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From The Vault: An Interview With Monty Alexander
Louis Armstrong’s visit to Jamaica in 1957 inspired and shaped the bourgeoning career of one talented young musician.
Armstrong arrived in Kingston to perform at the Carib Theater, for a rare appearance that not only attracted the island’s elite and socialites but also the local music fraternity - musicians who would I go on to develop their own mixture of jazz, R&B and mento called ska.
One member of the audience was 13-year-old aspiring pianist, Monty Alexander. The boy was so intent on seeing Satchmo he cooked up an elaborate and somewhat painful scheme to get out of school early (behind his mother's back) so he could make the trumpeter’s matinee performance. His accomplice was none other than his jazz-loving father.
Monty discovered that by pulling out one of the wires in his braces, he could make it appear as though the wire was protruding severely into his jaw. A few hours before Satchmo’s concert, Monty rearranged one of the wires on his teeth and went to the principal’s office saying he needed to see his dentist right away. The school office called Monty’s father who then picked up his son. At 3 PM they arrived at the dentist's office where the doctor replaced the wire.
An hour later, father and son were sitting in the Carib Theater grooving with Satchmo and his band - Trummy Young (trombone), Barrett Deems (drums) and Billy Kyle (piano). The performance had a tremendous influence on Monty, so much so that he took up the trumpet for a while. But the pain on his jaw hurt more than the wire did. Monty stuck with the piano eventually becoming a teenage musician session in Jamaica's burgeoning recording industry in the late ’50s and ultimately one of the world’s premier jazz pianists.
Monty Alexander was born in Kingston on June 6th, 1944. His culturally inclined mother and jazz devotee father pointed him in the direction of music at a young age. He started dabbling with the piano at the family home on Tucker Avenue when he was just a toddler and his formal training soon followed. His musical heroes were piano stylists Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson but Monty was also drawn to the more earthy sounds of Jamaican folk music.
“My folks were lovers of music,” Alexander said in an interview from 1999. “And l just gravitated to music from I was very young — 4 years old I started to pick out tunes on the piano and I heard local musicians playing. And I just got totally knocked out that anybody could make a sound from an instrument, whether it was a guitar or a banjo or a clarinet, it didn't matter. So, I grew up with music all the time.”
Since Alexander’s parents didn’t really play music, he turned to the local musicians to help him develop his craft.
“The musicians in Kingston where I grew up were really so hospitable and friendly and warm and wonderful. I would just go from place to place and hang around and pretty much terrorize every musician — ‘hey man, I love music. Can I play? Can I sit in?’ And little by little I would be welcomed to join in with different groups playing. That's how I got involved with the recording studios because even at about 13 or I4 years old I used to sneak out of school. I would just say ‘I don’t wanna be in school; I want to go where the musicians are.’ And I’d go to the studio and that's how I started recordin’ and I ended up makin' a lot of recordings back in the late ’50s /early '60s for the producers at the time people like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid and all those man back then.”
Monty was very close to his father who passed on a passion for music and an adventurous spirit (exemplified by their Satchmo scheme). His father was also well-known among the children of Kingston.
“My daddy was very good man, kind hearted,” Alexander reminisced. “We would be passing through in the area where some less fortunate people may have been and he made it a daily habit just to bring, because he had a store in downtown Kingston on Heywood Street not far from where Coxsone had his bar, and in the store he sold grain and feed and I guess a lot of sweets. I remember we used to have these popular candies in those days, y'know from Tamarind Balls to Paradise Plums we called it, all these candies, and he just come there and start givin’ away the candy. And it's funny because years ago there was this movie came out called Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory and there was a song called The Candy Man and I used to think of my dad because that's almost what they called him, the Sweetie Man because they see him coming and my daddy would give out the sweets.”
When Monty was a boy, his family lived near the home of Jamaican Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante. He often walked past the home as he played in the neighborhood. But one day he stopped in his tracks in front of the home and listened intently to some swinging piano playing coming from the home.
‘‘I must have been hanging around the gate and the lady who became Mrs. Bustamante, Lady Bustamante, she was there at the house and she knew my mother and she saw me at the gate, she said ‘come on in, I hear you like the piano.’ I said ‘yes, I like the piano.’ She said ‘come on in.’ And I was in the Iivin’ room and I saw Minister (Robert) Lightbourne playing the piano and that was one of those times that I remember Jamaican people who are not necessarily fuII—fledged professional musicians. But he sat there and played really wonderfully. I mean the man could really play the piano. And I never forgot that. And to this day I can remember seeing him sitting there and Sir Alexander sitting there having his scotch and soda and everybody groovin’ to the music.”
As a schoolboy, after classes, Monty would get on the bus and ride to sessions five miles down the road at Federal Studios. He would play boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues riffs accompanying various singers who were redoing R&B songs from overseas. The singers would sing each tune for awhile and the musicians would work out arrangements. A few years before he passed away, saxophonist Roland Alphonso reminisced during an interview about seeing the teenaged Monty arriving at the studio, still dressed in his school uniform, short pants and all.
