Uniting through Music with Jamaican-Jazz Pianist, Monty Alexander


Written by Jade Shojaee

Jamaican-born pianist, Monty Alexander defies genre, culture and the odds with his synergistic music that has been touted as a hard swinging jazz, bebop, calypso and reggae. A self-taught pianist, Mr. Alexander has played with some of the greats including Frank Sinatra (but Monty calls him Mr. S), Miles Davis and more. He has even been honored by the Jamaican Government as Commander in the Order of Distinction, but says he isn’t above jamming with street artists on the corner of Broadway and 52nd street when the opportunity presents itself.

This weekend, he’s coming to the LCA, and he’s bringing with him the colorful history, rhythm and sound for an unforgettable evening of standards and original pieces that juxtapose Jamaican culture and American diversity.

How did you learn to play the piano?

I am pretty much self-taught. I’m gonna tell you, when I was about seven years old, my folks said “you gotta go to the piano teacher,” and that was a very unpleasant time for me. I had already picked up music and I was entertaining myself. Now why do I want to go to some place and have some lady hitting me on my knuckles when I don’t play the right thing? I had a few lessons, but I blocked out the whole thing. The rest of my “lessons,” if that’s what the word is, was just going around Kingston (capital of Jamaica), watching all of my elders. I’d go home and copy what I heard. I had what you would call good ears. The ability to pick it out and play it. That’s how I learned.

When I came to America, same thing. There were no jazz schools so I watched the older guys play and that’s how I picked it up. By the way, that’s how those older guys learned too. They were learning it from the other guys, and that’s how jazz became such a living art. American classical music became such a powerful musical form because it was people celebrating among themselves. It wasn’t someone with a blackboard and chalk. It was a human experience and that’s what you hear when you play those albums made in the 50’s and 40’s and the 30’s.

This is America’s greatest gift to the world: Jazz.

Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

I don’t classify myself as a jazz artist. I’m a person who uplifts people through music and people say, “oh that’s jazz.” But if you challenge me, I’ll start playing any kind of song. It’s not the music, it’s how you play it. I’ll play something that might have a semi-classical tune or I’ll play something that has a Rastifarian vibe to it because I grew up there and I’m familiar with those instincts. I may play something from the Sinatra category because I once played for Sinatra back in the 60s. We called him Mr. S.

The music I play, which has Jamaican instinct in it, is American classical music. That’s what it is. Jazz is a good word but this is a better way to describe it, in my opinion.

Since you were honored by the prime minister of Jamaica as title of Commander in the Order of Distinction, you have been heralded as an ambassador for Jamaican music and American Jazz. What does that mean to you?

Well it’s more one more example of folks coming from other parts of the world and bringing their culture with them. They join up with what America is all about. They bring their experiences from home and from childhood.

Jamaica is such a rich place. Most people know what Jamaica has given to the world, all kinds of incredible gifts.

For so many years, I’ve been playing music all over the world, and when I did, I would automatically find a way to shine a light on that incredible culture (the Jamaican culture) and what it means. It’s been such a wonderful way to bring people together. It’s something I’ve been doing all through the years, but I wasn’t thinking about what other people thought. I was just doing my own natural thing.

And then I received this invitation from the Government of Jamaica, and I was deeply honored. It’s like you go away and your parents say, “you did good Monty, you did good.” I felt very happy about it and, in fact, just a couple months ago I heard from a very distinct organization, University of the West Indies, and they elected to give me a Doctorate of Letters, which is something I had no idea about because I never had an education like most people did. I never went to music school, I don’t read music, I’m one of these kind of natural street corner guys. That’s where I picked up my music.

It seems like for Jamaicans I became this other than just a music person. When I do it (play music) I do it with human celebration and people come together, and have a very good time.

How would you say your music has evolved over the course of your career?

I grew up a little. Now I treasure the fact that I don’t have to play 30 notes within a certain amount of seconds. I can play two and those two notes are going to mean more than playing the 30 notes. I can take my time and bring a sense of maturity and seasoning, and somehow that sits well for me, my colleagues on the stage and the audience. I’m not playing to impress or to show what I can do. I bring my story.

Did you ever consider any other career paths or did you always know that music would be your life?

I never knew it was gonna be anything. It was one day at a time. Literally. I never had a plan because if I made a plan, more than likely I couldn’t keep it. And everything for me was just one foot in front of the other. If I wasn’t gonna be a piano player I wanted to be an airline pilot or a cowboy. Ride the horse and sing happy songs on the horse.

A Cowboy?! Did you watch a lot of western movies growing up?

I did. And if you want to know, I am probably one of the biggest experts on B- Western movies. Every Saturday morning, back in the day, me and my school friends would be at the cinema watching the cowboy movies, and just having the greatest time. The B –Westerns were the kiddie movies (we were 7/8 years old). I remember when I heard the beloved American folk hero Roy Rogers singing in this beautiful getup riding on an incredible Palomino horse named Trigger. Trigger and Roy Rogers were for children but guess what? It was the most wonderful morality tale of all. It was a naïve thing where the good guy always won. And most times you didn’t even see blood.

To this day when nobody’s watching, I watch one of those cowboy movies, and I get real happy.

What was it like to play at the popular celebrity hangout, Jilly’s Saloon? What are some of your favorite memories from those day?

So many that revolve around Sinatra because he was such…you may say the king of show business. He would come to Jilly’s because Jilly Rizzo was his best friend. They were like brothers. Jilly and Sinatra heard me playing in a Miami beach club and hired me on the spot. So I took the job.

It was small place, about 60 people, and all the celebs of the time went there. Among them were movie stars. I remember Judy Garland was a frequent visitor. People in Sinatra’s circle, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis.

Frank Sinatra loved the jazz artists. He and Count Basie would sit together and have drinks till 5 in the morning, and I’m playing the piano in the corner. Miles Davis started coming in regularly. He would at the piano bar and one night he came over to me, and he wrote his phone number down, and he said I want you to come by the house so I started hanging out with Miles Davis. And that’s a fact. I remember one night playing and next to me was Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra in deep conversation. I’ll never forget that moment when these two icons of music were hanging out there together.

What can audiences look forward to hearing on the 19th? Do you have any new songs in store?

I see the vibrations, I look at the audience, I smell the smell, I get a vibe and I go from there. My thing is the moment and I just bring Monty Alexander. It’s not rehearsed. It’s not planned. I have incredible musicians that follow me on a dime. If I want to turn left, boom they turn left.  with me. If I want to go fast, slow whatever. I

It’s the joy of being able to share my own experience. And it’s not just music. Every song is a story. It’s a little piece of adventure, an adventure that I’ve had, and I put that into each tune that I play.

I absolutely plan to play some standards, but I have so many tunes of my own and I want to share that with the audience and give an overall uplifting experience.

Tell us about the musicians you will be playing with. How did you meet them?

Just by happen stance, serendipity. You meet someone, you didn’t plan it. The bass player, his name is Hassan Shakur. I’ve known him for 35 years. He’s a living refection of the classic, great base players rooting back to Jimmy Blanton. We don’t have a piece of paper of music. We just play and he hears what I’m playing and we have a strong empathy with each other. I have a fantastic drummer from NYC named Jason Brown and he’s just grooving. Every stroke, every beat, he’s swinging it. We have a great trio. Three guys yet I feel like I’m a big band when I play with them. It’s a lot of fun.

Sometimes I look back and I can’t believe that I came from Jamaica, a beautiful island in the sun. I came from a humble situation and came to America and had such a terrific career, which I’m still enjoying very much.

Come see the Monty Alexander Trio at the Lesher Center for the Arts this Saturday August 19, at 5 and 8pm!