Monty Alexander: Jamaica Is “My Life”

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - March 9, 2012

Above: Monty Alexander (Photo/Crush Boone)

By Alexander Britell

JAMAICAN MUSIC LEGEND MONTY ALEXANDER recently completed a two-week run at the famed Blue Note jazz club in New York City dubbed “50 Years In Music – 50 Years of Jamaica,” a celebration of his five-decade career and Jamaica’s independence jubilee. Alexander, whose most recent album, Harlem-Kingston Express Live!, was nominated for a Grammy in the reggae category, remains fueled by his heritage in his constant quest, as he puts it, to share his love for the worlds of Jamaican music and jazz. To learn more, CJ Arts talked to Alexander about his Blue Note run, what Jamaica means to his music and his memory of hearing Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong in Kingston.

How was your run at the Blue Note?

It was fulfilling and enjoyable, and it was joyfully exhausting. Because every day I had the enjoyable opportunity to meet with all completely different players, artists, all of whom I had much respect for.

That followed your most recent album, Harlem-Kingston Express Live!, which was nominated for a reggae Grammy. Can you talk about that album?

Well, that album was the result of what I’ve been doing a lot of recently, where I merge my music life as a so-called jazz musician with my native impulses as a guy from Jamaica. So it represents that, and the album is a coming-together of worlds that don’t normally meet. But they met in a way that was most fulfilling to me, certainly. I was very happy with it, and I was delighted that it was received so well. The Blue Note engagement is kind of an extension, in a completely different way, of what I did, where I’m literally sharing my common love and appreciation for both the world of jazz as well as Jamaican music.

How much does Jamaica influence your music?

It’s my life. I can’t tell you to what degree, but it is a great percentage. It’s an equal portion of both worlds — like my reference to America and the jazz that I heard when I was a youth, which affected Jamaica’s music, but also with those other impulses that are about the rhythms and the ways melodies are constructed. It all goes together — it is something in my nature that finds a kind of oneness in both worlds. I put it together in a way where it’s an equal portion of each.

We spoke to Caribbean jazz drummer Dion Parson last year, who mentioned the influence you had on his music. How much do you think Caribbean jazz has developed?

I can’t speak about Caribbean jazz — what I know is me, the individual, because each of us has his or her own take on those two influences. So I don’t know the state of Caribbean jazz per se, because there are people who want to bring those things together, because they share this. When you’re an immigrant you want to connect with where you are, but keep the stuff intact. But too often over the years, people from other countries had the tendency to leave their roots behind in the public way. Certainly, you have it when you go home with your family, but when you’d go out in public in years gone by, people didn’t broadcast their heritage with the American scene, so to speak; it was more under the table. I’m one of those guys that came along and said, I’m going to stick my neck out a little bit here and enjoy my heritage as I bring it in. Because the first time around, people look at you like, what’s that all about? Because it’s not normal. So I applaud Dion Parson, among others, for trying to do that as well.

You’ve mentioned hearing Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole when they performed in Jamaica. What is your greatest memory of that?

A kid in a candy store. It was the biggest thrill, because music hit me hard when I was a kid, in a joyful way. All my young years coming up, when I was maybe 3 years old, playing the piano, it was a happy event. So when I would hear their music on the radio or phonograph, or stereo player, I could feel that force of excitement. I felt something in the music that just made me happy, and those two men I was familiar with before I got the chance to see them. Both Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, I heard their records in the house. Nat King Cole especially, because my parents loved those songs, and when I saw Nat King Cole I realized for the first time that this was a great, great pianist. And it happened when I was about 12 years old, that Louis Armstrong was there, too, and I wanted to play trumpet like him. But those too men, seeing them was an indescribable thrill.

What are you working on next?

Well, it’s not even so much about music. I just let my music thing unfold as I go, where I go play, and hope to have the guys I love to share the music with, because it’s easier when I have them to play with. So it’s not even about the music. I’m in a moment where I’m trying to get a couple of guys I like to play with me, a couple of musicians who are also in demand by other band leaders. I have so many adventures lying ahead, if they’re going to work out. One of them is we’re going to tour Europe this summer with a quartet that includes Sly & Robbie, one of the most well-known rhythmic teams in Jamaica, and the master guitarist, Ernest Ranglin.

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