PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 15, 2008

A Wall Breaker-Downer

by Jim Newsom

After more than forty years as a highly regarded jazz recording artist, Monty Alexander talked recently about his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica.

“That infectious thing came into my spirit when I was very, very young,” he told me in a Saturday morning telephone conversation just after Christmas. “It’s an amazing thing, this music when it gets into you. You can’t put it down!

“From a very early age, four or five years old, I was attracted to playing music, whatever the instrument was. So I tried to find some way to fit in or sit in. I was so enthusiastic; I must’ve been picking up stuff as I went along. It had nothing to do with music teachers at school or anything.”

As a teenager he’d slip out of school and ride a bus down to Federal Recording Studio.

“It was the beginning of what became popular music out of Jamaica,” he said, “I’m talking about 1958. I would find a way, when the teacher would not see me, I’d sneak out the back gate and go down to the studio where the people were recording and trying to make local copies of the music that the locals liked to dance to. The big beat, the blues, the R&B from radio stations in New Orleans and Miami—they tried to copy it in Jamaica. And I knew what to do. I’d play some boogie-woogie or some rhythm on the piano, and I used to get paid about two dollars a side. I thought that was heaven because I was fourteen years old!”

Alexander, who comes to the Roper Friday night for a Jazz on Granby concert, moved to Miami with his family in 1961:

“I was 17 years old and I was so glad because, as much as I loved Jamaica, I wanted to go to this place where all these people on the movie screen come from, the cowboy heroes. I went to America because that was the dream.

“I loved all the movies and that’s where I learned to speak better English. I could imitate the people on the screen and I could fit in without people noticing. I had the gift of mimicry, so people didn’t see me as some odd, peculiar little guy.”

One person who saw something more was Frank Sinatra.

“In those days Miami was very racially prejudiced,” he remembered. “You had black people and white people, and they loved each other maybe, but they had this thing with different separation. Me, being from where I’d come from, I had no issues with that in terms of who I’m with. So I’d be back and forth between the white brothers and the black brothers; that was an important part of what was going on in 1961. I was right there in Miami playing music with everybody.

“One night I was playing in a bar in Miami, and a group of people came in. Sinatra was playing at the Fontainebleau and he’d come to this club where I was playing in this one little room—he was coming to see this guy who was imitating him, an impersonator. They came out for a night of merriment and drinking and carousing with some beautiful ladies, and some tough looking characters as well. I was playing and they noticed me. I went over to the table and met those people, and they said, ‘Kid, we like you and we want you to come play at our club in New York City.’”

The club was Jilly’s, Sinatra’s favorite Big Apple watering hole. Exposure there served as the launching pad for Monty Alexander’s subsequent career in music.

“I was nineteen,” he said. “My enthusiasm was boundless and I seemed to know what to do in the company of musicians. There was never any doubt as to who the leader of the band was—I started playing and people started following me. I said, ‘This is good!’

“It was an incredible time to be alive. I was at Jilly’s when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I started meeting all the great cats and hanging out with them—Lee Morgan, Miles, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson.”

Alexander’s own recording career began in 1965 and though he’s been the leader on most of his sessions, he has also worked with others, most notably Brown and Jackson. In 1991, he played a major role in the formulation of Natalie Cole’s landmark Unforgettable: With Love album.

“She is the daughter of one of my heroes,” he said. “Nat Cole came to Kingston and I saw him sit at the piano, the most nonchalant, and he started whipping out some piano playing like I have never heard. He really was the inspiration behind 90 percent of your modern jazz piano players.

“Natalie had heard that I knew so much about her father’s music, and they wanted somebody on the session to take her home in her thing. So I went to her house and we went through about 25 songs and how Nat did it. I think that had an important impact on how they were going to approach the songs.”

Though he first made his mark as a mainstream jazz pianist, he has become best known over the last couple of decades for incorporating the music of his native island into the mix. His Bob Marley tributes for Telarc, Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle, have been especially popular, and his use of reggae rhythms and instrumentation have expanded his base considerably.

“The American jazz scene changed with a new kind of playing,” he explained, “more abstract, and I said, ‘What is all this?’ It was so disconnected from what I thought I knew. I got a little turned off by it; the music wasn’t swingin’ any more. And I thought, ‘there’s no place like home.’ I found myself enjoying the company of my brothers from Jamaica. That’s a part of what I’m about, and I went back to the roots. I said, ‘Let me play some of this music with you all.’ And I started to embrace my heritage a little more.”

But musical restlessness won’t let Monty Alexander stand still in any one place for very long. His next two CDs will be tributes to Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett, the result of a recent two-day, 36-song recording session. And there’s no telling what he and his trio-mates will pull out Friday night on Granby Street.

“My role,” he said, “and I’m taking it with great responsibility and privilege, is to break them walls down. I’m a wall breaker-downer. Somebody called me the other day and said, ‘You’re like an integrator.’ Integrating means bringing things together, and for me [that means] bringing people together.”

Monty Alexander Trio
Friday, January 18 – 8:00 pm
Roper Performing Arts Center
623-4141; www.jazzongranby.com

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.