Meet the Winner of the 2015 American Pianists Association's Jazz Fellowship Award

The American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Jazz Fellowship Award is a big deal for a single obvious reason. With a cash prize of $50,000, it is the largest prize in the world for a young jazz pianist (according to the association).

What's more, the winner is chosen after an extensive competitive process culminating in a live performance, all American Idol/The Voice/American Voice Idol-style. Sounds nerve-wracking.

The final round of performances recently took place at the Hilbert Circle Theater in Indianapolis, and after the five finalists exited the stage, one winner was chosen: Sullivan Fortner.

Mr. Fortner, who is 28, hails from New Orleans, and studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Though he hasn’t yet released an album—proving that the association isn't obsessed with an artist's body of work—he’s known to jazz audiences for his work with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, the Christian Scott Quintet, and Stefon Harris & Blackout.

As for that grueling competition process, it includes the following:

  • The Preliminary Round, in which a distinguished panel of musicians adjudicates in an anonymous fashion and chooses five finalists from the recordings submitted by the nominees.
  • Jazz Premiere Series, in which the five finalists are invited to Indianapolis for outreach concerts, a high school residency, and a fully-produced adjudicated public performance at The Jazz Kitchen, featuring the pianist in solo and trio formats. 
  • Jazz Discovery Week, in which all five finalists set up shop in Indianapolis for a week of adjudicated events, including, of course, the finals, where Fortner and the four others perform with a singer as well as specially-commissioned arrangements of jazz standards for piano and jazz orchestra.

The competition was judged by a panel that included the distinguished jazz pianists Bill Charlap, Billy Childs, Amina Figarova, and Edward Simon. Also on the panel was Al Pryor, an executive with Mack Avenue Records.

Phew.

If the competition sounds intense, the association also happens to agree—it issues the award every four years.

As for Fortner, he receives a two-year fellowship worth $100,000, including the $50,000 cash award and a two-year fellowship to include in-kind career assistance, publicity, professional fees and other opportunities worldwide.