Monty Alexander: bluebeat to BluesFest

A week before his London gig marking the launch of the capital's first Bluesfest, pianist Monty Alexander talks of his rediscovery of Jamaican beats, the jazzy origins of ska, musical hierarchies, the problems of jazz education and the need to make music that connects

Interview by Mark Gilbert

Monty Alexander

Since the early 60s Monty Alexander has made an international name as a virtuosic straightahead jazz pianist in the mould of his idols such as Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. But latterly he’s moved in a more eclectic and nostalgic direction, incorporating since the 1990s the ska and reggae sounds associated with his native Jamaica.

He moved from Kingston, Jamaica to Miami in 1961, at the age of 17. He was already well versed in jazz, having been overwhelmed by performances in Jamaica by Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. He’d also played and recorded in ska and other Jamaican styles.

He has some interesting things to say about the origin of ska and reggae. Many Jamaican musicians in the late 1950s, he says, aspired to play US jazz and were great admirers of that scene and blues and R&B performers. He sees ska as a fusion of the blues and native Jamaican music such as mento. 

It’s likely that the audience for his BluesFest gig at Union Chapel, London on 27 June will hear a mixture of Monty’s jazz and Jamaican music. However, he says he doesn’t plan too far ahead. “I just let my stuff flow depending on the mood I’m in.”

‘Not the normal straightahead jazz gig’

He acknowledges this might not be what his longstanding jazz fans expect: “Some people would say that’s not normally what you hear at a bebop jazz straightahead gig but I can go where the spirit moves me. I navigate between Harlem, New Orleans and Kingston. To me music is like travelling and life all rolled up into one. When I play it’s like I pour out my life impressions.”

He says he relishes the whole experience. When asked which of his 70-odd recordings is his favourite he says, “I love all the records. They’re all ok and I’m looking forward to the next one.” But he’s particularly keen on recordings he did with Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. “I did some wonderful things with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. We were at Ronnie Scott’s in 1983 and we had lines around the block. I’ll never forget that day. It came out on the Pablo label.”

He also rates the work he did with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, and in August he plays a reunion concert with Clayton and Hamilton at the Marciac festival in France.

While some might baulk at his jazz-reggae mixture, musical preconceptions weren’t part of his outlook as a youth in Jamaica in the 1950s.

“In my early days I just played it all. There was no line in my mind between styles of music. My first influences on the piano were Erroll Garner and Eddie Heywood who was one of my heroes and then later Oscar Peterson and the great Art Tatum. But also I’d be playing the local rhythms and some recording sessions with other Jamaicans. I was playing with Jamaican jazz musicians who were the cornerstone of what happened with ska records. The guys playing horns on those records, their real desire was to be on 52nd St in New York with Miles and Charlie Parker.”

‘Back in the trigonometry class’

Was there then in Kingston in the 1950s a sense of musical hierarchy - a feeling, as suggested by his horn players’ attitudes, that jazz was somehow more sophisticated than ska?

“A really good question. One of my talents does seem to be adaptability because my love and passion for all kinds of music - jazz, R&B, all the different forms - is strong. But I did seem to be aware that there was this more sophisticated call to hear those harmonies in a certain way. I picked up on that too.

“But my thing was that whatever you do you put your heart, your soul, every bone in your body, into making it swing - have rhythm - and I just did that from the beginning. I always felt this sense of deep commitment to what was going on, whether I was playing a blues or calypso. Some people say that’s not normal, but that’s me. I love Jimmy Reid, B.B. King - it’s all good.

“I was deeply affected by Freddie Green on the guitar with Count Basie’s Orchestra - that’s all about simplicity. I was deeply affected by Milt Jackson and the way he played the vibes, delighted by sheer beauty in simplicity. I could sit and admire some music with two bars of 9/8 and then three bars of 12/4 but that’s like going back to school and being in the trigonometry class.

“I like to get to the core of what human beings are about. But I love harmonies and everything Art Tatum was doing on the piano. It was incredibly complicated but he had a simple approach. You didn’t sit and just say in your head say what a marvellous thing. You felt it, because it was swinging and it was constructed in a way that humans can connect to it. You don’t have to be super intelligent to get it.

‘Not playing for jazz people’

“When I play, I’m not playing for jazz people. I’m just playing for people. And I think that’s what Erroll Garner and so many of my heroes did. You should be able to reach beyond people who like complication.”
One review said that on Meets Sly And Robbie, his 1999 reggae-based record with famed Jamaican rhythm team Lowell Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Monty seemed to be having to hold back his substantial technique. He says it wasn’t quite so simple.

“Well, you’ve got to approach that music for what it is. The music was coming from real simplicity and I would construct it in a way that was going to lock in with the surroundings. I was going to make it palatable to the people who would listen to reggae. But two days later I might have done a whole load of runs up and down the keyboard.”

In the end though it all leads back to jazz, it seems. Regarding the origins of ska and reggae, he says:

“Ska, a lot of it was just Jamaican guys playing blues, R&B, 12-bar blues. They were so appreciative of Louis Jordan and of Bill Doggett, who’s one of my heroes on the organ. In Jamaica they might have been trying to play like the American guys but it came out totally different. The beat, the feeling of the old-time Jamaican folk music mento got inside this Jamaican version of R&B and the R&B took on a whole new character.”

‘Ska is like one incredible mistake’

“Somehow, through the desire to copy, music takes on its own unique form because of the uniqueness of the people who are doing the copying and whatever stuff is going on in the local experience. It all goes into the same pot and you stir it up and it’s gonna come out with its own unique character. Ska is like one incredible mistake that became very effective. Like an inventor looking for one thing and finding something else. A mistake but perfectly appropriate.

“But the truth is I never tried to analyse it too much beyond what I just told you. You clip the wings of the bird that’s about to fly if you analyse too much. That’s one of my problems with jazz education, because you can’t explain the mystery. What is it that makes people want to get up and shake their booties?”

‘Bottom line, you gotta feel good’

The band Monty brings to Union Chapel are old friends, well versed, like his early Jamaican associates, in many kinds of music.

“On bass I have Hassan Shakur (but his first name was Gerald Wiggins Jnr - he’s the son of the great pianist that played with Benny Carter). He’s been with me off and on for 30 years. He’s a real reflection of Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown in terms of the style. And the drummer is Obed Calvaire. He one of the young guys in their 20s who reflect all the rhythms of today but he’s a student of classic jazz. He’s one of these people I can play any style I want with. It’s a trio, but it’s like an orchestra.”

There may or may not be a set list on 27 June, but the trio’s shared experience should ensure the music coheres. “The band will know where I’m going. But if someone slips up it doesn’t matter. It’s all part of the process. I don’t have a rigid framework. Bottom line, you gotta feel good and you gotta come in swinging or grooving. That’s what it’s all about.”

BluesFest, which runs in London 27 June to 3 July, seems to resonate with his own outlook. As is evident from the programme, it’s a strong mainstream mixture - blues, swinging jazz, some more modern stuff - which fills a gap in the current British festival scene.

“It looks like they’ve got a good gathering of guys to come and play. I’m pleased to hear that because a lot of promoters these days are going for what to them is the right thing, trying to catch on the latest, most new and wonderful thing going on or people that are kinds of musicians that don’t necessarily connect to the people who aren’t big jazz fans. I appreciate that need but it’s nice to have something that people in general can relate to, because to me jazz is still folk music.”

Monty Alexander’s Uplift album is reviewed in the July issue of Jazz Journal.

© Jazz Journal, 2011

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