Monk Institute bridges jazz gulf in U.S., Panama

Fri Mar 14, 2008 8:05pm EDT
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By Larry Blumenfeld

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Danilo Perez stood before a blackboard at Loyola University in New Orleans in November. As a visiting instructor for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, the pianist addressed seven masters students.

He implored them to search within themselves, not just as musicians but as people. It is the same challenge laid down, he said, by the legendary musicians he has played with: most recently, saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

Scrawled on the blackboard were complex diagrams of Afro-Caribbean rhythms: Perez was also drawing these students outward, into his world. Little did they know how far that process would extend. In January, the Monk students participated as both performers and guest instructors in the Panama Jazz Festival, which Perez founded five years ago in his native land.

It was the latest stop in a journey of transformation for these seven musicians that began in fall 2007, when the Monk Institute's masters program relocated to New Orleans from its previous home at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At an announcement of the move in April, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the program's artistic director, invited the students to his native city -- to an environment that has nurtured so many important jazz musicians and is now a city in need.


Blanchard's recent Blue Note album, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)" -- which recently won a Grammy Award for best large jazz ensemble album -- represented a personal healing. And the Monk Institute initiative, he said, was a more communal, perhaps more important offering.

"I thought long and hard about what to do after Katrina," Blanchard said at an opening celebration, "and education seemed the key."

Other than guitarist Davy Mooney, a New Orleans native, the Monk masters students hail from other parts of the United States and beyond: Carmichael, California (trumpeter Gordon Au); Kansas City, Missouri (bassist Joe Johnson); Long Island, New York (saxophonist Jake Saslow); Denver (drummer Colin Stranahan); and San Diego (vocalist Johnaye Kendrick). Pianist Vadim Neselovskyi was born in Odessa, Ukraine.   Continued...