#WomenInMusic Spotlight: Thelonius Monk competition winner Melissa Aldana

Thelonius Monk competition winner Melissa Aldana

JUNE 26 • NAC 4TH STAGE • 6:00PM

In my mid-20s, I did my Master’s degree at the Boston Conservatory, taking lessons with Panamanian piano player Danilo Pérez. It seemed to me Danilo always had a hand in bringing musicians up from Latin American countries; making musical ties between North, Central and South America. My former teacher was really kind of like this global community dude—he is still.

So at one of my lessons, Danilo says, “Hey Boppy”—he always called me Boppy—”Mind if this kid up here from Chile sits in on our lesson?” It was Melissa Aldana, but she was like 13 years old. The tenor sax looked giant on her! Danilo asked, “Do you mind if she plays with us?”

I say sure… So we picked a tune, start playing and retrospectively… I was definitely taking it easy because this little girl was sitting in.

Then Melissa solos, after me, and she just shreds. I shouldn’t have, but I came back after and started soloing again—trying to make up for it—at which point Danilo just cracked up laughing, because he knew.

Now 30 years old, Melissa Aldana, who plays tenor sax, is the only female instrumentalist to take first prize in the Thelonius Monk competition’s history. The prestigious event, held every year since 1987, launched the careers of jazz artists such as saxophonist Joshua Redman in 1991—a year when Chris Potter was runner-up in third place. Cécile McLorin Salvant won the vocals competition in 2010 and Gretchen Parlato won the prize in 2004 with Ottawa’s Kellylee Evans the as runner-up.