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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.

AAJ: So much of it is that chemistry, isn't it? You don't know exactly what will happen when you mix different elements or people together, but then that's why it can be such a great surprise when it works.

MA: Exactly. Chemistry, and also leaving it open for what can happen. You can't control everything, so my whole thing is what I observed from my heroes. Duke Ellington, you know, being one of the great bandleaders—there were musicians who didn't even want to get along with each other, but that guy held it together. Then, coming through the years are all other examples of wonderful leadership. By the way, why they called me Montgomery—I was born on D-Day. June 6, 1944, the exact day. My parents named me after a British general. So I have to carry that generalship responsibly, you know what I mean? I got to lead the army, in a good way.

AAJ: And you do find those common things to bring them together. Rhythm is another central element of yours, as you mentioned. You can bring together people with all different musical backgrounds, but rhythm is one universal thing everybody can understand and follow.

MA: I want to maybe modify that word, understand. It's more like, they don't even have to understand, just feel it. And the chemistry and the celebration, the unity of three or four or five or six musicians who bring this hurricane of upliftment, you know... it's not even about understanding it from an intelligent standpoint. When I'm playing, I call it a gift, and it's stuck through all these years and I've honed it into such a craft. Just about every time I get on the bandstand—it just happened in Europe—everywhere I'm playing, I can play anywhere from a small club with 300 people, to 2,000 people in a square, the people are just having a whale of a time. They'd just be so connected to what I'm doing, me and my friends. That's why I do this. You get spoiled doing this—it beats working! This music thing kept me out of jail, man. Kept me out of trouble.

AAJ: If you were at the piano, you weren't hanging out on street corners...

MA: Right. My whole life has been a big adventure. I grew up in an era where a lot of the guys I would be around and looked up to were doing drugs. Drugs will kill you. So I listened to the words of my mother and the words of the preacher at the church, and they always taught self-respect. I would be a guy who, when they said, "Hey man, do you want some of this?" I said "no, no." I saw that happening, coming from Jamaica, right, coming from the land of ganja.

AAJ: And what you're describing, that feeling of connecting with people through music, is really better than drugs anyway, isn't it?

MA: Absolutely. We all say that, music is one of the medicines to help heal people—real medicines, not some synthetic thing. We're using it in therapeutic ways. Bob Marley and all these great cats from the jazz world are healers, you know? I see healing taking place all the time. People come to our gigs miserable because of some life situation. Maybe they had a quarrel with their loved ones or whatever, and then they walk out delighted. I've seen it happen millions of times. You realize how wonderful it is to be in a position to make people feel better than they did when they came in.

AAJ: It's a wonderful thing, definitely. And that positivity is also a common thing among people you've recorded tributes to, like Bob Marley and Nat King Cole. It was very interesting that this newest one is Thelonious Monk's music. For celebrating a milestone, most people might look back on their own material, but you're doing a whole album of someone else's songs instead.

MA: Well, it was also an opportunity for me to share my life experience as a young fellow growing up in a very unique and special place, Jamaica. What Jamaica has been, and is, and hopefully will be, is like—there are challenges and problems, yes, but there's something about it that's like a balm for a lot of people that go there and enjoy the sunshine and the sea and the music. There's a whole vibe, you know. And with the music thing, that's where I fell in love with all kinds of music. I heard and saw some awesome people who came from the USA, a lot of the rhythm and blues artists. Before I even hit my teens, I was digging the guys who made the rhythm and blues hit records, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Professor Longhair from New Orleans. All these guys would come perform. I saw Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. I saw Jerry Butler. I saw Frankie Lymon. A lot of hip jazz people. Little by little I came upon the great instrumental musicians, so I wanted to share that.

So Thelonious was a name I heard from a guy in the studio when I would play on the early records. There were Jamaican musicians trying to emulate, believe or not, Louis Jordan's rhythms. He had the boogie feeling and a lot of dance in it. So when Louis Jordan's hits came out, Jamaica started to play that. I heard a feeling that was totally different, but with the same mechanics. So I heard a pianist on one of those sessions playing these boogie rhythms. And somehow, the personality and the way Jamaicans talk or walk, the attitude, that came out into the rhythm of the music. It brought out this other aspect totally different from Louis Jordan and guys like that.

