into the category of musicians the competition is meant to discover, a few more details about me. I began to play relatively late in life. Though I had played the drums as a hobby throughout high school, I didn't begin to study them seriously, let alone to study jazz, until I was an undergraduate in college. The work that many musicians arrive at college having done already, I did after graduation. At age 33, I still very much a novice, and lifelong student of my heroes Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. But I believe I have a unique voice on and exceptional love and dedication for, my instrument. In short, aren't I exactly the type of musician the Monk Competition is designed to identify and support?
The final reservation I could understand your having about granting an exception is fairness. "If I do it for this guy, won't I have to do it for everybody?" And to that, I have no easy answer. It may be that there are other drummers in exactly my boat, and I'd be hard pressed to ask you to grant permission to me and not to them. But the age limit has been different in years past. I understand the Institute has struggled with the very issues I outlined above - how to keep established people from "poaching" the prize without excluding any budding talent that could use wider recognition. Perhaps, especially in light of the 20-year-gap between competitions, you can allow a few exceptions for folks who otherwise meet the criteria?
I make no claim to being a likely winner - I'm only asking for the opportunity to try.
Most sincere thanks,
New York, NY