2017 Judges

Paul Asaro is known as one of the finest of a select group of pianists who have mastered the demanding two-handed jazz and ragtime piano styles from the first half of the 20th century. The Stride piano of James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Fats Waller, the New Orleans styles of Jelly Roll Morton, the ragtime of Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake, stomps, boogie woogie and swing, Asaro plays them all with a fine ear for detail, blending the elements into his own personal style. Indeed, most of Paul’s earliest influences were more recent pianists such as Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton and Butch Thompson, musicians who worked within these traditions while at the same time developing their own unique approach.

In a career now spanning two decades, Paul has performed at theaters and clubs worldwide and has appeared at such major venues as the Chicago Jazz Festival, Ravinia, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal and the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He has performed onstage with such musical legends and luminaries as Leon Redbone, Steve Allen, Marian McPartland, Butch Thompson, Jeff Healy and Vince Giordano. He was the featured pianist in the Obie award winning Broadway production of “Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man”, performing solo and accompanying the show’s creator and star Vernel Bagneris. Asaro also played for the national tour and numerous regional theater productions of “Jelly Roll!” including a run in Philadelphia resulting in a Barrymore Award nomination for best supporting actor. Asaro has had long runs as house pianist aboard the legendary New Orleans steamboat “Delta Queen” and in Chicago with Jim Beebe’s band featuring former Louis Armstrong All-Star Barrett Deems and the legendary tenor man Franz Jackson. 

Currently Asaro tours the country as accompanist to Leon Redbone, playing concerts as a duo as well as appearing on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage” and recording for Leon’s latest studio album. Paul’s piano can be heard on two recent albums by singer and guitarist Loudon Wainwright III including the 2010 Grammy Award winning “Charlie Poole Project”. Recent appearances include solo and two-piano duets with Butch Thompson and Jon Weber for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival’s “Stride Piano Night”, an extended solo tour for Allied Concert Services, and onscreen with Vince Giordano’s band in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”. When not on the road Paul holds down the piano chair in the seven piece jazz band “The Fat Babies”, performing weekly at the long established Chicago jazz club The Green Mill and at the Honky Tonk BBQ. The group plays a wide variety of jazz from the 1920s through the 1940s and has released two albums to critical acclaim with their Delmark Records release “Chicago Hot” being named one of the best jazz album releases of 2012 by the Chicago Tribune.

“Paul Asaro’s ebullient stride-piano technique vividly evokes an earlier era. You don’t encounter pre-bebop jazz of this quality and commitment very often anymore.” – Chicago Tribune


Tom McDermott is one of New Orleans’ premiere piano players and composers. He grew up in St. Louis, where he earned a Masters’ Degree in Music, wrote music journalism for the morning paper, and soaked up the sounds of ragtime and traditional jazz that flourished there in the 1960s and 70s. In 1984, spurred by his love of James Booker, Professor Longhair and Dr. John, he moved to New Orleans, a trip enabled by a gig at the World’s Fair.

Tom has been quite busy the last 30 years. For much of the 1990s he was a Duke of Dixieland, which took him to Europe, Asia, South America and all over the States (including Carnegie Hall); he recorded several albums with the Dukes, including a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton with the fabled raconteur Danny Barker.

In 1995, after arranging a tune for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band album “Jelly,” he co-founded the modern brass band the New Orleans Nightcrawlers. During his stay with the band they recorded three albums, two for the Rounder Records label.

Tom has written for the theatre (the Obie-award-winning off-Broadway show, “Nita and Zita”), and appeared in bit roles in the movies (“He Said She Said”).  In the New Orleans-based HBO series “Treme,” he played  himself five times in three seasons and had 10 pieces of music used on the soundtrack. His original music has also appeared in Showtimes’ “The Knick.”

He has recorded 15 albums as a leader, and there is more info on these recordings in the CDs section. These recordings include 75 original tunes. His music has been heard frequently on NPR, i.e. “All Things Considered”, “American Routes”, and “The Moth.”  A group he co-led with clarinetist Evan Christopher, the Danza Quartet, appeared on NPR’s New Year’s Eve show “Toast of the Nation” on 2008-2009.

Tom is known for his eclecticism, and is just about the only New Orleans pianist to stretch from the mid-19th-century music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk to the funky New Orleans piano today. He has a great love of Brazilian music (17 trips there so far), the Beatles, European classical music, early Duke Ellington, and much more.

In addition to music, Tom is a voracious traveller: he’s visited all 50 states and six continents, and writes about them whenever he can.

“ …Tom McDermott plays the fastest, wildest ragtime, Brazilian and stride piano you’ve ever heard.” –  New York Times


Bryan S. Wright, Ph.D., is a pianist and musicologist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he is presently a instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also the founder and owner of Rivermont Records, a label specializing in ragtime and jazz.

A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Bryan first showed musical interest as a toddler and began classical piano lessons with Sandra Horwege at age 5. Violin lessons were added two years later. In his early teens, Bryan became keenly interested in ragtime, jazz, and related styles, adding pieces by Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, and others to his repertoire. By 15 he was host of a popular weekly radio program, Sunday Night Nostalgia, heard in Central Virginia over WLVA-AM, WVLR-AM, and WLQE-FM. The program featured big bands, vintage jazz, and “old-time radio” dramas (with occasional live in-studio dramas that Bryan directed).

As an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia), he furthered his piano studies with Christine Niehaus, taking time to host a weekly ragtime radio program, Elite Syncopations, on WCWM-FM. (The program provided the groundwork for the first 24-hour internet ragtime radio station, Elite Syncopations Radio, which Bryan operated from 2003 to 2010.)

In addition to performances as far afield as France, Japan, and Argentina, Bryan has been a featured pianist and lecturer at some of the most prestigious jazz and ragtime festivals across the United States, including the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival (Sedalia, Missouri), the West Coast Ragtime Festival (Sacramento, California), and the JVC Jazz Festival (New York City). He has also performed at the San Antonio Ragtime Festival (San Antonio, Texas), the Oklahoma Centennial Ragtime Festival (Tulsa, Oklahoma), the Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival (Columbia, Missouri), and the Central Pennsylvania Ragtime Festival (Rock Hill Furnace, Pennsylvania).

As a musicologist, Bryan completed his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. He has written articles for the Grove Dictionary of American Music and presented papers at both local and national meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) and the American Musicological Society (AMS). In 2005 he was winner of the Lowens Award presented by the Capitol Chapter of the American Musicological Society.