LaGuardia Community College Professor is a Finalist in the 2014 Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition

Long Island City, NY—April 24, 2014—Lisa DeSpain, a LaGuardia Community College humanities professor and an award-winning conductor-composer of jazz and theater, is one of five finalists and the only woman chosen to compete in the nationwide 2014 Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition.

“It is a true honor to be a finalist in this prestigious competition,” said a jovial Ms. DeSpain, who can proudly say she shares the distinction with such eminent jazz pianists as Harry Connick, Jr., Marcus Roberts and Emmet Cohen, all former finalists. “Being a finalist among this pool of talented musicians is enough.”

But Ms. DeSpain, who is busy juggling her practice sessions and student rehearsal sessions for the upcoming performance of “In the Heights,” has her eyes on the prize. The competition will take place over the Memorial Day weekend at the Jackson Jazz Festival, the second largest jazz festival in the United States, where she will perform three numbers: two original pieces and the popular standard “It Could Happen to You,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. If she wins, she will perform a solo concert at the weekend-long festival.

As a final “practice” before heading off to Jacksonville, she will be holding a free concert in the College’s Little Theater on May 1 at 7:30 p.m. She will perform her three competition numbers as well as music from her upcoming album, “Let’s Not Talk About the Weather.”

As she prepares for the May 22 event, Ms. DeSpain explained that her desire to enter the competition goes back to her college years. “I remember saying, ‘one day I should do that,’ but each year as the deadline approached, I found myself focused projects that were necessary to pay the rent,’ she said. But when this year’s deadline was fast approaching, I was determined to enter because I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.”

She recorded the three works—one solo and two trio pieces with her bass player and drummer— and, although she did not feel the session went smooth, she sent her blind submissions to the competition judges.

When she received the good news in an email, she thought it was spam and was about to delete it, when she decided to make a phone call and confirm. “On the line I heard a very excited person, say, “Yes, it is real.”

And with that confirmation, Ms. DeSpain said she has a new-found confidence and a belief that she can make it in the male-dominated jazz world. “Because of this acknowledgment, I feel I can say, ‘this is who I am, this is my true artistic voice coming out of the jazz world.’”

For Ms. DeSpain, piano was always her first voice. As a child growing up in Utah, she studied classical piano, but at 14 she discovered the music of such jazz greats as Chick Corea and Count Basie. And when a teacher at a summer music camp introduced her to the blues scales, the young pianist, who was playing Mozart and Bach, said in amazement, “You mean I can play any of these notes whenever I want and they won’t be wrong? I was hooked.”

Following her passion, she enrolled in the prestigious jazz program at the University of North Texas.

Next stop was New Orleans where Ms. DeSpain studied under the jazz master, Ellis Marsalis. Along with teaching his student to always listen and play from the heart, he encouraged her to “go to New York.” So, with a jazz fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and $600 in her pocket, she heeded her teacher’s advise and went to New York. There, she studied with Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and jazz composers Manny Albam and Mike Abene. She graduated from Manhattan School of Music with a degree in Jazz Piano Performance.

Throughout her musical career, she has been acknowledged for her great musical talent. In 2000 she won the ASCAP/IAJE Commission Honoring Duke Ellington. She went on to win awards in composition, including the Julius Hemphill Jazz Composers Award, a Barlow Award, multiple American Forum Awards and was the first jazz musician to win an Aaron Copland.

Coupled with her passion for performing is her love for teaching young musicians. She joined LaGuardia in 2010 where she is teaches voice, conducts the vocal ensembles, and serves as the musical director for the musical theatre productions.

“Jazz musicians believe in connecting the past to the future,” said Ms. DeSpain. “I feel it is my obligation to be a mentor to my students, provide them with the skills and insure that jazz is passed on to the next generation.”

For more information on Ms. DeSpain, please go to

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LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit to learn more.