Josh Johnson, a saxophone player, received a Thelonious Monk compilation for Christmas in seventh grade. Little did he know that years later, he would be developing his repertoire as a jazz musician in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, learning from some of the greatest living jazz musicians of our time.
The Thelonious Monk Institute Ensemble, performing at Fowler Out Loud on Thursday, is comprised of seven members chosen for a two-year graduate program at UCLA.
In order to enroll in the program, the performers participated in a comprehensive audition process. Thirty musicians were selected for live auditions in front of a panel of instructors that included jazz legends Kenny Burrell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Heath.
Daniel Seeff, the director of the West Coast Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, said the panelists organize the chosen artists into bands, but accept only one band.
“(The musicians) don’t know each other, and in most cases, have never played together … by the end of the day the panel makes their decision,” Seeff said.
While most ensemble jazz musicians don’t write, Seeff said the experience helps the artists grow and develop their style.
“(They) determine their vision through technical skill and grow as writers, (which is) where artistic development comes from.” Seeff said.
Johnson began playing saxophone at age 11. He said he was inspired by recordings he heard in college, and wanted to take his musical role more seriously.
“There are no other opportunities like this,” Johnson said. “We get to hang out and study with our musical heroes, who have done all the things we want to do.”
Mike Cottone, the trumpet player for the ensemble, became interested in jazz through his parents’ and grandparents’ musical influence.
“In fifth grade, I wanted to play trumpet so that I could be in the jazz band,” Cottonesaid. “It was something cool to do.”
Both Johnson and Cottone said the ensemble has taught them lessons they never would have had the chance to learn.
“I’ve learned the emotional power of music, and how powerful music can be when you devote time and energy to making sure that you’re communicating it (well),” Johnson said.
Cottone said that the band reinvents old and new compositions with everybody’s input, performing both at their Fowler Out Loud show. They will also perform select covers by their instructor, Wayne Shorter, as well as a few by Thelonious Monk.
The performers said they are eager to see the audience’s reaction to their music.
“I’m excited to share what we’ve been working on with a different audience,” Johnson said. “Listeners are part of the music-making experience.”
Logan Clark, the coordinator for Fowler Out Loud, said that the Fowler Museumseeks to make it easier for UCLA students to enhance their cultural knowledge by combining influential music and art.
“We thought this would be a great chance to connect two top-notch artistic institutions in a setting that is free and accessible to UCLA students,” Clark said.
Alumni of the Monk Institute include Nick Vayenas, Eli Degibri and Colin Stranahan, all of whom are notable jazz musicians. Johnson said members of the band plan to follow suit. After the ensemble ends, Johnson said that a large portion of the band will stay in Los Angeles, and aim to work together to record an album within the next month.
Seeff said that the performance will be worth attending due to the band’s potential future fame, and their attempts to redefine jazz for a modern audience as Monk did in the past.
“There is a mission to be creative, to sound very modern and on the edge of what is happening now,” Seeff said. “You will be hearing the wave of the future before it’s out in the world.”