Anyone who has ever sat through a kids’ piano recital knows how painful that can be; a parade of earnest but modestly talented kids playing their hearts out.


Fortunately for the big crowd Thursday night at the Florida Theatre, the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition is nothing like that. All five performers were supremely talented and there wasn’t an off-key “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” all night.

Aaron Lehrian was named the winner and earned a spot on the Jazz Festival stage at 2 p.m. Saturday. Second place went to Oscar Perez. Ryan Slatko finished third. Other competitors were Lisa DeSpain and Matt Savage. Lehrian and Slatko are students at the University of North Florida and Perez studied jazz there.

Related: 2014 Jacksonville Jazz Festival performance schedule

Slideshow: A history of Jacksonville Jazz Festival posters

The competition is the traditional start of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which runs through Sunday in the downtown streets, with dozens of artists performing free concerts.

Each of the performers Thursday night played three songs, including at least one solo number. For the others, they were accompanied by drummer Clyde Conner of the St. Johns River City Band and bassist Dennis Marks from the UNF jazz program.

Each performer also chose to do at least one original number, and that’s where the audience got a feel for who they really were. DeSpain had an intimate, pop feel to her number. Lehrian played a piano ballad that would have been right at home if it had words. Perez’s number was fast-paced, polished and intricate. Slatko seemed to be having a lot of fun, showing off an exuberant and playful style. Savage was smooth as silk, looking out at the audience as if he wasn’t even paying attention to what his fingers were doing.

Judges for this year’s contest were keyboardist Marcus Johnson, who performs at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jazz Festival; radio host Na’im Rashid, and Lisa Witsell, one of the founders of the Jacksonville Jazz Society.


Tom Szaroleta: (904) 359-4548