Saxophonist Melissa Aldana Makes History at Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition

By 
Kimberly Ashton
September 20, 2013
Courtesy of Melissa Aldana

When saxophonist Kilo Aldana played his Selmer tenor in swing bands in 1950s France, few—if any—women shared the stage with him if they weren’t singing. But six decades later, his granddaughter Melissa used his vintage horn to hit just the notes that shattered a glass ceiling above female instrumentalists.  

Aldana, 24, on September 16 became the first woman to take the top prize in an instrumental contest at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, held this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the fifth Berklee alumnus to do so. Another Berklee graduate, Godwin Louis (’08) finished third this year.

Although she was the only woman among the 13 semifinalists in this year’s competition, which focused on the saxophone, Aldana said she never felt out of place because of her gender. 

“Even though I know that (my win) is a big deal, because I’m the first one, I never felt different because I’m a female. I felt I was competing with all those great, young musicians and I’m just one of them,” Aldana said. The sentiment is, perhaps, telling of how much the landscape has changed for this generation of female instrumentalists.

“If it hasn’t changed, it certainly will, and should, now, with Melissa’s win,” Hal Crook, a professor in the Ensemble Department and one of Aldana’s mentors, says. “Everything helps when it comes to leveling the playing field. Unfortunately, I think it’s still got a long, long way to go. It always seems to take a group of pioneers who breaks through the barriers. Maybe a lot more women will participate and join the ranks thanks to Melissa.”

Just as Aldana, who comes from Santiago, Chile, is unfazed about being the first woman to take jazz’s most prestigious instrumental prize, she is equally as cool about two other firsts her win produced. No other musician from Latin America has won the Monk Institute competition, and Aldana is the only second-generation contestant to make it to the semifinals.

Her father, Marcos Aldana (the son of Kilo), participated in the 1991 saxophone competition that ended up launching Joshua Redman’s exceptional career. Just three years later, during a music lesson Marcos was giving a saxophone student, he asked his 6-year-old daughter to play a few notes. It was the first time Melissa had played the horn and she still remembers it clearly.

“I made the saxophone sound and I really loved it from the very beginning. And I have to say that my dad was a great teacher, definitely the best teacher I ever had. He was really smart about giving me all the important basics about the instrument,” she said.

After years of studying with her father, Aldana auditioned for Berklee. “At 17, she sounded like Dexter (Gordon),” said Berklee's director of international programs Jason Camelio, who was one of the three people who listened to her audition.

Aldana was one of seven new students in 2006 awarded a Presidential Scholarship, which covered the entire cost of attending Berklee. She credits the college with helping her come to the States to pursue her career, and said she gained a lot of experience at Berklee.

“Berklee gave me the chance to hang out with George Garzone, Greg Osby—all these great people—who definitely were an important part of preparing me, more than for the competition, about life and as a musician,” Aldana (’09) says. “The ensembles with Joe Lovano were really amazing. Hal Crook, he was a really inspirational person in my development. Greg Osby, he was one of my main mentors and helped me so much. George Garzone, he was like a second father to me. Dave Santoro, he was an important part of the support I had at Berklee. Bill Pierce, he was one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had.”

In reward for her win—for which she turned in potent renditions of the jazz standard “I Thought About You” and her own “Free Fall”—Aldana will receive $25,000 she can spend on further instruction. She said she hopes to use it for private lessons from some of her idols, including Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Mark Turner. In the immediate future, she plans to make a record with her ensemble, Crash Trio. (The band will perform at The Checkout – Live at Berklee at Cafe 939 on October 9.)

But she says that despite her game-changing win, the essence of what she wants to do remains the same. “It will open a lot of doors and it will be easier to get to new places,” she says. “This is a big opportunity. It’s a lot of exposure, but … this is not going to change what I want to do with myself. I just want to keep practicing, working hard, playing with my band.”