Woman playing saxophone in concert.
Aldana playing saxophone at the NEA Jazz Masters event. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Jazz's growing popularity in Chile may owe something to Melissa Aldana's family, which has produced three generations of saxophone players: Grandfather Kilo led a swinging big band, while father Marco played in various jazz clubs throughout Santiago and was a semi-finalist in the 1991 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition. Now the torch has passed to Melissa who won the Monk Competition in 2013, becoming the first female instrumentalist and first Chilean to do so. Melissa is a leader, composer, and performer who is lighting up stages in New York City where she now lives. Raised on Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Melissa uses these traditions as the foundation for her own work. She believes “it doesn’t matter where you’re from, anyone can swing.”

You can also watch Aldana perform at the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony and Concert with NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath!

Music credits: "I Thought About You" saxophone solo performed by Melissa Aldana, composed by James Van Heusen "First Cycle," Second Cycle," "Free Fall" and "L Line" all composed by Melissa Aldana, from the CD Second Cycle, performed by Melissa Aldana with Gordon Au, Joseph Lepore, and Ross Pederson. Used courtesy of Melissa Aldana Melissa Aldana: In Chile in particular, even though there’s not that many jazz musicians, jazz is becoming more and more popular; and there’s a lot of more jazz festivals happening all the time. I feel like jazz is- transcends genders and cultures. You know? And I think that that is the first thing that I have really clear; you know, beyond being a female, I’m from Chile. You know? So I could say I’m from Chile; like it’s not our form of art, jazz. So what? I’m playing jazz. You know? So I think that all those kind of things are really meaningless. But I think that the bottom line, what really matters to me is to become as best I can and face it-- you know, just talk through my music and through my saxophone. Jo Reed: That's jazz saxophonist Melissa Aldana. She's the winner of the 2013 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition. Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, Melissa Aldana picked up the sax at a young age and hasn't put it down since. Although jazz is an American art form, some argue the only uniquely American art form, music is like the air, it knows no territory, no boundaries; and, it's a language Melissa learned at a young age. You might also say jazz was in her blood. She is the third generation to pick up a sax and play jazz. Melissa Aldana: My father is a saxophone player and my grandfather too. They both were tenor players. My grandfather he in different jazz clubs in Chile during the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then he was a director of a really famous band. My father plays alto and tenor; and is a teacher feature back home. Jo Reed: Melissa began playing the sax when she was just six years old. Melissa Aldana: I remember my father was teaching at home. I was just running around; and I always used to ask if I could play. So he was in a lesson and they needed a third saxophone that could play like a few notes. So I was there, and I told my dad, “Okay I want to play; just give me the chance, give me a saxophone.” And I played a few notes, really bad, hardly could make any noise on the saxophone. But I loved it since then. Jo Reed: Of course, if you're in love with the sax, it's good to have a father who not only plays but also teaches the instrument Melissa Aldana: My dad must’ve had the idea of not teaching me how to read music or how to write or anything. He was like he was going to teach you by transcribing. Transcribing is imitating somebody, like Charlie Parker. So my dad made me transcribe a lot of his solos for many years. And by that I mean just to play the solo exactly like Charlie Parker; just make the- put the recording and just sound exactly like him. That was the goal. And with that he will teach me some scales and some theory. But I think there is no better teachers than the old recordings; you know, the old masters. When they play their solo, you just transcribe; just hear how they are playing each note. You learn how to swing; how to get a good sound. And from that you-- I started getting a lot of ideas. And that became part of me, with time. You know? And then I started playing with bands and started learning more about improvisation. Jo Reed: Melissa Aldana learned quickly...she began playing in jazz clubs when she was 11 years old. Melissa Aldana: I used to play just with musicians, friends of my dad. So it was a great experience. I used to play in jazz clubs; you know, like early sets. And I would play tunes and started working that way. It wasn’t something that regular anyway because there’s not that many places to play in Chile. But I used to do a few concerts here and there, that really I learned a lot from that. Something that I will say that my dad did great, he never forced me to do anything. So I never was traumatized by the fact that I have to play a concert and I don’t want to do it. Everything always seems like something fun to do. Everything was always fun. Jo Reed: Although Melissa's parents were supportive of her decision to be a musician, the family was worried --and so was Melissa-- about her ability to support herself as a jazz musician in Chile. Melissa Aldana: One thing that I always talked to my dad, it was that if I didn’t have