West Coast Jazz Resurrection: The Thelonious Monk Institute

By Sloan, Lester | American Visions, June-July 1998 | Go to article overview

West Coast Jazz Resurrection: The Thelonious Monk Institute


Sloan, Lester, American Visions


A city not known for harmony Los Angeles is moving straight ahead toward a new attitude. There have been no studies initiated or commissions appointed to chart the course of this phenomenon, because the noise of daily discourse still drowns out progress made in heartbeats. Nevertheless, when Kelly Collins decided to take some of her favorite jazz compact discs to work to help the time pass during her shift in the coffee shop at Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood, Calif., she noticed an immediate change in the number of people w ho stopped by. "People would come by for a `set,' chat awhile, then leave," she says. "Many would ask about the artist playing, and some would order the CD." After decades, jazz remains America's crossover medium.

Reggie Andrews has been the music instructor at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles for more than 10 years. His classes are popular--not just among the black students in the community whom he's committed to serving, but with those from the outside as well. There are white parents who drive their children in from the Valley twice a week to attend his jazz classes. "They want to get to know the music," says this 50-year-old arranger and composer, who has seen many of his students go on to successful careers in music.

Andrews is one of five high-school music "coaches" heading up a jazz-sports program that is underwritten by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C. The program gives students a chance to learn from working musicians some extra income and props, as well as the opportunity to keep jazz thriving.

Recognized as a major force in jazz and jazz education, the Monk Institute was established in D.C. in 1986 by the Monk family and the late Maria Fisher, an opera singer and jazz lover. Its mission is simple: "to offer the world's most promising young musicians college-level training by American's jazz masters and to present public school-based jazz educating programs for young people around the globe."

In 1995 the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance--the only full-scholarship intensive jazz performance program in the world--was launched at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Bassist Ron Carter serves as the artistic director of the program, which every two years selects a group of students from around the world to study with such jazz masters as Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Jackie McLean, Barry Harris, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath.

Los Angeles was the obvious next step for the Monk Institute, given the music industry's acquired taste for films with jazz soundtracks and the history connected with Central Avenue. (Running from downtown L.A. to Watts, Central Avenue was the economic lifeblood of the black community and the Harlem of the West Coast.) And L.A. was ripe for an alliance between two musical strongholds with an appreciation for jazz--the Music Center of Los Angeles County and the Monk Institute.

Without attempting to rival the No. 1 man in music on the East Coast--Wynton Marsalis. The artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in New York City--the Monk Institute headed by Thelonious Monk Jr. selected a lion from another generation to lead the organization on the West Coast. Since May 1997 pianist-composer Herbie Hancock has shouldered the responsibility of elevating jazz to prime time in the West. His focus, in contrast to that of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has been on educational outreach first performance second.

Hancock was a natural choice for artistic director of the Los Angeles operation. He was there at the formation of the Monk Institute, and he serves on its board of directors. Besides being a performer and composer, he's also a lecturer and teacher. He has what some in the industry call the "gift of presentation."

Together, the Music Center and the Monk Institute present classes and performances throughout the year (see sidebar). …

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