By Henry DeVries
When Thelonious Sphere Monk died in 1982, the world lost one of the giants of American music. Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk only left the world about 70. He is one of five jazz musicians to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, the others being Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis and Dave Brubeck.
In a competition named in Monk’s honor, Joshua White, who honed his jazz chops as a teenager at UC San Diego Jazz Camp, was one of three finalists. White eventually seized second place at the most prestigious annual competition in jazz, the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Piano Competition.
"This is the jazz world's equivalent of the Van Cliburn Competition in classical music, so it is a major accomplishment to be selected from an international field of musicians. Just being asked to be there is a huge accomplishment," said Daniel Atkinson, the founder of the UC San Diego Jazz Camp, where White started learning jazz in 2003.
Jazz Camp allows students from age 14 to 70+ to study, jam and create with some of the world’s finest musicians. Now a member of their ranks is being recognized as one of the world’s great jazz pianists.
George Varga, music critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, said “His bravura three-song, 17- minute performance, combined sophistication and youthful daring, finesse and flair, introspection and soul. Like few of the 11 other semifinalists — who hailed from as far afield as Israel, Tanzania and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia — White, 26, took repeated chances in his playing, without sacrificing the innate musicality that has made him a favorite of discerning San Diego jazz listeners.”
White was selected as one of the three finalists by an all-star panel of judges that included such jazz piano icons as Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis and longtime James Moody Quartet pianist Renee Rosnes.
"Virtuosity is alive and well in jazz," said Monk Institute leader T.S. Monk, the son of the late jazz piano giant, after White gave the 12th and final performance at the competition held in the Kennedy Center.
Less than 12 hours after White won the $10,000 prize for second place, he and the two other finalists shared a 10 a.m. car ride to the White House. The musicians were led to a room adjacent to the Oval Office for photos with the nation’s number one jazz fan, President Barack Obama, who has cited the late sax icon John Coltrane as one of his favorites.
“President Obama said some pretty cool stuff about Monk and his music,” said the soft spoken White, who also marveled at the president’s height. “He has a few inches on me, and I am 6- foot-1.”
White said he has been in a great deal of hard work since he enrolled eight years ago as a flute student at Jazz Camp. Offered through UC San Diego Extension, the camp is one of the best ways for proficient musicians to immerse themselves and move toward fluency. Whether the dialect is bebop, cool, fusion, third-stream, Latin, postbop, or freeform, jazz is spoken here.
Jazz Camp is a five-day musical immersion — where musician instructors and students communicate with notes and also with the words that impart jazz history and theory, and all aspects of life as a musician. Students and faculty have agreed that the difference in playing between Monday and Friday — the rate of growth people experience at the camp — is phenomenal. A typical day begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., when participants have to be encouraged to take a break and get some rest.
“Since I am involved in the auditions each year, I see the degree of progress that a student can make in only five days of concentrated study,” says Atkinson, who is also the jazz programming director for the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. “The students draw a huge amount of inspiration from the faculty, who are real masters of the art form, as well as from one another. They leave the camp with many more concepts than they have been able to assimilate during that one week. “
Atkinson points out that what’s unique about the program is that they teach about a whole spectrum of different styles of jazz. “The focus here is not on how to play an instrument — as the students come with aptitude. The focus is on helping them learn to improvise on their instruments. It’s not just Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Monk, but a whole set of different approaches to improvising."