Tickets on sale SOON!
Fifty-five years after he moved to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, his home town, pianist Monty Alexander is an American classic, touring the world relentlessly with various projects, delighting a global audience drawn to his vibrant personality and soulful message. His spirited conception is one informed by the timeless verities: endless melody-making, effervescent grooves, sophisticated voicings, a romantic spirit, and a consistent predisposition, as Alexander accurately states, “to build up the heat and kick up a storm.” In the course of any given performance, Alexander applies those aesthetics to repertoire spanning a broad range of jazz and Jamaican musical expression—the American songbook and the blues, gospel and bebop, calypso and reggae. Like his “eternal inspiration,” Erroll Garner, Alexander—cited as the fifth greatest jazz pianist ever in The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time (Hal Leonard Publishing) and mentioned in Robert Doerschuk’s 88: The Giants of Jazz Piano—gives the hardcore-jazz-obsessed much to dig into while also communicating the message to the squarest “civilian.”
Born on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Alexander was playing Christmas carols by ear at 4, entertaining neighbors and relatives by 5, taking his first piano lessons at 6. He resisted formal instruction, but still, growing up in Kingston, absorbed all the musical flavors that comprise his mature sonic palette. “I soaked up everything—the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung,” he recalls. When Alexander was 9, his father, a Kingston merchant, brought him to hear and play for the legendary pianist Eddie Heywood. At 10, he saw Nat “King” Cole play at Kingston’s Carib Theater, the same venue where, at 13, he heard a concert featuring Louis Armstrong.
“I had one foot in the jazz camp and the other in the old-time folk music,” Alexander says. “One was not more valuable than the other. Boogie-woogie was important to me, too. I’d sit at the piano and think I was the Count Basie Orchestra or a rhythm-and-blues band. I automatically reached for anything I wanted to play on the piano, and just played it. It didn’t come with practicing. It came with playing, playing, playing all the time.”
By 14, Alexander began to display his skills in local clubs. Soon thereafter, he made his first recordings, both as leader of a group called Monty and the Cyclones, and as a sideman for such legendary producers as Ken Khouri (Federal Records), Duke Reade (Treasure Isle), and Clement Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. These early sessions for Federal, which Alexander describes as “not calypso music, but the beginning of Ska,” included such subsequently famous aspirants of the day as trombonist Don Drummond, tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso and guitarist Ernest Ranglin.
But after moving to Miami with his mother in 1961, Alexander would sublimate Jamaican roots towards establishing a jazz identity. By 1963, he was ensconced in New York City, with a steady gig at Jilly’s, the eponymous West 52nd Street piano bar owned by Frank Sinatra’s close friend Jilly Rizzo. There, for the next four years, Alexander’s trio swung until the wee hours of the morning for Sinatra, a mix of celebrity entertainers, tough guys, thrill seekers, and such iconic jazzfolk as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Milt Jackson, and Roy Haynes. As the 1960s progressed, he also held regular gigs at Minton’s (the iconic Harlem lounge where bebop gestated) and at the Playboy Club, where he met and became friends with Quincy Jones. During these years, he also met Ray Brown and piano giant Oscar Peterson, who recommended Alexander to Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the proprietor of Germany’s MPS label, for which he made a dozen records between 1971 and 1985.
Meanwhile, Alexander continues to apply his creative, charismatic sensibility to the trio context, as demonstrated on Uplift and Uplift 2 (JLP), a pair of deep-swinging navigations of the American Songbook with Shakur on bass and Riley on drums on the former and either Clayton or Shakur on bass and either Hamilton or Frits Landesbergen on drums on the latter. It follows Alexander’s 2008 trio dates, Calypso Blues: The Music of Nat King Cole and The Good Life: Monty Alexander Plays the Songs of Tony Bennett both on Chesky. Also in 2008, Bennett tapped Alexander as the featured pianist on A Swinging Christmas, with the Count Basie Orchestra.
In August 2000, the Jamaican government designated Alexander Commander in the Order of Distinction for outstanding services to Jamaica as a worldwide music ambassador. In 2015, the great modern pianist Donald Vega released With Respect To Monty, which included his interpretations of seven Alexander compositions. Furthermore, 2016 will mark the seventh edition of the namesake Monty Alexander Jazz Festival in Easton, Maryland, for which he has served as Artistic Director and perennial performer every Labor Day weekend since 2010.