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Crowd favorite wins Jazz Festival Piano Competition

You could tell that Joe Davidian meant business from the moment he stepped onstage Thursday night at the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition.

No messing around with the piano bench, no saying a few words to greet the crowd — Davidian walked on, gave a little wave and went to work on Jimmy VanHeusen’s “Suddenly It’s Spring.”

His three-song performance, easily the favorite of the Florida Theatre crowd, was good enough to win him the title and a slot on the Jacksonville Jazz Festival stage Saturday afternoon. He’s a very expressive player, at times leaning so far over the keys that his nose nearly touches, then leaning back with a big grin.

Of the five players in Thursday’s competition, he was the one who looked like he was having the most fun and the only one drawing whoops from the crowd.

Ernest Turner from New Orleans finished second and Canadian pianist Andrew Boudreau placed third.

The competition is the traditional opening of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which runs through Sunday in the downtown streets. The crowd was a little thin Thursday, with host Noel Freidline calling them “the hippest 800 people” in the city.

The competitors each played three songs, one solo and two accompanied by the ace rhythm section of bassist Dennis Marks and drummer Clyde Conner — whom they had only met earlier in the day. “They’re playing these tunes for the second time ever,” Freidline said.

The format allows the competitors to show off their piano skills, but also tests how they work as a bandleader.

That’s where Davidian really stood out, fading back to let one of the other players have the spotlight, then finding just the right spot to take it back again.

Before the competition began, local music educator Carol McQueen was inducted into the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Hall of Fame.

McQueen, band director at LaVilla School of the Arts, was unable to attend but was praised by musicians J.B. Scott and Lisa Kelly, both members of the hall themselves. Scott called her “an amazing educator and mentor, just a beautiful human being” and noted that students who came through her classes form the backbone of the Jacksonville jazz scene.