Young Scots pianist joins jazz greats with US college honour

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A YOUNG Scottish musician has become the first British student to win a sought-after scholarship at America's number one jazz school.

• Alan Benzie started out playing violin but fell in love with jazz piano in his late teens

Pianist Alan Benzie, 21, from Glasgow, who is currently studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in the US, was awarded the Billboard Magazine Endowed Scholarship in recognition of his "outstanding musicianship and strong academic record". Among some of the well-known names that have come out of Berklee include Donald Fagen of jazz-rock band Steely Dan, R&B record producer Quincy Jones and rock guitarist Steve Vai.

Speaking from the Boston college yesterday, Mr Benzie said that the award had come as a total shock: "I had no idea I had been nominated. The first I knew was when I was notified I had won. So it was a complete and total honour and a total surprise.

"The biggest thing about this award is to be in the company of previous winners. There are some of the huge names in jazz who have won this, people I look up to personally, so it gives me a lot of hope for the future that hopefully I can have to type of career they have had."

Though he is also following in the footsteps of Scottish jazz luminary Tommy Smith, who also studied at Berklee, Mr Benzie had spent the majority of his formative years studying to become a classical violinist at St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh.

It was only in his early teens that he fell in love with jazz after seeing the Swedish trio EST and taking part in monthly jazz classes at St Mary's and even then he played the violin.

It was not until he turned 16 that he finally decided that he wanted to pursue jazz piano, his second instrument at the school, seriously.

Some of the past winners of the Boston college scholarship include some of the best jazz musicians currently working in contemporary music, including pianist Hiromi Uehara, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III.

Mr Benzie has already experienced competitive success in the music world, having been named BBC Scottish Young Jazz Musician 2007, and at Berklee received the 2008 Jazz Performance Award, and the 2009 and 2010 Alex Ulanowski award for outstanding composition

Cathy Rae, Development Officer for the Scottish Jazz Federation, said that his win would help give an international dimension to an already flourish jazz scene: "We have such a vibrant scene here just now, with competitions like the Young Jazz Musician of the Year, which the Scottish Jazz Federation run with the BBC.

"It's really encouraging that our musicians are winning international awards."

A spokeswoman for Glasgow's RSAMD, which now runs Scotland's only full-time jazz course, said: "Scotland is home to many talented jazz musicians, some of them studying with us at the RSAMD under the guidance of the all-time great, Tommy Smith. Scotland is up there with the best when it comes to jazz and it is great news that a young Scottish jazz musician will be flying the flag across the Pond."

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