It’s not unusual for a young pianist to enter a competition. Learning new repertoire, perfecting pieces you’ve known for years and getting them just right in the middle of a high-stakes and stressful situation is something you’re used to. But that’s not necessarily the case if you specialize in jazz piano.
“There aren’t that many jazz piano competitions because jazz is hard to quantify,” says third year jazz studies DMA student Paul Shinn. “In classical competitions you can say someone played with more precision, but once you get to a certain level with jazz, it’s kind of subjective and based on your taste.”
Maybe that’s why Shinn—who entered several classical competitions in his youth and in high school—is preparing for just his second jazz competition.
Later this month, he’ll travel to South Africa to compete in the 13th Unisa International Piano Competition. The Unisa Music Foundation at the University of South Africa has been putting on competitions since 1982; at stake at the end of the 10-day festival and competition is a $15,000 grand prize. This year, for the first time, the competition will feature a jazz piano category.
Shinn says he heard about the competition from a former teacher, who said the organizers were looking for American pianists to apply. “There are 14 competitors total, and I actually know some of them because we went to school together at the University of North Texas,” he says.
In addition to the all-expenses-paid trip to a new place, Shinn says he’s looking forward to meeting other musicians and hearing them play. “It’s so inspiring to be around other musicians who are interested in the same thing you are,” he says. “I’m excited to hear new ideas and talk to new people.”
Shinn last competed internationally in the 2010 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
Though he took classical piano lessons for more than 10 years, jazz was always hard for Shinn to ignore. Growing up in Kansas City—a hub for jazz in the Midwest—he first started learning early jazz, swing and ragtime when he was in high school.
He says he really began to focus on jazz right before college. “I like that in jazz, you have to approach everything authentically to get to the root of it.” He learned stride piano—a technique in which the player’s left hand essentially accompanies the right by “striding” back and forth on the low keys—from a master of the style while in Kansas City.
After earning a bachelor’s at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a master’s at the University of North Texas, Shinn came to the Thompson Jazz Studies Program in 2013, in part drawn by the world-class visiting artists the program attracts. “Thanks to the Thompson’s gift, there are always big names coming through,” he says. “We get to spend time with and really learn from these amazing artists.”
He says the wide range of expertise on the jazz faculty at CU Boulder played a role in preparing him for the Unisa competition. “Jazz here is diverse and open to all sorts of ideas. Every student gets to hear so many different styles and perspectives from our teachers.”
In addition to playing solo gigs around Denver, Shinn has been busy making music with his trio, which he started in 2013 in Kansas City. The group will release its third CD this week, thanks to the money Shinn was awarded last year from Boulder’s Pathways to Jazz grant.
“Receiving such a generous award allowed our group the necessary time and resources to fully realize the artistic vision of this new album,” Shinn explains. “’Into That Good Night’ features mostly original compositions along with a few arrangements of jazz standards, demonstrating the continued musical growth the trio has experienced since its inception.”
The Paul Shinn Trio is playing two shows in the area this week: DazzleJazz in Denver on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m., and Caffe Sole in Boulder on Friday, Jan. 15 at 7 p.m.
The Unisa Piano Competition is on Jan. 26, on the University of South Africa Muckleneuk Campus in Pretoria, South Africa.