Four Berklee Guitarists Vie for Preeminent Jazz Prize

By 
Nick Balkin
November 15, 2019

Cecil Alexander, François Chanvallon, Lucian Gray, and Matt Sewell will compete at the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition in December.

Matt Sewell is one of four Berklee alumni competing at the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition.
Images courtesy of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz

The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition has helped launch the careers of some of the genre’s most acclaimed and enduring artists. Now, in its 31st year—its first as the renamed Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition—the event returns to Washington, D.C., December 2–3.

The contest spotlights a different instrument each year, with this year's event focusing on the guitar. Israeli pianist and Berklee student Tom Oren took home first prize in 2018, becoming the sixth Berklee musician to win the competition. Next month, four Berklee alumni semifinalists—Cecil Alexander, François Chanvallon, Lucian Gray, and Matt Sewell—will compete for the chance to attach their names to this legacy.

The semifinals take place on Monday, December 2, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Each musician will have 15 minutes to perform in front of an all-star judging panel that includes Pat Metheny ’96H, John Scofield ’73, Lionel Loueke ’00, Russell Malone, and Stanley Jordan. The judges will select three guitarists from this group to advance to the finals on Tuesday, December 3, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The first-prize winner will earn $30,000 in scholarship funds, and will be offered a recording contract with Concord Music Group. Beyond the financial reward, winning the title brings the award's substantial cultural cachet—crucial for a young artist seeking to carve out a career in the competitive world of jazz.

Since the first competition was held in 1987, nearly half the participants have come from Berklee. The institute has only held two previous guitar competitions: Lage Lund B.M. ’00 won first prize in 2005, and Sheryl Bailey, assistant chair of Berklee’s Guitar Department, placed third in 1995. 

About the Semifinalists:

Cecil Alexander B.M. ’16, of Muskegon, Michigan, is a graduate of the Berklee and William Paterson University. He cofounded the group Visen in 2016 with fellow Berklee graduate Ari Jaye Alexander, and in 2017 the group released its first EP, Shoulder Deep. A winner of the 2017 Wilson Center Jazz Guitar Competition and the 2018 Lee Ritenour Six String Theory Competition in the jazz category, Alexander counts Peter Bernstein, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Jesse van Ruller among his key influences. He has performed or recorded with artists such as Nathan East, Luis Perdomo, James Weidman, and Pat Bianchi, to name a few


François Chanvallon B.M. ’18, of Paris, France, began his musical training at age 10. After attending the IMEP Paris College of Music, he earned a Bachelor of Music with honors from Berklee. He has studied privately with Darren Barrett, Mick Goodrick, Rick Peckham, Jaleel Shaw, and Miguel Zenón, among others. Currently a master's degree candidate at the Manhattan School of Music, Chanvallon has worked with artists including Chris Cheek, Gary Burton, and Kurt Elling, and was a 2019 finalist in the 7 Virtual Jazz Club Competition. He appears on Darren Barrett’s recent release The EVI Sessions: Mr. Steiner.


Lucian Gray B.M. ’12, of Toronto, Canada, attended Berklee on the prestigious Slaight Family Scholarship, studying with George Garzone, Mick Goodrick, Dave Santoro, and Mark Whitfield. He has appeared alongside notable artists such as Guido Basso, Il Divo, Molly Johnson, and Neil Swainson, among others, and has performed at prominent festivals throughout Canada, including the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, the Beaches Jazz Festival, and the Calgary Jazz Festival. Gray is currently head of jazz studies at Discovery through the Arts, a nonprofit music school in Toronto, and also plays the piano and upright and electric bass.


Matt Sewell B.M. ’19 is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, who began formal musical training on piano at age 7, ultimately settling on guitar at age 9. He recently graduated from Berklee, where he worked with artists including Terence Blanchard, Emanuel Harrold, Adam Larson, Quiana Lynell, and Noah Preminger. Sewell has appeared on major stages in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Poland, including venues such as the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and the Spoleto Festival USA.

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