Congratulations to the 2023 National Pianist Award Winner + Finalists!

Volume 10

Isaiah J. Thompson wins the 2023 American Pianist Awards

The JAZZ HOUSE sets a new precedent with alumni claiming 3 of 5 finalist spots at the coveted American Pianists Awards

We are bursting with pride about the extraordinary accomplishments of our talented alumni Isaiah J. Thompson, who won the American Pianists Association 2023 Award for Jazz and the Cole Porter Fellowship, along with his friends and fellow alumni, Caelan Cardello and Esteban Castro, who were finalists in the competition.

Caelan Cardello, Isaiah J. Thompson and Esteban Castro, 2023 American Pianist Award Finalists

One of the most coveted prizes in the music world and the largest for American pianists, the American Pianists Awards are held every two years alternating classical and jazz, to discover the best aspiring young American pianists. The unique and innovative competitions span 13 months and provide a platform to deeply engage musical artists in a variety of creative formats and settings. As grand prize winner, Thompson will receive career support valued at more than $200,000 including a cash prize; two years of career assistance; a media and performance tour; a recording contract; an artist residency and more.

Hosted by Bill Charlap, Saturday’s competition finale culminated with Cardello, Castro and Thompson, and pianists, Paul Cornish of Los Angeles and Thomas Linger of New York City performing on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage in Indianapolis in breathtaking duets with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and with the Buselli-Wallrab Jazz Orchestra.

I cannot express how grateful and blessed I feel to have been chosen to represent the American Pianists Association as their 2023 winner. I have known some of my fellow finalists since before I can even remember. Their friendship and musicianship makes the piano and the piano community just a little less intimidating because of how much integrity, humility and kindness they all generously display. Thank you APA for affirming that pianists’ sounds and identities come in all shapes and sizes, for supporting young musicians and for uplifting jazz with the esteem and nobility that this art form deserves.

As finalists of the Cole Porter Fellowship chosen from more than 1,200 nominations across the nation, Castro, Cardello and the other two finalists received cash prizes of $25,000, along with exceptional performance opportunities and global visibility. Many former winners in the APA competition have gone on to great success include Sullivan Fortner, Emmet Cohen (a former JAZZ HOUSE student and 2021 MONTCLAIR JAZZ FESTIVAL headliner), Aaron Diehl, Dan Tepfer and Aaron Parks.

Early Training at the JAZZ HOUSE

Thompson, Cardello and Castro all overlapped at the JAZZ HOUSE, starting as early as early as elementary school. Each found their “tribe” – a supportive community, inspiring curriculum, like-minded peers, caring mentors, top training by an esteemed faculty and loads of performance opportunities. JAZZ HOUSE students regularly get the opportunity to meet an extraordinary extended network of professional musicians, and world-renowned artists starting with the organization’s Artistic Director, 8-time GRAMMY Award-winning bassist, Christian McBride. Through McBride, these students got to work with such keyboard legends as the late great Chick Corea and George Duke; Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Eddie Palmieri, Christian Sands and many more world-class musicians who add to the rich training and experiences.

2023 American Pianist Award Isaiah J. ThompsonThe three alumni honorees’ talent was on full display early on and and they inspired their peers to work a little harder and practice a little longer. They all developed into advanced students and earned a seat in the award-winning JAZZ HOUSE Big Band, then went on to prestigious music schools and early recognition on the music scene.

Alumni have found that the JAZZ HOUSE has a life-long community. Many have come back as TAs for the JAZZ HOUSE Summer Workshop, join as arts interns, or are hired for various performances and gigs. Several graduates have come full circle, working year-round at the JAZZ HOUSE.
The legacy of the JAZZ HOUSE continues with each new student finding their path through jazz. According to Melissa Walker, the organization she started 20 years ago is beginning to see the impact of its working with more than 52,000+ students in-school and afterschool programs, with its alumni rising to greatness.

We like to say the JAZZ HOUSE is an instrument for change, and that really holds true with our students whether they go into music, or become leaders in their communities or careers. We are so proud of our alumni that have come through the program, and are making their mark on and off the stage. I was beyond thrilled to attend the APA finals in Indianapolis along with our VP of Jazz Education, Ted Chubb and represent the entire community of the JAZZ HOUSE. Bravo Esteban and Caelan for your exciting journey. And I am so proud of Isaiah, and the man and the musician he has become!"

To think all three of these incredible young artists came through the JAZZ HOUSE is both astounding and reaffirming. We know this is a special place where like-minded young people come together and see their talents flourish. Each of these individuals possesses all of what the JAZZ HOUSE seeks to instill in our students -- artistry, creativity, empathy, and citizenship. We are so excited to see amazing careers unfold for Caelan, Esteban, and Isaiah, but also what is in store for our current students and recent alumni who aspire to the heights of musicianship that these three represent.


by Alex Laurenzi, Alumni Relations Liaison

Isaiah J. Thompson

2023 American Pianists Award winner Isaiah J. Thompson is a New York-based pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator from West Orange, NJ. The Juilliard School graduate has become one of the most recognized young stars in jazz.

