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Monty Alexander: Still Rolling

Geno Thackara By

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When I hit a note on the piano, I'm putting a smile on that note... I connect to what makes me and other people feel good. —Monty Alexander
If there's one defining quality to Monty Alexander's music, it's joy. An unmistakable undercurrent of happiness has been constant across several decades, dozens of recordings and countless performances all over the world. He could be honoring classic jazz balladeers, exploring the danceable "riddims" of his native Jamaica or anything in between, and you can always hear the spirit of celebration in there somewhere.

Alexander turns out to be just as delightful and effusive in conversation as he is on the piano bench. Befitting someone with such an extensive career, he's also a charming raconteur who can keep telling stories for hours and make it all fly by in a blink. Hitting his 75th birthday in June 2019 apparently still gave him no reason to start slowing down. He marked the occasion with an overseas trio tour in advance of a new recording, Wareika Hill—Rasta-Monk Vibrations (MACD Records), a collection of Thelonious Monk songs adapted to his distinct reggae-fied style.

Labor Day will also see the tenth installment of the annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, which presents a weekend full of fascinating acts old and new each summer in Easton, Maryland. Fresh off the plane home from Europe, he sounds endlessly excited about all these endeavors and always ready to share the love.

All About Jazz: Good afternoon, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Is it too late to wish you a happy belated birthday?

Monty Alexander: [laugh] Never too late! No. If it is too late, then I can apply it to next year.

AAJ: That's good. This was a big one of course, so it's something worth celebrating.

MA: I appreciate that. It's significant. Yes, indeed. 75. I'm a young boy.

AAJ: It certainly seems like the music and the people you play with help keep you young. It makes so much of a difference when you enjoy what you're doing, doesn't it?

MA: Yes. I wish this on every human being, that they could end up doing something that they enjoy. You have a few pitfalls along the way, but it's a wonderful thing. I really just fell into something by mistake. Playing music and getting paid for it? I couldn't believe it.

AAJ: Playing behind Frank Sinatra was certainly a fortunate break. Was that your first truly big gig?

MA: All the way back in my hometown, Kingston, Jamaica, all the older musicians made me feel welcome. The next thing, I'm playing along with guys ten, twenty years older than me. That started from my early teens. Then I came to America and it was the same kind of thing. They put me into some club and the guy wanted to book me, and I started getting jobs around Miami. Then one night Sinatra walked into the club with some friends, and I must have been hitting it pretty good. Rockin' the joint, as they say. So I met Sinatra, and he put a nice word in and said "we gotta get you to New York City and play at my friend's club, Jilly's." And I met Jilly [Rizzo] and his wife and friends, and one thing led to another. There I am playing in this hot spot called Jilly's in 1963. That's how I got to America. I didn't come here for music school. I never went to music school. I'm one of those guys where everything was good fortune. Or as some of us like to say, blessings.

AAJ: It's funny. You don't know what's going to come from seemingly little things...

MA: You're right. Meeting Frank Sinatra was more than a little thing. I was 18 when I met him. I was on my way up after that.

AAJ: And you've tended to do the same kind of thing yourself—you like to play with new and young musicians too.

MA: That's kind of what happened. Somebody I admire and respected a lot talked to me almost like I was an older brother, and it was none other than Ray Brown, who invited me to join him and Milt Jackson on a job in 1969 at Shelly's Manne-Hole. He saw that I was playing here and playing there. I'd already made about eight albums. "You know, you should try playing with some younger guys," he said to me. So I would play with these different guys, all the great bass players, 'cause I was already in that world and I knew what to do. I was leading the troops, if you know what I mean. I always had my own combo. I wasn't playing in somebody else's band or anything. I would get a gig and hire whoever it would be. In New York I had engaged all these greatest bass players and drummers. So many of them—Ron Carter came to play with me, Roy Haynes came to play with me, Tony Williams. Just name it. A crew of different musicians. They were older than me, guys ten years older, and they didn't tell me what to do. They were following me.

So Ray said, "you should play with some younger guys," and I said "OK." That was when he introduced me to one of these up-and-coming younger bass players named John Clayton. John was just going to school and he told me about this friend from school, Jeff Hamilton. And they'd never played with people who hadn't gone to school. I came up with guys playing at functions with their friends, you know. We called it the university of the street corner. Most of our heroes of jazz were salt-of-the-earth guys who picked it up from one another. So, years went by and John stayed in touch with me. He came out of college, and he called at the exact time I was looking for a bassist. That all started with him and from that point on, I realized "hey, I'm playing with these whippersnappers." Since then, I like musicians who are younger.

