Monty Alexander Speaks
“ I ”
Despite years spent in American, Monty Alexander’s speech remains full of the infectiously lilting, joyously expressive, idiomatic contours of his Kingston childhood. And it seems he is always laughing. It may be that this is also simply a matter of culture, but I don’t think so. I think the laughter is a part of who Alexander is. It’s always there, buoying his highly discursive, insightful, and firmly opinionated statements with a resolute optimism. But make no mistake, Alexander’s optimism is not the fool’s sanguinity which threatens blindness and its all too common cousin insularity. Quite the opposite. Alexander’s optimism is that of someone who recognizes suffering, and because he has been touched by it, makes the conscious choice to strive against it with the only weapon ever proven successful: Deliberate, honed, and unrelenting humanism.
The conversation began at 10:00am July 14, 2003 and took of at a breakneck pace. Alexander needs little prompting to express himself, and the pleasant sound of his speech is only matched by the compelling nature of its content. Speaking first, and at some length, about Alexander’s friendship with the late bass icon Ray Brown, we then turned our attention to Alexander’s recent projects, future plans, and a plethora of other topics.
(The Ray Brown portion of the discussion will be included in an upcoming feature honoring Ray Brown’s long and influential career.)
We spoke first about Alexander’s work as leader and composer.
Franz Matzner: Considering your versatility as a player, and the many musicians you’ve worked with, you’re clearly taking on a certain veteran role of your own.
Monty Alexander: I had no idea. (Laughing deeply)
FM: Is that a role you would enjoy?
MA: Actually, I’ll tell you what I enjoy. I enjoy dealing with my identity issues, the identity issue of when you’re born in Jamaica you have such a powerful and thoroughly wonderful experience in that world. The thing about the lifestyle, as well as the music thing that happens, which is a strange concoction of things that came out of Jamaica and became popular. We like to say, the rhythm is the thing. You know that feeling in the music is so strong, so powerful, it effected the whole world. Call it reggae, or ska, the whole spirit of Jamaica. And that is in me just as deeply as when I hear jazz. So what I had to do, because I was born diverse—because I’m multi-cultural, multi-racial, all the things people talk about—I love serious forms of expression. No one more than the other, you understand? ...[W]hatever I play I want it to speak. To talk through the piano. I want to communicate with humans. And if I play a Jamaican oriented piece, that’s going to have life in it. If I play a bluesy thing which I also heard from the time I was a kid, it’s going to have life in it. If I play a ballad like a Nat Cole song, it’s going to have life in it. I love all these things. I finally came to terms. I’m not going to try and fit in to the status quo of being a jazz musician. I don’t know what that is. I just go play. And if I have an opportunity to play for those people who have never even heard of Louis Armstrong, I’m going to move them. I’m going to try to move them without throwing away my sincerity as an artist.
FM: Isn’t it Louis Armstrong who said, ‘Jazz is what you are’?
MA: I like it! You know I haven’t even mentioned it, but Louis was my first real big-time hero in music. I saw him in Kingston, Jamaica and I just idolized him. I had a trumpet I was trying to play—couldn’t play—but you know, I just dreamed of being on a stage like Louis Armstrong. And I think other than his great, great musicianship, going back to what you said, it was what he was. And he was the ultimate. He was kinda like a preacher up there with this hip instrument. That’s what I wanted to be. That’s what I’ve been striving after. When I didn’t let my inhibitions get in the way. ‘Cause you sometimes say, ‘what’ll they think, what’ll they think’ but the real me thinks, ‘it don’t matter.’ I’m like the colors of a rainbow.
FM: This brings up something I’m very interested in. Maybe a tangent, but I’d like to ask. You talked about the rhythmic feel of reggae and the swing feel of jazz, especially classic jazz. They’re awfully similar.