Isaiah feels that his generation of JAZZ HOUSE students had a particular energy and talent, and is lucky to have been part of it. That wave of talent helped drive those early formative experiences, both for the students and for the organization. He carries with him today the advice from JAZZ HOUSE instructors who encouraged students to really investigate and research the music on their own. The JAZZ HOUSE community was also instrumental in helping him realize that Juilliard was an attainable goal for his collegiate experience.

One of Isaiah’s many accomplishments thus far has been his 2nd place finish in the 2019 Thelonious Monk Competition, and it has shaped how he understands his participation in this year’s APA Competition.

“Something that has been really cool is to spend more time with Caelan and Esteban, because pianists don’t get to see each other on gigs – it’s not like a big band where you can play with other saxophonists, so it has been enjoyable to see them.”

It is a special time in Isaiah’s life, because in addition to the APA, he is getting married in June and he has just released his first album to feature all of his own original music, The Power of the Spirit, now available on Blue Engine Records and streaming platforms everywhere. The record also features JAZZ HOUSE alum Julian Lee. In addition to his own quartet, Isaiah can be seen as a member of John Pizzarelli’s Trio, with whom he tours extensively.”

Esteban Castro

Few students have come to the JAZZ HOUSE with more prodigious talent than 21-year-old Esteban Castro, a remarkable pianist, composer, and bandleader who started classes when he was seven years old. Originally from Hackensack, Esteban was classically trained but fell in love with pianists like Chick Corea and Bill Evans at an early age, which led him to jazz. Part of a special group of young players called “the Upstarts,” Esteban thrived during his time at the JAZZ HOUSE. His experience there was heavily defined by the relationships he formed, and they continue to shape his professional world.

“I had a lot of role models because I was so much younger than everyone. As a Juilliard student, many of my closest friends and mentors are people I was originally around at JAZZ HOUSE. They are still the core of my social circle. Being able to play with people that were more advanced than me was really important.”

“Through APA, I did my first residency at a university, which was really valuable. Also, getting to play duo with Cecile [McLorin Salvant] was awesome because she is one of my favorites.” He was also thrilled to be with his big brothers, Isaiah and Caelan, as co-finalists. “Isaiah has always been such a huge role model, and Caelan, who is more similar in age, and I were super close during our time together at JAZZ HOUSE. It is nice to have a new chapter in our relationships and to share this moment with them.”

Esteban is a Young Steinway Artist, winner of 15 Downbeat Student Music Awards and was the youngest winner of the Montreux Jazz Piano Solo Competition. As he continues his undergraduate studies at Juilliard, Esteban’s calendar continues to fill up as a sideman, and his career as a bandleader is on a meteoric path.

Caelan Cardello

Coming from a musical family in Teaneck, NJ, Caelan Cardello started taking classes at the JAZZ HOUSE in 2012 and stayed until graduating in 2018, when he would continue his studies at William Paterson University under the tutelage of Harold Mabern and Bill Charlap. As a rising star in the New York City area, Caelan credits JAZZ HOUSE for teaching him how to be a professional in the industry.

“I learned a lot about how to carry myself, how to prepare music, and I watched the faculty not only in how they played with each other but how they handled themselves off-stage after the music was done. The fellowship continued even after the last chord, and that left a huge impression on me.”

The mentorship that Caelan valued in his time as a student re-appeared as an alum when he was asked to join the JAZZ HOUSE Faculty Ensemble for a trip to Bahrain in fall 2021. “It was eye-opening – it was my first international tour, and I got to see two sides of the coin, both playing with my mentors but also hanging out with them off-stage. This time I wasn’t watching the fellowship but I was getting to be a part of it.”

Sharing some thoughts on being part of this competition with Isaiah and Esteban, he said, “I’ve always looked up to both of them, even though Esteban is younger. When I first auditioned for JAZZ HOUSE in 2012, I heard Esteban playing some incredible classical piano piece, and I was kind of put on notice. I was expecting a college kid, and out walks little Esteban. Also, seeing Isaiah go from the JAZZ HOUSE Big Band to playing with Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been really special. Seeing their successes is motivating for me, just like it always has been.”

Caelan has some great happenings in the works – a special big band performance in May, an event to keep an eye out for at the 92nd Street Y, and possibly an album in the next year or so. He will also be attending Juilliard in the fall for his masters degree in jazz performance.


Major support for our programs is provided by Amazon; Appaloosa Management Charitable Foundation, Inc.; BDP Holdings, LLC; John J. & Rose Cali Family Foundation; Leslie + Ted Dixon; Gia Maione Prima Foundation; Susan + Chris Gifford; Kenneth Goldman Donor Foundation; Kopf Foundation, Manhattan Mechanical Contractors, Inc.; Montclair Center BID; National Endowment for the Arts; New Jersey Arts and Cultural Renewal Fund; New Jersey State Council on the Arts; Ralph Pucci International; Regan Family Foundation; Janet Shapiro + Phillip Byrd; Sovos Brands; TD Charitable Foundation; Trinity Church Wall Street; Victoria Foundation; We Are All Music Foundation and our other many other generous donors.

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