the chance to move to the States, to keep learning and develop my career; maybe if I live in Chile it will be good to study another career, just to have something on my hands, you know, in case-- because it’s really hard to survive in Chile as a jazz musician. Jo Reed: Enter the great jazz pianist Danilo Perez. He was in Santiago to give a concert. As luck would have it, Danilo's wife had studied with Melissa's father. Because Danilo lives in the United States, Melissa thought he might be able to give her some advice about establishing herself there. Melissa Aldana: So I met Danilo in Chile. I was like: Okay I want to approach Danilo; I want him to hear me and just see what happens from that. I don’t know why, I just have that feeling. I was like: I should go to meet him. And I went to the sound check. I introduced myself. I was like: I’m playing tonight in a jazz club; so if you are free, I would love you to come. So he was kind enough to go to see me playing. And then he came in and started playing piano; and everything turned out to a big jam session. And then he was like: “Okay I want to help you I can help you to apply for the Berklee School of Music. And he was so kind. Helped me to apply to Berklee. He was there at the audition. and talked to everyone about me. And then I came back here; and a few months later I hear that I got the Presidential scholarship; which means that it pays for everything. It paid for my housing, for my food, for my career and everything. So that was the way that I could come to the States. Jo Reed: So Melissa set off for the Berklee School of Music in 2006, but even with the Presidential Scholarship, it was a big adjustment for the sixteen year old. Melissa Aldana: It was really rough. You know? It’s not I came to Berklee and everything was wonderful. I know that I had an amazing experience; but it definitely took some time to be able to start speaking English. I think that that was my biggest issue in the beginning. You know? It was so hard to be able to communicate to people; and I didn’t really know what was going on around me. You know? I will just practice and kind of hang out in jam sessions and that was it. And that was pretty much for a whole year. But then I was so- I was so amazed by the fact that I could study with people like Joe Lovano; you know, he was my first teacher I had. He was in the first class I had at Berklee. And I couldn’t understand what he was saying; but it was just so awesome. So I think that my first year it was really innocent, in a way, but it helped me to get through it. You know? I didn’t even think about the economic issues or not speaking English. I was just so happy to be there. Jo Reed: After graduating from Berklee, Melissa moved to NYC, playing gigs, recording well-received cds and scraping by. She then entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. She had unsuccessfully applied to compete while at Berklee. This time, her strategy was different. Melissa Aldana: And then this time I was like I’m just going to apply again. But my main theme when I applied I know that this is going to be a great opportunity for exposure and just a chance to meet all those great young musicians, all my idols that were the jurors. The main thought that I had before anything that happened in the competition, when I knew that I was about to be there was I’m not going to pretend anything. I’m just going to go and do my thing. I do a lot of things with a leader so I knew how to rehearsal, put the tunes together. And I’m just going to play two tunes that represent me the most. And if even though if I get nervous, there’s no way I’m going to mess it up because I just know it so well, so whatever. And that is what I did. I played “Free Fall”. and it worked fine. And then I did “I Thought About You”. And it was perfect. And that’s what I did. It was something that represents me well. And it was not trying to pretend anything. Jo Reed: That commitment to authenticity paid off. Melissa Aldana won the 2013 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition--becoming both the first female instrumentalist and the first Chilean to win. And in another twist of fate, her father Marco had been a semi-finalist in the Monk competition in 1991. Melissa was fairly calm about her win. Her father, not so much Melissa Aldana: He was just going crazy. He saw the finals because my boyfriend was there. And he put the Skype. So, he was seeing everything. And even until a month ago, he was just boasting every day. And he’s just so proud, so, so proud Jo Reed: Melissa walked away from the Monk Competition with a recording contract and a $25,000 prize....which she's using for more music lessons. Melissa Aldana: For me, it’s important to really know well the tradition on where I’m coming from. I think that it’s hard to become, to do your own thing, or really know if it’s-- if the word original could exist because everything comes from something in jazz. So, for me, it’s really important to really know what happened before me, to check out everything, and then to really know what is going on these days with the young musicians, my generation, what they’re doing, and one generation before or two generations before. So, that is something really important to me. So, I’m able to express myself and take whatever I like from the past, from the present, from what happened, and bring it into my music. Jo Reed: That was saxophonist Melissa Aldana. She is the winner of the 2013 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition. You've been listening to NEA Arts on line. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.