So I grew up hearing all this music. The rhythm thing was primary, but then I would notice a beautiful chord or harmony that went from one chord to another. So I went to the piano. Nobody taught me, nobody showed me. I just realized that if you move one finger to another note on the piano, you could change the color of the whole thing. I picked that up myself and enjoyed doing it. You match the rhythm, you add the harmony, and the melody is key. I got that from popular songs, people like Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and for me the number one, Nat King Cole. I loved the Westerns, Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. I knew all those cowboy songs, and I'd go home and dream I was Hopalong Cassidy or somebody like that. I really stored up a repertoire in my head, not on paper.

And when I checked out Monk the first time, I realized there was something about him that was like nobody else. This man stood on his own. And it was because he had a mental outlook that somebody could call a disorder, it was something unique, and I recognized it in the way he played his music. There was something awkward in the way he played a phrase on the piano. But guess what? Behind it all, I could feel a connection to the west Indian rhythm. I heard that from a young age and I kind of tucked that away. I likened it to the rhythm of the Rastafarians in Jamaica who meant a great deal to me. I first saw them when I was eight years old. The album I've done is called Wareika Hill. Wareika Hill was right next to the house I lived in, and I would see the rasta guys going up the hill for their worship services.

So I came upon that and I was powerfully affected. I heard that drum beat called the nyabinghi. The musician who first introduced me to Monk when I was about 14 was a Rastafarian trumpet player. So I put that in the back of my mind, and years and years and years went by, then I say "I want to do something a little different." So if I dig deep into Monk's songs a little more, I sensed that you could dance to them like it was something coming out of Jamaica. And indeed, as I checked it out, I found out that Thelonious grew up and spent a lot of the time in a neighborhood that was a lot western Indian. So he must have been hearing people playing records with a lot of these colorful sounds, music from Trinidad, music from Jamaica. A lot of his friends were west Indian. Same with a lot of jazz fiends of the '40s, like Sonny Rollins. There was this community of friends that tried to fit in with the American scene, but they would have a brotherly thing because of these backgrounds.

I'd run across all these west Indian people. So many names. Carmen McRae, who I knew well. Oscar Peterson. Canadian? Yes, but his mother and father were from St Philip's in Barbados. Randy Weston's parents came from Jamaica. Wynton Kelly, another man I knew well. His mother and father were Jamaican, though he was born and raised in Brooklyn. Roy Haynes— Barbados. Connie Kay, the drummer with MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet]. All these people came up, then Harry Belafonte came, Sidney Poitier from the Bahamas. I realized that this was something that happened with Thelonious Monk. He would hear a rhythm and it would connect to a certain beat. So that was behind my motive for doing it.

Then not to mention Thelonious, the man himself, who I'd been around on a couple of occasions. I saw him play a few times and he would get up from the piano and dance around the drummer, the bassist. Charlie Rouse was playing a mean saxophone solo and Monk would dance around. One time he walked into the audience, going around the tables. The people were noticing him but trying to ignore him, you know, just acting wacky. One time I saw him follow a woman into the ladies' room—[laugh]—and we just heard this shriek from in there. WHAAAAA! [laugh] Monk... Monk was so unique.

Here's a fun little story. I once rode down in an elevator with Monk. I knew somebody who lived on the 22nd floor of a building, and right down the hall was Thelonious's family. One time I'm getting into the elevator and coming in next to me was Monk. Come on. It must have been 90 degrees outside and he had this wool coat on, this thick woollen cap, perspiring and all. He was about to get on and he just acknowledges me. "Uh." Some kind of grunt. We ride down and I just greet him, hi, not saying anything else. We get on at the 22nd floor and I'm going down to the lobby. I hit the button. And he presses two and three, and two and three makes five, so he presses five. We ride to the fifth floor, the third floor, the second floor, then the lobby. I get out at the lobby and he says something like, "four and five is nine." And he goes riding back up. So he just had this thing about riding up and down, pressing the buttons. You can't help but think "this man is strange," but a fine, fine person, a genius. I like to say he was different, colorful, unique.

