Monty Alexander Speaks
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.
MA: Thank you! Man, I can tell you something. As the days, the weeks, the months roll by realizations come to me. How come this thing that when in its infancy was happening in these little recording studios in Kingston, with guys just hanging out, how come this thing grabs the world the way it does? First of all, there’s such spirit hanging over Jamaica. It is so strong, whether it’s a brooding thing—people expressing their discontent—or happiness, joy, whatever it is. Jamaica is a powerful, powerful place. Like Cuba is. Like Israel is.
FM: There’s an intensity.
MA: An intensity. And when the guys started playing the ska music...I was a part of that. Fourteen, fifteen years old and I’m playing in those studios. Hanging out, backing up a lot of guys. You didn’t see my name on these things, but I was on a lot of these records. And...when it really got to the people—and I mean the folks that were in the more struggling communities, working hard all week cleaning up somebody’s house or stuff like that, Friday night come, they wanna dance and have a ball—they started copying American recordings of R&B artists...blues oriented artists and guys out of New Orleans, Clarence Henry Frogman, people that when they would record you heard the beat comin’ over the thing that make you get up and move. This to me was the first thing I tried to play on the piano. From seven years old I’m playing a rhythm on the piano. And this is what Jamaicans love. These guys fell in love with Lester Young, and Bird, J.J. Johnson—I don’t know if you’ve heard of Don Drummond—these are the sort of musicians in Jamaica that were very powerful, powerful personalities. This is during the beginning of the whole thing in the late fifties And the rhythm was the key.
FM: You touched on something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The way the rhythmic element speaks out to the people—to people who are using the music as a break from the tedium of their everyday—and without that aspect flowing through the music it won’t connect to the people, and if it doesn’t connect to the people in that way, then it becomes, something else.
MA: Yeah man! And here is what we’re saying. That’s exactly what it was when those bands were up in Harlem, playing at the Apollo, or the Savoy....Friday, Saturday night people would dress up, put on their most beautiful clothes, go and let it out, man. Get on the dance floor. And by the way, the key to this thing—which is why jazz is a different animal today, and I don’t want to frown and throw out things that sound like negative comments—but the truth is, that understanding...is more or less gone now. The music was about getting people to dance. Ellington would never have become the great Ellington if he couldn’t have kept those jobs getting people up on the dance floor. And this is the genius that wrote music that makes us swoon. But the key to what he did, whatever he tapped into, it better get you swingin’. ‘Cause that’s Basie, Lunceford, all those musicians. Fats Waller. When you sat at the piano you didn’t just run off a bunch of notes like another classical this that or the other. This shit had to swing. And that was the key in Jamaica too. Look, I’m not going to isolate this to African oriented people at all. No, it’s about every culture you can come from.
FM: Everywhere. Everywhere rhythm is key to spiritual expression. And sure, some places they use it differently than others. But it’s always there. For example, I don’t think you could say Beethoven didn’t know how to use rhythm.
MA: Indeed. In fact, when that stuff got up off the ground, those people in the Austrian courts, or wherever it was, were swooning just the same. Whatever the expression, if the rhythm is there—instead of all this calculated supposed-to-be-ness, I don’t know how else to put it—forget all this calculated supposed-to-be-ness and just go there and do what you do, be what you are, like Louis Armstrong said. That’s when you have this thing that levitates the human spirit. Which is why people use it in church.