Ben Paterson, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the winner of the inaugural Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, which was held at Missio Dei Church in Huntington, West Virginia, on June 22 and 23. Along with the honor comes a $25,000 prize, an album deal with Elm Records, assistance with management, promotion and booking, and 12 performance opportunities.
The seven finalists—Joshua Espinoza, of Baltimore; Dave Meder, of Tampa, Florida; Arcoiris Sandoval, of Tucson, Arizona; Oscar Rossignoli, of San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Isaiah J. Thompson, of West Orange, New Jersey; Rina Yamazaki, of Saitama, Japan; and Paterson—were pulled from an international pool of 160 hopeful applicants.
The combined experience of Marshall University’s staff, and judges Ellis Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Arturo O’Farrill and Jon Batiste made the inaugural EMIJPC a rigorous challenge for the competitors. To be in the audience was to see the Marsalis legacy cultivate prominent new jazz pianists, one of the defining characteristics of the patriarch’s legendary career.
Accompanied by bassists Mimi Jones and Dezron Douglas, drummers Da Yeon Seok and Jerome Jennings, and saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman, the finalists navigated four segments designed to test their ability to play solo, as part of an instrumental trio, in a quartet with a vocalist and in multiple jazz styles.
Before announcing the competition’s winners, the Nu Jazz Agency’s Jerald Miller—who helped organized the concurrent Huntington International Jazz Festival—lauded Marshall as “the only university in the world with their own building dedicated exclusively to the study of jazz, the Jomie Jazz Center.” The crowd of alumni, staff and jazz fans met this recognition with stirring applause and one barely audible murmur of, “Is that true? Wow?”
The youngest finalist at 21, Thompson picked up both third place’s $5,000 prize and the award for the best rendition of an Ellis Marsalis song for his execution of “Swinging At The Haven.”
“It’s an honor just to be around this much talent,” he said after the competition, carrying a hefty glass trophy. “We’re all friends now … sometimes you run into people with not the best attitudes. But it’s nice to see nice people, good people, doing great things.”
Yamazaki, who switched from electric organ to piano at 17, received second place’s $10,000 prize and the Chico & Lupe O’Farrill Award for her original composition “With You Always.”
In her video submission, Yamazaki explained, “I composed this song for my father, and I hope he can watch my playing on the stream. ... I like jazz, because I can express my feelings easier than in conversation.”
Paterson exuded professionalism, handling an error in the announcement of his name with ease and charm.
“No worries about the mispronunciation: If I’m playing piano, I get Ben Peterson, and if I’m playing organ I get Don Paterson,” he said, before paying homage to New Orleans with the Harold Battiste composition “Alviette Is Her Name.”
In the final segment of the competition, a rare slip of Paterson’s oddly revealed not just his musical competency, but his courtesy as well. During a call and response with drummer Da Yeon, he played a little into her solo and bopped his head twice with the heel of his hand, as if to say, “Sorry for stepping on your toes.” That sort of awareness of his bandmates could have contributed to his win, as one of the competition’s benchmarks is how well performers could coordinate with bandmembers.
It is far too easy for a new jazz musician to replicate the reflexivity of a performance as a hard-coded elocution exercise, a pernicious mistake in Branford Marsalis’ eyes.
“They don’t know how to play with other people,” he said. “They spend a lot of time in the practice room by themselves.”
He continued while signing posters, patiently explaining one factor in his deliberations: “Their body language is interesting: They never once looked up, they never looked at the other people in the group. I never felt viscerally that they were reacting to what was going on … and that’s prevalent in music and jazz right now.”
O’Farrill clarified certain misgivings shared by the judges.
“Competitions are very artificial environments, and they’re not conducive very often to creating great art,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, you become a different person after the competition. You have taken a great risk with your ego, with your art. And if you fail miserably and you come out of it unscathed, then that’s a more important lesson than if you win the prize.”
After all the awards had been handed out and the photos were taken, Ellis Marsalis expressed that same high opinion of the finalists’ fortunes.
“Well, they’re all good, all of them, every one,” the pianist began. “[In a] situation like this, there’s no losers. There’s just some people here who didn’t come in first, second and third. If you’re into jazz at all, just keep your ears and eyes open. Down the road, you’re gonna hear from all of them.”
And as for the competition’s future?
“It seems to be doing very well, but this is the first one. The measure of the success of it is after this one.” DB