AAJ: And the beauty of these things is that everyone brings something to the table. The older players can learn from the younger ones just as much as vice versa, if everyone's got open ears...

MA: Amen. It's a bunch of things—guys with open ears, and also somebody that you can find goodwill with. People who have a certain giving nature with one another, so you want to hang with them and tell stories and jokes and all that. That all goes onto the bandstand. If someone's a weird personality, you can get something weird from him or her. But I was always fortunate to have good guys, wonderful people, people of goodwill. If I run into kind of a grumpy person, I say "man, I gotta run away from this." Since I was a kid, I've always wanted to keep that positive energy.

I never really responded well to the stern kind of people who are serious. Being serious about the music is one thing, but I mean people who are serious about themselves. You should have a lightheartedness going about it. I was always like that. I was always told from the very beginning that I brought a sense of upliftment to people. That's just my nature. When I found music at an early age, there were the old-time guys in Jamaica playing the folk music, colorful music with some raunchy colored folk lyrics that tourists would love to hear when they came. I always just loved it. That was just my way of doing things.

To cap it off, I saw the number one in the world who did that, Louis Armstrong. He came to Jamaica and I saw the concert. There was all that sense of joy. When I hit a note on the piano, I'm putting a smile on that note and that note smiles back at me. Next thing, it becomes a symphony of enjoyment. That's what happens most nights when I play these days, certainly. I'm serious about it, but I connect to what makes me and other people feel good. Nat "King" Cole when he played the piano, and Erroll Garner. That was pure sunshine. Those guys were my heroes, you know? And I still go for that. I can't define it so much, but it's some kind of beauty, like painting a beautiful picture—when I play, I'm trying to paint a picture. I see the mountain and the river and the, you know, the landscape. A beautiful lady standing there, whatever it is—kind of making a dream come to life in a song.

AAJ: So is that one reason you like playing in different contexts? You play in a trio sometimes, then you might use more percussion or different instruments, then there's the big Harlem-Kingston Express thing [a malleable combo with over a dozen players]—is it because they all have those different sounds to paint with?

MA: [laugh] You know, the truth is, I don't really make those decisions. The decisions are made for me by circumstances most of the time. Guys might be playing with you regularly, and then they can't make the gig, so the next thing you know, you find another person that can do it. So everything happens, really, by evolution. Some guy said, life is what happens when you're making other plans. You just go with it. That's probably what happens through history with all kinds of enterprises. In my case, I ended up playing in some club or bar in Miami and found a bassist or drummer. We all played and it was nice, people enjoyed it, and I kept getting work—where'd that work come from? I didn't make a decision. It just happened.

First of all, I loved when I heard Ray Brown. I loved Oscar Peterson too, but I was really loving the bass playing and that attitude of Ray Brown and said "man, I want to play with that guy." And that's what happened. So I would go after people who, when they played, they had some certain rhythmic thing. That was always part of my first approach to what I was doing. Whether I'm playing a ballad, something up-tempo, an island song—whatever it was, there was always the rhythm. I would seek out guys who did that and enjoyed it. That would happen on a recording and it was, "Hey, that worked. Let's do it again." Then after a while it doesn't happen any more, and you have to go to something else.

The Harlem-Kingston thing was a real evolution. I wanted to have an authenticity, to play that music I grew up with in Kingston. That was a big part of my whole presentation. But a lot of times I'd play with some American swinging kind of guys, who may not have connected to that. So I would go in that direction and they'd say "yeah, this is fun," but they didn't really live it or feel it like I did. So I wanted more people who could do that, even if it would cost more. I ended up having two rhythm sections and two bands.

At one moment I said "you know what? I'm going down south to Kingston right now," so I'd pull in the guys who lived in that reggae world. Not long after that, I'd push another button, boom, I'm up to 125th street in Harlem. So I can just go anywhere. That's what the Harlem-Kingston thing was about, just me and the guys having a real party. They're all beautiful guys too. It's great to be on the bandstand with them, with everyone really happy to be with each other. Whenever I did the Harlem-Kingston Express, it was a wonderful celebration of people from two different environments coming together. It's all about playing music together. I just have the honor of directing the whole thing.
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