AAJ: One of a kind, absolutely.

MA: Yes. One of a kind, and you heard that in his music. So Monty Alexander mixes cocktails. This record is my recollection of early Jamaica, the Rastafarians, the beginning of that movement, Thelonious Monk and the music that came out of it. It's a vision, if you want to call it that.

AAJ: The album does mix a lot of things. There's so much packed into it—color and rhythm, as you said. It's fascinating to hear all that background behind it as well.

MA: Thank you. As much as I love the music, I could also tell so many stories. There were the times I hung out with Miles Davis. He came into Jilly's and gave me a compliment that was not really a compliment, if you know what I mean. He says in his raspy voice [imitating Davis], "Man, where'd you learn to play that shit?" [laugh] He had two gorgeous ladies with him, he had his sharp pin-stripe Italian suit. He wrote down his phone number on a matchbook and said, "Come on by the house." So I started going up to Miles' house, hanging out with him. This was about 1965. I loved boxing and so did he. He wanted to box, and I didn't want to, but I loved the fights. So he and I went to the Garden to see all these great fighters a couple times.

So I remember all these people in the jazz world—I could go on and on, you know? In recent years I've talked to Sonny Rollins so much on the phone. He's a beautiful guy who can't play his horn anymore. I used to hear Ray Brown and Milt Jackson talking about Dizzy in the old days... I kind of collected all these incredible stories. These guys had such a community of friends. And a lot of those people are gone now, but that music lives forever. It was great to know them. We'd talk, tell jokes, talk about some lady that treated somebody bad or something. It's such a bucket full of memories.

AAJ: And besides those older friends, you don't have any trouble finding interesting other new people to play with as well.

MA: I don't know where to start when it comes to that. It really all happens naturally. A lot of my old friends are people who passed on, and when they're gone, it leaves me feeling alone. I don't automatically go out and meet new people. Maybe I need to change my ways. A lot of times I go somewhere to play and a young musician might come up to me to say hello, Monty Alexander, I just loved this recording or that one. It just happens when I'm out playing.

I don't have that automatic social tendency to go among school people beacuse I didn't have a school education. I feel inhibited a little bit when I'm around Professor Jones or Doctor Brown, all these guys with PhDs who studied at a music college and have some academic thing going on. I don't know what that is. I come from another world. So somebody has to recommend so-and-so to me. "Oh, I heard this bassist, he plays the bottom note and wants to rock the joint." So I'll put that name aside. One day I might call that person and we'll have a good hookup. The beat goes on.

AAJ: Or the river rolls on, as one of your titles put it...

MA: [laugh] That's right! The river always rolls on, man.

AAJ: Speaking of ongoing things, you've had this yearly festival going on for ten years now. How does it work and what kind of help do you have, putting it together and finding all these acts?

MA: Easton, Maryland is a cozy little town in Chesapeake Bay area. I once had a one-off concert there, and the person who'd engaged me was an out-and-out jazz lover. He had told me, "Man, I grew up with Brubeck in the '50s." He had this idea to try to have an event in Easton. And somebody told him, you should ask Monty if he would help with the whole thing. I didn't even know how to answer. But he just said, "You know, you could put your name there and it could bring some attention to the event." So I checked it out and got involved with these people and said "yeah, OK, let's do it."

And from that first year I would speak with this individual. He has his tastes in music and I have my preferences. I knew I had a moral obligation, a social obligation, to try and engage the new talented artists. I try to do that, so I brought some up-and-coming folks who are on the scene now, and we also got some of these vintage folk as well. We had a Dizzy night once, where musicians who had played with Gillespie came. We had old musicians who had played with Brubeck, not long after Dave had passed.

So for Easton, it became a venture every year. I would always ask, who did we get? Who did we get? Sure enough, it's the tenth year now. We are so happy playing in this small place that was a vaudeville theater in the '30s. Guys like Fred Astaire and W.C. Fields would have performed there way back in those days. It's just right. The local folk and people who come from Baltimore or Washington DC, they love it. It's a great time.

