Jeremy Siskind is balancing eggs to prepare for this weekend.
Well sure, he's practicing at the piano as well. Siskind is one of five finalists for the American Pianists Association's prestigious and lucrative Cole Porter Fellowship, awarded every four years to a distinguished young jazz pianist. The competition ends this weekend, with a semi-final round at The Jazz Kitchen Friday and a final round at the Athenaeum Theatre Saturday.
So while he's putting in work on required pieces recently distributed to finalists, at this point in the game it's more about maintaining mental balance than working on technique. Hence, the eggs.
"The goals are twofold: One, you have to be physically balanced in order to balance an egg," Siskind said of the technique, suggested to him by his wise, elderly piano teacher. "You're quieting yourself, mentally and physically. The other part is feeling how the egg balances and trying to balance that way on the piano."
Relaxation techniques aside, Siskind is vying for a serious prize. The winner of the two-year Cole Porter Fellowship will receive a package worth $100,000, which includes a $50,000 cash award and another $50,000 worth of in-kind assistance, consisting of, in part, the services of a publicity firm and performance opportunities.
The American Pianists Association has awarded the jazz fellowship since 1992 — Dan Tepfer most recently won it in 2007 — and has awarded a classical piano fellowship since 1981. But this is the largest prize the organization has ever awarded with the jazz fellowship — and the largest ever awarded by a competition of its type, according to the APA.
While the cash prize is only part of the package, it does demonstrate the APA's commitment to young musicians, according to APA artistic director and president Joel Harrison.
"Life is difficult for any young emerging artist, whether you're classical, jazz, rock or whatever it is," Harrison said. "We give them, one, encouragement; we tell them that we think you're important, and we believe that artists in our culture are valued and valuable, and we take it seriously. And then we put our money where our mouth is and we help promote them."
The fellowship won't make or break a young artist, Harrison is careful to add: "We can't create a career. But we can give them encouragement and give them some serious tools to help them advance their career."
Siskind, 24, a California native and graduate from the Eastman School of Music with majors in jazz performance and music theory, is eager to get at those tools.
"If we're able to say, "We won $50,000 as the Cole Porter Jazz Fellow," I think that gets people excited about you, and separates you from the millions of other people trying to do the same thing," he said.
Each of the finalists, nominated for the award by musicians or educators (there is no open submission process), has already spent a week in Indianapolis individually as part of the Jazz Premiere Series, which culminated with a performance in a jazz trio setting at The Jazz Kitchen.
Besides Siskind, the finalists are Zach Lapidus, 24, an Indianapolis resident and graduate from Indiana University in jazz studies; Aaron Diehl, 25, of Columbus, Ohio and now based in New York City; Emmet Cohen, 20, a Miami native also based in New York City; and Glenn Zaleski, 23, who is working towards a masters in jazz performance at New York University.
Finalists will be judged by a star-studded five-person jury of experts this weekend, including three jazz pianists (Geri Allen, John Taylor and Danilo Perez), The New York Times jazz writer Nate Chinen and an A&R representative, Al Pryor.
Harrison said that, when selecting the jury, he looked for "top-notch professionals," as well as those he thought "could recognize potential in young artists" and that "have something in their heart to give assistance to young artists."
Those earch criteria may well match Al Pryor's job description. The executive vice president for Artists & Repertoire at Mack Avenue Records is in the business of discovering and partnering with young talents, and says he will bring that perspective to the task of judging a winner. Not that he won't be listening for artistry as well.
"You also want to look to see whether or not they have something to say and how they choose to say it," Pryor explained from his Detroit office. "That's not just a matter of technique and virtuosity; it's a matter of how narrow or broad your scope is on music generally, what kinds of elements you choose to add to the mix. The great thing about jazz is, because it's a genre of music that depends, to some degree at least, on improvisation and has always drawn on other forms of music (classical music, music theater, folk idioms), because it has always drawn on all these, rhythmically, harmonically and, of course, melodically, you get to see and hear how these artists combine those elements with their own personal experience to create a unique voice."
Harrison echoes Pryor, noting that it's all about finding a distinctive talent, and not necessarily the player whose talent fits into any one category.
