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Two young, local pianists ready themselves for a prestigious music competition and a chance to put Massachusetts on jazz map

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / September 10, 2011

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Be honest. When you think great jazz, you think New York. You think Chicago. You think Kansas City. Maybe Los Angeles, if the smoky lounge scenes in those old Easy Rawlins novels were accurate.

If Glenn Zaleski, 24, and Steven Feifke, 20, have their way, you’ll soon be adding Boylston and Lexington, Mass., to that list.

The pair, friendly competitors and jazz pianists, are among 12 semifinalists chosen recently in the annual Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s annual International Jazz Piano Competition.

The 24-year-old contest, which drew applicants from across the United States, South America, Canada, and Europe, coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Monk Institute, arguably the most prestigious jazz-centric music school in the United States, if not the world.

At a star-studded gala tomorrow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., Zaleski and Feifke will perform with the other 10 finalists and a collection of jazz and soul heavyweights, including Aretha Franklin, pianist Eric Lewis, and sax master Joshua Redman.

The judges - who this year include jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez (a past winner of the competition and director of the Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music), and Renee Rosnes - will then whittle the group down to three finalists.

“It goes without saying that I’m thrilled to be a part of this semifinal group,’’ says Zaleski, a Boylston native who recently earned a graduate degree in music from New York University. “In the jazz world this competition is huge. Everyone knows about it.’’

Indeed, aficionados have compared the Monk Institute’s jazz piano contest to classical music’s Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn competitions.

As mature a musical genre as jazz is perceived, both Zaleski and Feifke have been immersed in it since they were just kids.

“I started taking piano lessons at age 7,’’ Zaleski says. “And I just grew more interested in it as I went along. My elementary school had a jazz band. I performed with local jazz programs in Worcester, including Joy of Music. And I got piano lessons from local legend Dick Odgren.’’

Zaleski and his older brother, also a jazz artist, even performed regular gigs at Worcester’s now-defunct Union Blues jazz club, and with the Worcester Jazz Orchestra.

Feifke, who grew up in Lexington and kicked off his jazz career at age 4, recalls one of those from-the-time-he-left-the-womb stories his mom used to tell:

“She said when I was younger, sitting in the car I’d always yell, ‘Mick! Mick! Mick!’ She figured out after a few months that I meant music,’’ Feifke says. “So I was for it if it was music, but I was especially responsive to jazz. And my mother ended up being my first teacher. She was a wonderful classical pianist.’’

Both men insist they hope the best man or woman wins it all, by the way, citing what Feifke calls “prize enough in playing and just communing with the legends that will be there.’’

Like Zaleski, Feifke has studied music in college, but he says that along with his love for music over the years has grown a love for balance.

“I didn’t want my life to be only music,’’ the younger pianist says. “I didn’t really have to think about it consciously. It was just a natural thing for me to spread my interest. I was really into sports in high school and was on the soccer team at Lexington High School. Even at NYU, my major is double - economics and jazz studies.’’

Thelonious “T.S.’’ Monk III, son of the jazz legend and the institute’s namesake, says that as the school and the annual piano competition have grown together they have generated surprising results. They’ve fostered more new stars, in terms of popularity and record sales, than from any other academic jazz program in the world, and there’s increasingly greater and diverse talent.

“I just think it’s the neatest thing that we’ve been able to partner with a record label - Concord Records - and help artists we’ve groomed or hosted through the competition land record deals they deserve,’’ Monk says. “In past years that young talent got poached by labels whose expertise was not jazz, the moment the ‘outsiders’ thought our kids were ripe for the picking. The other thing is the diversity is amazing. Our kids come from everywhere, from all walks of life, from all four corners.’’

Monk, who grew up in the 1960s hanging out, he says, with artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, and John Coltrane, says jazz was so prevalent in that era that he might have had access to those stars even without a famous father to make the introductions.

“They were everywhere,’’ Monk says. “So perhaps what excites me most is this new, younger generation of jazz artists are not just observing stars from a distance. They are aggressively making themselves part of the genre’s landscape. They want to be known as the people making new sounds. That youthful involvement ensures the genre’s strength and growth.’’

As for Massachusetts’ place on the jazz landscape, Monk says it baffles him that the Bay State isn’t always included in the discussion.

“I feel that way for a number of reasons. Not the least, Glenn and Steven are excellent examples,’’ Monk says. “But also, you have Berklee, the New England Conservatory, Gunther Schuller, and the old Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall clubs in Boston years ago. The list goes on. But combine that with the fact that jazz is a somewhat intellectual endeavor, and Boston, to single out one place, is a bastion of intellectual thought, it makes sense! Really, Boston has a pretty healthy jazz history. And I’m glad to see these young men representing.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

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