Considered one of the top five jazz pianists ever, Monty Alexander returns to Easton once again for the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, held over Labor Day weekend. We caught up with the Jamaican-born musician to discuss how he got his start, his creative, dramatic style, and his involvement with the “best small jazz festival in America.”
By Becca Newell
Can you tell me a little bit about your early relationship with music?
I started playing the piano, creating my own melodies, like a kid would, and playing little melodies from whatever songs I heard. We had one radio station [in Jamaica] and some LP records, along with local music—we call it calypso—and I just grew up hearing that. Semi-classical tunes, pop songs from the U.S., rhythm and blues; my mother had some “easy listening” music and also great jazz artists, like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby.
Your style of music takes elements of a lot of genres and blends them together. Did that happen naturally?
So much so that I didn’t even notice it. My style is a lot of stuff all combined unconsciously. It’s based on simplicity. Jazz opens the door to all kinds of styles. It can be a word that discourages people because they think it’s like a private club and that’s everything it’s not. It’s one of America’s greatest gifts to the world.
Did you ever venture into playing other instruments?
As a kid, it was just about the music. One thing I had was the accordion, which I loved. Also, I had a guitar; I had a violin. My father gave me a trumpet the day after I saw my hero, Louis Armstrong—he came to Jamaica; I was ten when I saw him. But when we came to America, I couldn’t bring all of that stuff with me, so we rented a piano because we’d always had one. I kept playing and having fun.
After dabbling with other instruments, what is it that keeps you passionate about the piano?
The piano is this limitless thing. I call it a “one man orchestra” because there are 88 notes on it and anything’s possible. The possibilities within 88 notes and ten fingers are limitless. You can play harmonies, percussion, melodies, whatever you want. Of course, you’ve got to haul that big hunk of iron around. That’s the one detriment. [Laughs]
How did you start playing professionally?
I was hanging out at the bars and saloons [in Miami], just meeting musicians. Someone hired me to play and from that day—many, many years ago—I’ve been a professional musician. It’s been an amazing journey for me. I didn’t go to music school and these days, I don’t read music, so most of my stuff is just “radar.” That’s what I call it.
You’ve been performing now for more than 50 years, which is incredible. Did you think your career would reach the caliber it has today?
Absolutely not; I had no idea. I was just a young guy. I could write a book about those times in the early 1960s in Miami—the culture, social situations, racial issues, and civil rights. You’re not thinking of tomorrow very much. All the other guys my age were at college or school, trying to forge their way to a better life. My main thing was to stay out of trouble because I was around a lot of troubled people and situations. I was playing in these bars where people had just gotten out of jail. You’re just living for the moment. And meanwhile, I must have been developing a voice that made people happy when I played. I had musicians slapping me on the back, telling me “kid, you’re doing great.”
Wow. Can you tell me about that?
When I was in Miami, one of these clubs I was playing in, [Frank] Sinatra and his friends heard me play and that’s how I got to New York. By Mr. Frank Sinatra himself. I was playing in Jilly’s in New York in 1963 … with all these artists, entertainers, and big showbiz people. I was there off and on for about three years. Talk about excitement, as far as personalities go. As a musician, it’s important to attach yourself to heroes. And it wasn’t all musicians.
Who is your biggest hero?
My greatest hero for positive thinking—because that’s half the battle—and best attitude you can have was Muhammad Ali. I used to go to all of his fights to watch him box because he made everything into a positive and that’s what I try to do when I play.
You’ve shared the stage with so many talented musicians, do you have any favorites?
Some of my favorite musicians in jazz have invited me to play with them. I call them “royalty”—Sonny Rollins, master of the saxophone; Clark Terry, this great trumpet player who inspired Quincy Jones and Miles Davis; a great vibraphonist Milt Jackson. I made a recording, a tribute to the songs of Tony Bennett and Tony called me and he wanted me to play on his record. I was honored. I was invited to accompany Ella Fitzgerald way back when, but I declined. Why? Because I don’t read music and I told her manager directly “sir, I’ll mess up and I certainly don’t want to do that.” [Laughs]
Let’s talk a little about the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. How did that begin?
I was on tour and one of the places we were playing was in Easton. I met Al Sikes [producer of the MAJF], he said he was a fan and lover of jazz music. And he must have thought that I was somebody who was worthy of having a jazz festival in my name. I was definitely interested and flattered. We went into it and did it well.
The festival has been hugely successful—congratulations! And it seems poised to be one of the area’s most prominent festivals. What do you think has contributed to its success?
The folks keep coming; they enjoy it! It’s a ball. I value it highly. I love the town and the people there. And the Avalon is a wonderful little venue. Jazz takes on all shapes and colors and Easton’s festival is all-inclusive jazz, like “come on, let’s have a good time!”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Come and join in the celebration! We’ve made it one more year. It’s a great thing to participate in with a wonderful, appreciative, respectful audience that is ripe for some good times!
Monty Alexander performs at the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 3rd at the Avalon Theatre in Easton. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $70 for reserved seating; $40 for the balcony. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 410-819-0380 or visit Chesapeakejazz.org.