"I instruct the jury along these lines: As you listen to people listen for a compelling musical voice," Harrison explained. "Don't listen for people who play like you, because we have you. It's about finding that unique, compelling musical voice...Now somebody can be a very traditional, straight-ahead jazz pianist and have a very compelling voice within that musical style. It's not like it has to be avant-garde. It can be, but it doesn't have to be."
From a musician's perspective, it's not quite so simple. Siskind is certainly aware of the makeup of the jury, and he doesn't assume they'll achieve super-human heights of objectivity.
"When you're at a certain level — and this competition is really representing a higher level of pianists — a certain amount of who wins is going to based on taste," Siskind said. "I think it's kind of unavoidable. All of the pianists pretty much know who the judges are and what kind of music they play. That said, there's no way I'm going to choose my repertoire based on what the judges will like."
Following his own muse, Siskind will perform some unique pieces this weekend, including his arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Black and White."
"I ended up choosing a lot of original compositions because I think one of my strengths is as a composer," he said. "I also purposely tried to choose some things that I don't think anyone else will be doing: for instance, I'm playing a duo with piano and drums, and then I'm playing a piece that's almost completely improvised."
While finalists have some latitude in choosing their material, each will be required to perform a number of pieces in collaboration with two guest artists — jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra — during Saturday night's finals. This is the first year that a jazz singer has been part of the competition, and Bridgewater, who performed at the Madame Walker Theatre as part of last year's Indy Jazz Fest, is among the bigger names that the APA could have brought in.
"Dee Dee did not have to take this gig," Harrison said. "We are paying her, but she could have taken other gigs paying more money. If you look at her profile and all the things that she's done, and her interest in things that go beyond music like humanitarian causes, it's pretty easy to see that there's a generosity of heart and a willingness to reach out and help others."
A generation-spanning figure, Bridgewater knew a different jazz world, one in which an up-and-coming singer or instrumentalist could make his or her name on the road, often without any formal training, let alone a university education. As Pryor observes, that "School of Hard Knocks" has long since closed, and formal competitions such as this weekend's — as well as those coordinated by the Thelonious Monk Institute, Monterey Jazz Festival and Jacksonville Jazz Festival, among others — have taken their stead.
"These events that are structured and formal don't take the place of the number of performing opportunities there used to be — nothing can take the place of those — but they play a very important role in the infrastructure that allows the music to continue and in helping those folks who really have the goods to get to where they need to go, both in terms of their artistry and in terms of communicating with their audiences," he explained. "I'm very grateful that the American Pianists Association some years ago decided that, in addition to all the important work they do on the side of European classical music, they were going to address what many folks over the years have called America's classical music."
Siskind echoes some of Pryor's thoughts.
"I think the overall general view is that it's kind of shame that that system doesn't exist anymore," he said. "Instead of going out and playing every night and hoping to get picked up on the road, young pianists have to practice towards a few events each year. It's almost more of a classical model."
But Siskind also has a notion of himself as a classical-style performer, noting that his one overriding goal is "to be able to truly captivate an audience for a solo performance for an hour or hour and a half." Not that he won't have to meet practical goals such as quitting his two day jobs before he gets there.
And so, in this classical-style model for jazz performance, each competition is another feather in a performer's cap, according to Siskind, who chooses another metaphor: "For me, it's all about climbing the steps. I think somebody's career is a cumulative thing. You get one good article in the paper, that's a step. You're a finalist in a competition, that's a step. Whoever the winner is is going to leap up a few steps. But each time that I'm involved in something that I think is significant — each time I put out a new CD, each time I get a review, each time I meet a new artist — it's just another step you're climbing."
I asked Siskind about a prominent young jazz artist who just took a giant leap onto the national stage: Esperanza Spalding, the jazz bassist, vocalist and educator who beat out Justin Bieber and other usual suspects for this year's Best New Artist Grammy. Does her success offer an example for other young jazz musicians?
"She's so great, with such energy, such personality, such pep, that she's so easy to love," he said. "Few of us have that, unfortunately; there are just not that many jazz musicians out there that have that unbelievable personality. But I think we all certainly have learned from her in building our careers."