Remember that town in that movie Back to the Future? It was a charming little place. It feels like that. The folks are very proud of their hometown. They welcome me and whatever I bring them. Every year I cook up something new to make them enjoy the program. I bring some great characters. Grace Kelly, Etienne Charles, Allan Harris, who played Nat Cole. Just name it. We have many fabulous people. Young Matthew Whitaker, as gifted as they come.

AAJ: Then you must be doing something right.

MA: We must. The organizers are happy as they come. They can't wait to get the next year going. Time's marching and I want to be available for other things, but coming up on Labor Day weekend, I'll be playing there.

AAJ: It's quite a change from the big world-class festivals like Montreux. But as you said earlier, you're happy to play in places big or small.

MA: Well, I have this whole philosophy. Whether you're playing for a small crowd or a large crowd, a small place or a large place, it's all the same thing. It comes from your innards, down in the gut, the spirit. Something comes out and people say, "how'd you play that?" I say "Man, I don't know." It's a magical thing. It's a mystery. That's one thing, one problem I have a lot with music teachers. A lot of them say, this is what it is, that's what it is. It's the same with preachers. I'm more drawn to the guy who says, I wonder what it is. What is it, question mark? How did this happen?

Back in the '60s I was playing through southern America, in little clubs and such. Believe it or not, I could write a book talking about those times. Detroit, Dayton, Chicago, all these places—I'm talking about the late '60s like yesterday. There were all these little towns where they had a local lover of the music, they'd put some money in the till and maybe they could get somebody like Ray Brown or Eddie Harris to come play. You don't find that kind of thing much anymore, so this place stuck out down in Easton. Somehow we created that kind of thing here and made it happen. It's meant to be cozy, like you're playing in a living room. It reminds me of Harlem, hanging out with Thelonious Monk and playing the piano. I try to make it warm and comfortable.

AAJ: It would be fascinating if you did find the time to write a book or compile those stories somehow.

MA: I enjoy talking about it at times like this. I like it and I'm comfortable when someone's receiving what I'm saying. When I sit down, I never know what I'm going to say. I don't plan it out. That's not my personality. I just end up talking about all these names, like the company of Frank Sinatra and all this music that was going on, or all that with Miles. I hung out with Muhammad Ali. In Jamaica, I'm with all these guys who hung out with Bob Marley. So I've collected a world of memories. I'm really going to have to get off my butt and do that.

AAJ: Well, at the same time, there are always more places to go and more people to play with. Do you have places you'd like to tour that you haven't yet, or other people you want to play with sometime?

MA: Oh, I don't know. I'm the kind of guy that just says, where's the gig? Let's go, let's do it. I know it's not always going to be a first-class accommodation. You can get spoiled. One night you're in a palace, the next night you're on a park bench. I tell my friends, you just gotta get out there. Let's go here, let's go there. That's how it is in the world of, I call it classic American music. American classical music, I heard someone call it, and I like that a lot. Because I don't consider myself a jazz musician. I'm just a musician. I play folk songs, I play nursery rhymes and put a little soul in...

AAJ: Right. You can play reggae or rock and roll, a little of this or a little of that...

MA: What you do is what you play. What are you doing to make it feel like it comes from a good feeling, it has sincerity or a deep meaning. I can't explain why, but that's it. I'll play whatever. You just gotta feel good about it.

AAJ: It's a beautiful outlook.

MA: Thank you.

AAJ: Good luck, then. Even if you don't know what else is coming, let's hope it's as bright and successful as the last 50 years have been.

MA: [laugh] They have been, though actually I'd say it was more like 60, 65 years. I was in my early teens when I first got hired. It's been one heck of an adventure. It doesn't get old, you know? If you did it good the night before last, you're so happy that you want to do it again. And if you did it in a way where you say, "ehhh, I should have done it this way or that way instead," then you go back and try to do it better next time. So it never gets old. I'm very happy about this thing I just did, a combination of one of our icons of music as well as my love for Jamaica and the music I grew up with. I feel like I'm Jack Benny, always 39 years old. [laugh] So I'm still having a good time.

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