Sullivan Fortner is the newest APA Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz.
He dons the mantle with the camaraderie of this 2014-15 class of fellows, whose distinctive voices and personalities collectively and individually bring expanded promise to the growth of jazz into the next generation.
New Orleans native Fortner has been winning awards since the age of 11 in both music and academic scholarship. Along with earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in Jazz Performance, respectively, from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Manhattan School of Music, he already has carved out a national and international performance and recording career, principally touring with the Roy Hargrove Quintet and the Roberta Gambarini Quartet.
For most of the audience totally filling the Hilbert Circle Theatre - retrofitted into an intimate jazz setting on March 28 – this was their first opportunity to hear all five of the fellows. A small group packed two separate sets of programs at the Jazz Kitchen the evening before when the five appeared with bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. From September through February, jazz supporters have attended individual performances at the Jazz Kitchen, the Atrium at Eskenazi Health and at one of the five high schools where each of the Fellows conducted three-day residencies and offered a public concert.
"When the finalists come together in March 2015, we will have watched each player's growth in personal confidence from May 2014 onward," observed Dr. Joel Harrison, President and CEO and Artistic Director of American Pianists Association, during an interview with NUVO before the series commenced
. "So we have an intensity of a different sort, where each person is striving to develop himself."
The process is arranged around the realities of the world of a jazz artist who has to be comfortable in any number of settings. While the diverse programs were far ranging in content, at the Jazz Kitchen events each fellow was required to present a program of his choice within five area
s: a jazz classic, a blues piece, an original composition, playing as a soloist and playing as a trio.
The final program had the trappings of a gala event. If favorites emerged during the almost yearlong process, generosity of fairness brought full approval to each fellow as each first accompanied song stylist Dianne Reeves and then played with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra with Brent Wallarab conducting his arrangements of compositions by Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Billy Strayhorn, Edan Ahbez and Ray Noble. For me the best part of witnessing an all-around superb program was sitting by the legendary Dr. David Baker and watching his supportive reaction to each player. It was a feast with second helpings to go around.
Following the March 28 program a number of people asked me how the final choice was arrived at, concluding on their own that ultimately it has to be subjective. During an interview in September 2014, Dr. Harrison explained that three different sets of jury members are “instructed to listen for artistic potential, knowledge of the genre and understanding of stylistic matters, pianism, and evidence of a compelling and individual musical personality,” adding, “Ability to relate to an audience is not in and of itself a primary criterion, but is suggested to the jury as a legitimate means to color a decision.”
Each of the finalists came with an impressive resume of awards and public appearances with major jazz figures and as soloists. LA-based Kris Bowers won the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. NYC-based Christian Sands is a two-time Grammy Award-nominated pianist. Indianapolis native (now Brooklyn-based) Zach Lapidus received Ravinia's Steans Institute Fellowship for Young Artists. Miami-based Emmet Cohen was a finalist in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Competition. Winner New Orleans-based Sullivan Fortner received the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship.
“The Best” is a moving target, constantly changing, observed Dr Harrison. Thus, while only one big prize is given, each of the others receives an award of $10,000. The APA message: we value artists in our culture and want to help them succeed.
The Preliminary Jury included Phil DeGreg, Jay Harvey, Dana Landry, John Salmon and Brent Wallarab. They listened to audition tapes from 42 nominees early in 2014 and chose five Fellows, who then appeared on radio interviews as their first step in the almost yearlong journey.
Jim Connerley and Ben Waltzer as the Premiere Series Jury witnessed each finalist as a Jazz Kitchen featured artist playing with drummer Kenny Phelps and bassist Nick Tucker. Mr. Fortner’s appointment as Fellow came after the Discovery Week Jury of Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Amina Figarova, Al Pryor and Edward Simon tallied their first place scores with those of the previous judges. Fortner is to receive a $50,000 cash award and career assistance adding up to another $50,000.
The pantheon of APA Cole Porter Fellow[s] in Jazz include: Jim Pryor, 1992; Kevin Bales, 1994; Rick Germanson, 1996; Jesse Green, 1998; Aaron Parks, 2001; Adam Birnbaum, 2004; Dan Tepfer, 2007; Aaron Diehl, 2011.