Thomas Linger '15 at piano

More than one year after learning he was a finalist in the 2023 American Pianist Awards, UNCG alumnus Thomas Linger is finally getting a chance to face the music—and the biggest audience he’s ever played for in his life.

Linger (’15 Piano Performance in Jazz Studies) is one of five pianists who will play in the competition this weekend in Indianapolis, which culminates in the Gala Finals. Each of the finalists will play with a big band and a vocalist:

“I get that one tune, so the pressure is on.  It will be a piece that has been arranged specifically for me, and I’ll be accompanying Grammy award-winner Cécile McLorin Salvant in front of 1800 people!”

Is he nervous?

“Hmm. Kind of. Nerves are a funny thing. I like to use the word ‘excited’ instead.”

Linger is no stranger to competitions. He was the first place winner of the American Jazz Pianist Competition in 2017. But, he says this time is different:

“This one is much bigger, and the stakes are higher. The grand prize is $100-thousand dollars in cash plus another $100 thousand dollars in career support, including a record deal and a tour.”

Linger, who hails from Waynesville in western North Carolina, started playing the piano when he was four years old. He says he dabbled with lots of instruments and he entered the School of Music as a double-major in Bassoon and Piano. During his freshman year he discovered how much he loved Jazz Piano and, on a whim, he decided to try and get into the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program:

“I think I probably barely squeaked in because I was super green.  They must have decided I had some kind of promise because they admitted me.  Steve Haines, Chad Eby, Brandon Lee, Thomas Taylor, and John Salmon are some amazing professors.  You get to be very close to the faculty in a program like that. I played gigs with them around town. For a musician, that was really my best schooling. I had so much fun playing the piano that I dropped the bassoon and made the full switch. It’s been a great journey ever since.”

Linger’s journey took him to New York about a year after graduating from UNCG. Since then he has worked as a performer, composer, and a teacher. He has monthly residencies at Mezzrow, Ornithology Jazz Club, and The Django. He has also performed at some of the city’s most prestigious venues, including the Village Vanguard, Smalls, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Dizzy’s Club. Linger leads his own trio and released his debut album Out In It on Cellar Records in August 2022.

“It feels amazing,” reflects Linger.“I get to play with all sorts of different characters. That’s what is so beautiful about jazz is you can just mesh with anybody. It’s hard to explain. It’s so freeing. And kind of honest. Everytime you sit down at the piano you can create something new that reflects how you feel right then and there.”

Watch the American Pianist Awards live streaming here on Saturday, April 22nd here.

Learn more about the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program here.

Story by Terri W. Relos

Photo provided by Thomas Linger