Faces of the Arts: Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
Sep 01, 2017 10:05AM ● Published by Arden Haley
t’s a Saturday night in September 2016, as a crowd surges into Easton’s Avalon Theatre. Tropical Storm Hermine hugs the East Coast beaches, but this doesn’t disturb the patrons. They’re here to experience the music of famous jazz pianist, Monty Alexander, and to welcome him to the seventh annual three-day Monty Alexander Jazz Festival.
Once again, the rhythms of blues, gospel, and jazz will fill the theatre’s auditorium, and the buzz begins when Monty walks onto the stage. He tells his audience how he became interested in jazz. “I was born in Jamaica and as I was growing up, everywhere there was music. Music filled the air.”
He strolls over to the piano and, accompanied by his drummer, Obed Calvaire, and his bass cellist, Hasan Shakur, seats himself on the piano bench and takes complete control over the instrument he has played since he was four years old.
His hands fly across the keyboard expressing the songs that come from his soul. His fingers stab at the piano keys—his hands in perpetual motion as they zip across it speedily, while the piano reverberates with rhythm.
The trio rocks the stage with their headline performance, “Remembering Jazz at the Philharmonic,” a tribute to jazz greats of the 1940s and ’50s, and to the late vibraphonist, Milt Jackson and late bassist Ray Brown, with whom he collaborated in the ’60s.
Alexander has been famously quoted as saying, “For the most part, when I play music, I smell it and see colors. Every song has its own personality—its own soul and if I can’t feel it, I can’t play it with feeling.”
Now becoming an Easton tradition, the Jazz Festival will return for its eighth year this September.
The Full MontyBorn in 1944 in Kingston, Jamaica, Monty Alexander first sat at the piano when he was a small child. As he grew, so did his talent. Soon he was entertaining his family and friends.
“I’d have my little performances and everyone would sit around the piano, and they would clap and say, ‘Go Monty, go.’ That was the biggest compliment in the world,” he remembers.
Even today, this gifted musician doesn’t really read music. “I took a crack at piano lessons, but I didn’t like my teacher and I always wanted to do my own thing. I was self-taught,” he says. “I surrounded myself with other musicians and I learned from them. My brain was like a big sponge.”
When Alexander was 10, he watched Louis Armstrong perform at the Carib Theatre in Kingston. “He was a big hero to me and when I saw him play that trumpet and heard his gravelly voice, I was so excited. My other heroes were Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. I loved Crosby’s smooth voice.”
While growing up, he would often sneak out to the Kingston night clubs and immerse himself in the jazz and blues pieces the musicians played, and by age 14, he was performing them himself.
But better things were waiting for Alexander. After his parents divorced when he was 16, his mother said to him one day. “We’re going to America.” They landed in Miami in 1961, and he was soon playing in the city’s night clubs. Here he saw the “real” world. “I was ripe for trouble at that age, but I learned to deal with people and I survived,” he says.
His big break came when he met Frank Sinatra in one of the Miami clubs. “I remember Sinatra saying to his friend, Jilly Rizzo, ‘The kid’s a gas.’”
Rizzo then hired him to play in his famous West 52nd Street piano bar in New York City—often until the wee hours of the morning—and from there Alexander’s career took off. Since then, he’s performed around the world and made more than 70 albums. “My life experience has been exceptional and America gave me that opportunity.”
When asked where his favorite venue is, he laughs, “Why Easton of course. It’s such a great small town.”
As he reflects on his successful career and on all the places he has performed, he says, “Music can give you good feelings, and you can kick the bad stuff out of the way. My head is always filled with music. When I play, I see mountains, I see rivers. I reach for the mountains and I reach for the rivers, and I listen to my own voice.”
How it BeganAl Sikes, Executive Producer of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, explains how the festival had its beginning in 2009. It came into being with a small dinner party he and his wife, Marty, hosted, which through the course of the evening, generated a large idea.
Recently retired, they had moved to Easton after living in Washington, D.C. and New York, after his career that included being the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the president of Hearst New Media.
