The three judges were starting to run out of compliments. By the time the second half of Jazz Search West's semi-final round got underway at Freight & Salvage last week, the consistently impressive cast of competitors was depleting its list of superlatives.
As vocalist Rebecca Holtz cued the trio to close a rollicking rendition of "You Turned the Tables On Me," Tiffany Austin took a deep breath. "You are phenomenal," said Austin, whose second place finish at Jazz Search West 2012 helped launch a brilliant career with two critically hailed albums and numerous high-profile performances. "I loved how you went from super bright to super growly."
Guitarist Terrence Brewer, sitting next to Austin at the judges' table, praised Holtz's evident growth since last year's competition and her "command of her instrument," while trumpeter Erik Jekabson, the third adjudicator, echoed their sentiments and added a caution about not selling a song too hard. "Think about whether you need a hand gesture or facial expression for every phrase."
The feedback captured part of what makes Jazz Search West such an engrossing spectacle and valuable resource, offering Holtz incisive encouragement, useful critique, and entrée to a whole new group of listeners and colleagues. At the end of the evening, she was one of eight contestants selected to compete in the grand finale at Yoshi's on April 30, a roster that left some truly impressive musicians strategizing about next year's search.
In its 10th season, Jazz Search West has become an essential part of the Bay Area's thriving jazz ecosystem. With five rounds taking place over five weeks, Jazz Search West gives aspiring musicians the opportunity to work with a top-shelf rhythm section (this year's band features pianist Walter Bankovitch; drummer Mark Lee; and bassist Jeff Chambers, a revered master whose recording credits include Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ahmad Jamal).
As word about the competition has spread far and wide, it's drawn a wider array of musicians. "In the beginning we were heavy on vocalists," says Stacey Hoffman, the co-founder and executive director of Living Jazz, the Oakland arts organization that produces Jazz Search West. "Now we're seeing more instrumentalists taking part and winning. There's so much talent out there.
More than an opportunity for bragging rights, Jazz Search West is a proving ground and networking opportunity. In 2014, San Jose's Jackie Gage and Novato-reared Lilan Kane, vocalists living 70 miles away from each other, met at Oakland's Sound Room in an early round of the contest and bonded as sister singers. Two years later they shared a sold-out show at Yoshi's celebrating the release of their debut albums (Gage's Siren Songs and Kane's Love, Myself).
In 2015, 15-year-old Vacaville trumpeter Katie Williams came in second place and for her prize she chose a recording session at Berkeley's Live Oak Studio. She entered the contest as much to connect with musicians in the Bay Area as to joust, and ended up impressing bassist Marcus Shelby, who was in the house rhythm section. Now attending the Brubeck Institute, Williams is a regular member of the Marcus Shelby Orchestra.
"It was awesome to meet so many people," Williams says. "Out in Vacaville it wasn't easy to connect with other musicians."
Berkeley High senior Max Nierlich, a trumpeter, took first place last year with a well-thought-out succession of tunes. Though he hit the grand finale with a strategy, at first he was "happy to pass the first session," he said. "I just wanted to be a part of it and with this amazing professional rhythm section. Just getting to meet all the other contestants was great, such a wide variety, people who have day jobs, amazing players, and kids like me."
A big part of Jazz Search West's success stems from the fact that it's part of a dense network of programs created and run by Living Jazz, including Jazz Camp West; Jam Camp West, a program for 10 to 15-year-olds now in its 11th season; and the Living Jazz Children's Project, a free music education program for OUSD elementary schools that serves more than 300 second and third graders. At the Yoshi's contest grand finale, Hoffman is receiving a Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association in recognition of her many contributions to the scene.
She credits Living Jazz board member Kyle Blaze with coming up with the idea of a jazz competition "and it took off right away," Hoffman says. "It was fun and not that complicated for us given the huge things we do."