"We're always creating new buzz."

That's Joel M. Harrison's assessment of American Pianists Association activities ­— and it isn't mere hype. Simultaneous with appearances by current classical and jazz fellows at venues worldwide, new contenders are preparing to showcase as part of the Jazz Fellowship Premiere Series, with the first beginning next Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen with Christian Sands.

For Harrison, APA artistic director and president, "not maintaining the status quo" is the underlying force that keeps the 35-year-old organization healthy and vibrant, and in the spotlight. Every appearance by one of the fellows or a finalist brings mention of The American Pianists Association, headquartered right here in Indianapolis.

Every two years, an American pianist between the ages of 18 and 30 is awarded one classical fellowship or one jazz fellowship. 2014-15 spotlights the jazz fellowship through a series of programs, leading to naming the American Pianists Associations Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz on March 28, at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. The position includes a $50,000 cash prize, and each finalist receives $10,000.

After the fellow is chosen, the pace never abates. In the midst of giving each new fellow two years of career assistance [worth $50,000], they participate in a range of appearances, recording opportunities, education and community outreach programs and media and management training.

In early 2014, a panel sifted through 42 potential contenders. On May 21, at New York City's Rubin Museum of Art, the APA announced the five finalists [in no particular order]: Christian Sands, Sullivan Fortner, Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus and Kris Bowers. Each presented one composition inspired by a work of art at the Rubin.

And then, unlike any other competition, all seems to go quiet for four months as finalists go about their usual pursuits and prepare their programs for the intimacy of Indianapolis' Jazz Kitchen. Another unique aspect, points out Harrison, is presenting each finalist in a solo appearance.

"It's the sense of 'I am the artist,' " he says, of the solo program.

This takes away the intense pressure of contending against four others in the same space at the same time. Another divergence from other competitions, says Harrison, is the music itself.

"They can play anything they want within any combination of five elements: an original tune, a jazz standard and a blues standard, as a soloist and as a trio," he says.

Commenting on "the wish of some judges that it would be easier to judge if everyone played the same tune[s]," Harrison jokes, "My life is not to make life easier for the judges," adding, "We are about assisting the artist."

"When the finalists come together in May 2015 from May 2014, we will have watched each player's growth in personal confidence," Harrison says. "So we have an intensity of a different sort, where each person is striving to develop himself."

Each of the finalists comes with an already 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 Zach Lapidus received a fellowship at Ravinia's Steans Institute for Young Artists. Miami-based Emmet Cohen was a finalist in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Competition. New Orleans-based Sullivan Fortner received the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship.

APA moved its national headquarters to Indianapolis in 1982. Competitions for jazz pianists began in 1992. APA's purpose has evolved into one of developing significant professional careers through its fellowships by providing concerts, recordings, and other professional services, explains Harrison, adding, "The New York Times has described [our] work as "profound early career assistance."


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