Sikes told one of his guests, the late Rush Moody, past president of the Chesapeake Music Society, how much he enjoyed attending jazz concerts. Moody responded that it would be great to expand the Music Society’s offerings by including jazz programs in Easton.
A week or so later, Moody asked him to be in charge of making that happen. Sikes hesitated. “Let’s first have a concert and see how it’s received.”
“Who might we bring in?” he asked a close friend, who happened to know Monty Alexander. “How about Monty?” suggested his friend.
After Monty agreed to perform here in 2010, the concert proved to be a huge success and Sikes had his answer.
“I wanted to do something unique in Easton,” Sikes says. “I wanted something that would gain momentum and open doors, so I later had lunch with Monty in New York and told him that if he agreed to come to Easton for a three-day festival every year, I would name the festival after him, and he would be the artistic director. At first, he was almost without words and probably wondered, ‘Who is this guy?’ When my friend convinced him that I was the real deal, Monty agreed.”
Sikes soon became the executive producer of Jazz on the Chesapeake and, since that time, the festival has grown into a sold-out event.
Last year, it included superb performers such as pianist Ted Rosenthal and vibraphonist Chuck Redd, who, with their rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” had the audience leap to their feet to give them a standing ovation. When Rosenthal introduced the piece, he modestly explained, “I threw in a few notes of my own.”
Over the span of three days, Easton was abuzz with the music of trumpeter Dominick Farinacci; Baltimore jazz and gospel pianist Cyrus Chestnut, along with the Howard University vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue; and the free concert held by the Jazz Ambassadors of the Army Field Band. This was followed by a sold-out Saturday brunch concert by bassist Max Murray and his band at the Tidewater Inn. And then, of course, there was Monty Alexander.
Making it Come TogetherWith all this talent that has expanded over seven years, the caliber of the performers and the work involved with the festival also continues to expand. “We’re looking for great musicians who can bring a crowd to their feet,” Sikes says. “Our central challenge is to entertain and to always meet expectations.” Another challenge is the Avalon’s confined space of about 400 seats.
In order to keep up the festival’s standard of excellence, a huge amount of planning is vital to its success. It begins in early winter when Sikes and Alexander sit down and talk about the next jazz concert. “We work closely together and we come up with a good mix of seasoned jazz musicians,” Sikes says, “but ultimately the performers are selected by Monty.”
After Alexander makes the picks, Don Buxton, Executive Director of Chesapeake Music, sends out the contracts. “We want every slot filled before we make the festival announcements. Then we like to begin selling tickets in early spring. Last year, we sold almost 2,000 tickets with three of the concerts sold-out,” Buxton explains.
What makes it all work? “Collaboration,” Buxton says. “It’s totally about people connecting and building relationships with each other. It’s how we achieve. Not only does the community support all the music festivals—the festivals help support the community. We have a symbiotic relationship.”
Lauren Catterton, General Manager of the Tidewater Inn, would agree. Last year the inn provided the venue for the jazz brunch that delighted the audience and the inn’s guests. “The music and food gave us a new kind of energy,” she says.
A large part of that collaboration also comes from the many volunteers who help to produce the festival. One such volunteer is writer Beth Schucker, who assists with publicity and fund-raising and who stresses the importance of community help. “We need to get first-class musicians with our small-town budget,” she says. “Ninety-percent of that budget goes to the stage.”
As the festival date approaches, the tension rises. There’s so much to do, so little time. With about six weeks left, the bustle begins in earnest. Concert schedules have to be organized, brochures and posters have to be created. Banners need to be displayed throughout town; some performers need help with travel and lodging. The website and electronic ticketing have to work smoothly. More money needs to be raised. Ushers need to be briefed. Lighting and stage arrangements need to be in order. “The logistics can be mind boggling,” Schucker says.
And then it’s time. As the curtain rises on the eighth jazz festival this September, the spotlights will again shine on the Monty Alexander Trio and on all the accomplished performers, who along with the Easton community, continue to make this festival such a success.