“I miss Roland and I’m so sorry I didn't get to see him in the recent past before he left us. I remember him so well. And he was one of those, besides the beautiful music he could play, just a great man, a wonderful, beautiful spirit. In Jamaica, the school kids wear khaki uniform; you could be in the military almost. At a certain age, which is very much the British system among school kids, y’know, wear long pants until you get to a certain age. And with me, I must have been about 13 or 14, I don't think I graduated to the long pants yet. So, I was there among Roland, Don Drummond, Ernest Ranglin, the rest of them.”
Monty describes what it was like at Federal in the late ’50s when the Jamaican recording industry was still in its infancy and when the pre-ska music being made was a subtle mix of mento and R&B.
“Before you get inside the studio there was a man or woman selling fish cakes and Irish Moss and all the different drinks that were so delicious. We’d go there and get some patties and that kind of thing and then we’d go into the studio and record. And all those guys were there such as Ernest Ranglin, Roland Alphonso, Cluett Johnson. And I would participate in a lot of the sessions and I’d accompany the various artists that would come through, artists like the Blues Busters, Keith and Enid, Owen Gray and several others. So I backed up quite a few artists and I played on some recordings for Federal Studios and for Coxsone and for Duke Reid and I even recorded for Chris Blackwell who was just beginning at the time. It was a tiny room, a little room and everybody smokin‘ them cigarette and whatever else they smoke and music all day. I didn't‘ get paid much bit I had a great time.”
Initially, Monty was employed as a replacement for pianist Aubrey Adams in the Blues Blasters, the session group led by bassist Cluett Johnson and produced by Clement Dodd. Monty says Adams was one of Jamaica’s most talented musicians.
“I just loved Aubrey so much. He was just the most, this incredible pianist. He played at a hotel called The Courtly Manor among other places and I just followed, go see Aubrey. I was even, from 10 years old my father would take me. I loved Aubrey Adams and the way he played, he had a touch on the piano. He told me about different musicians’ playing. I remember to this day when I hear an Errol Garner recording and Errol Garner would play certain things I think of Aubrey Adams because he would play that. He was one of the finest Jamaican musicians ever.”
Inevitably, Monty formed his own group, Monty and The Cyclones that played at dances and made a few 45s. The group consisted of school mates from Jamaica College including Vidal Smith (guitar) and Neville Anderson (accordion). One of the group’s biggest hits was Lazy Lou, an early Coxsone Dodd production. Monty remembers the tune.
“I idolized Little Richard and if anybody hears that song, you will hear me basically playing the riff of Lucille and then Coxsone in his always thinking mind, he’s coming up with a new name, we call it Lazy Lou. It was maybe a lazy, laid back version of Lucille. I heard it the other day for the first in such a long time and I’m really amazed at the way it came out. I was surprised. I have to say I was hitting those keys for all it was worth.”
Just before the advent of the ska explosion in 1961, Monty left Jamaica and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 17 years old. His prodigious keyboard talents didn’t go unnoticed by local musicians and Monty was soon on his way to a lifelong career in jazz.
“My mother decided to come to Florida and there I was with my younger brother and my mother. We were in Florida and basically saying ‘here we are in the great America, now what’s next?‘ And one thing led to another and I just started meeting musicians in the area and the same way I would be with musicians back in Jamaica, just enjoyed being with them. To me these are the greatest people in the world because anybody who could make music and the way they talked about life and laughing and various things, I just loved it. So I met all the right musicians in Florida and the next thing you know I was playing with them. I started getting jobs and I’ve been doing it ever since, believe it or not.”
One of those jobs included playing at Frank Sinatra’s favorite New York hangout - Jilly’s. This led to gigs with some of the greats in jazz, most notably Milt Jackson, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. Dozens of straight-ahead jazz albums followed, as did a steady flow of engagements at well-known clubs around the world. Monty decided to put his Jamaicanness in the backseat while he cultivated a reputation in the jazz world. But in the ‘70s he gradually began to bring the sounds of Jamaica and the Caribbean into his style of jazz. In ’75 he started a partnership with steel-drummer Othello Molineaux and they recorded a few titles together as Ivory & Steel. His first full-blown fusion of reggae and jazz came in 1978 with “Jamento” (Pablo), an album that included fellow Jamaican musicians Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Larry McDonald on percussion.
‘‘I did that album for Norman Granz, the great impresario, man who managed Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. He invited me to do what I wanted and I said ‘listen, I know this man in Jamaica; he sure can play the guitar. Please, let's try this.’ And he said ‘by all means.’ That was maybe the third or fourth album that I join me on.”
On his album “Stir It Up” (Telarc), Monty interprets the music of Bob Marley with both American and Jamaican musicians. Monty says Marley is right up there with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane - someone who is spiritual and sincere. The album features a hard reggae rhythm section (The Gumption Band) some great straight-ahead players (Steve Turre and Troy Davis) and Monty’s inspired improvisational keyboard work.
“It's me trying to instrumentally talk about a man who come from basic, simple, no trimmings, very underprivileged and creating such beautiful music for the whole world. And because of his spirituality when he gave out his messages, people were not just listening to songs and nice melodies, no, they were affected by it.
“Us so-called jazz musicians what we might be accused of doing or celebrated for doing is that we take our own music but certainly we get any piece of music and we're not just gonna record it or perform it exactly like it is. We can't even do it if we tried because there's this little bug in us called make it up. I call it make it up, they say creativity."
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August 20, 2019