The world over knows June 6, 1944 as the historic date known as D-Day, when the Allied Forces invaded Nazi-occupied France.
Something else occurred on that date, across the Atlantic, in Kingston, Jamaica, not of historical importance but of significant cultural impact: the birth of Montgomery Bernard Alexander who, by age 17, had already made a name for himself as jazz pianist Monty Alexander.
Alexander arrives at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sept. 28 for a one-night performance of the Monty Alexander Trio. Since his first performance in Los Angeles in 1969, the legendary jazz musician has visited Southern California on numerous occasions – most recently at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2019, Moss Theater in Santa Monica in 2018 and the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 2016 Playboy Jazz Festival. And, whenever he’s touring the West Coast, the Catalina Jazz Club is always a regular stop.
This week’s appearance at Cheng Hall, though, is his first time in Irvine. Joining Alexander and forming the Monty Alexander Trio are Luke Sellick on acoustic bass and Jason Brown on drums.
Alexander also plays melodica and sings, and his repertoire encompasses an almost dizzying variety of genres that includes jazz, bebop, blues, gospel, the Great American Songbook, reggae, calypso and the folk music of his native Jamaica.
Music apparently came naturally to Alexander.
“My mother wanted to have the piano so she could maybe play piano as a pastime,” he said in an interview with Culture OC. “ And the piano was there kind of minding its own business and I found this great instrument that became my favorite toy as a kid, and I go there and play noises, try to get attention, and the piano became a way for me to express myself, and it wasn’t long before I started picking out melodies – Christmas carols, nursery rhymes, what have you.”
By age 5 he was entertaining relatives and neighbors, and a year later he was taking his first piano lessons. As Alexander relates, he didn’t just mimic familiar tunes. “I had an ear. I started to develop my ear. And when I started hearing music, I heard all kinds of music. I didn’t hear a genre of music, this type of music, I just heard music coming from heaven, from everywhere.”
In Jamaica, he said, “we had one radio station, and they would play some popular music from America. We would hear blues from New Orleans, we would hear classical music, we would hear semi-classical music, and then a little jazz every now and then, whatever that means – because I’m still trying to figure out what jazz means. So for me, it was then, it’s still now just the same attitude. I like to think I love music – all kinds of music, as long as it’s nice music.”
LISTEN: Worshiping Satchmo and Rubbing Elbows with Duke
When asked if he has any particular stories he’d like to share about the many historic musical figures who have influenced his work and music, Alexander started by saying he has “many anecdotes about Louis Armstrong, whom I saw perform at the Carib Theatre in Jamaica, when I was 10 years old.
“My dad promoted the concert and I was a student at a school in the countryside of Jamaica, and I had to go see Satchmo, my hero,” Alexander said. He then related an elaborate plot he and his dad cooked up wherein he faked a dental emergency to be able to skip school on the day of Armstrong’s concert.
“I loved his music because Louis Armstrong was a part of why I wanted to play music, because he brought joy and upliftment, which is what I do, or seek to do, every time I play the piano. I love to bring joy. That’s my medicine.”
Alexander also recalls that at age 18, his first meeting with Duke Ellington occurred. Steve Stark wanted to manage and represent Alexander. Stark’s dad, Herman Stark, was one of the owners of the Cotton Club in Harlem, which in its earliest days featured Ellington.
Alexander and the younger Stark “went up to the office of Irving Mills, Duke Ellington’s manager. Sleeping on the couch in his office was none other than Duke Ellington.
“Steve introduced me to both of them: ‘I’ve got this kid who’s from Jamaica and his name is Monty Alexander. He’s 18 years old. You should hear him play the piano.’ Duke said, ‘Play some piano, kid!’ I went to the piano and ripped off some funky stuff, jazz swingin’, whatever.”
Hear Monty Alexander talk about his experiences at age 10, attending a concert by his idol, Louis Armstrong, in Kingston, Jamaica and, at age 18, meeting Duke Ellington.
At age 14, Alexander was playing at local clubs in Kingston and made his first recordings, some as the leader of a group called Monty and the Cyclones. By the age of 17, he was performing in Miami. In 1962, at age 18, Alexander made the United States his home, settling in New York City. Within a year, he was ensconced in the Big Apple’s jazz scene, working regularly at Jilly’s, the West 52nd Street piano bar owned by Frank Sinatra’s close friend, Jilly Rizzo.
Throughout the 1960s, Alexander met, interacted with, befriended and performed with the likes of Miles Davis, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson, and in his prolific career, he has worked with many of the foundational creators of jazz and pop music such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Tony Bennett and Sinatra.
Because of this and because of his more than 75 recordings as a leader and sideman, Alexander is cited in the definitive book “The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All Time” as the fifth-greatest jazz pianist ever.
The legendary musician reflected on his life and career, starting with being asked how he approaches putting together a set list for his performances.
“That question is a little daunting,” Alexander said. “Why? Because I have so, so many songs, in my head, in my heart, that I love to play – coming from, name it, you know?
“I have to sort of get quiet with myself and focus on whatever it is I want to play. But what usually happens is I make a kind of list. When I get to the piano and I see the lovely people sitting out there – man, I change the whole thing. And I go over the best way to make a list.
“I tap into spontaneity and that inspiration of the moment, you know, and then I’ll choose something, and it could be one of my own compositions, or a Duke Ellington piece, it could be a Jamaican calypso. Inspiration is what lets that set unfold. Yep. And I would like to think, just like I did two nights ago at the University of New Hampshire, it just flows, and it’s a spiritual thing. I can’t explain it other than that it’s a mystery, it’s magical, and it’s a thrill to tap into this force where you just feel good.”
LISTEN: ‘Good’ Music? ‘It’s All Good…’
Culture OC asked Monty Alexander to describe each time he first discovered and then began to explore a musical genre he hadn’t previously explored.
“I don’t think about genres, I just think about one bowl of jelly beans,” Alexander said.
“If I go into a store and there are jelly beans, which one do I pick? And for me it’s not about a genre, it’s about one wonderful bowl of possibilities. And the thing that gets me is, it’s a kind of a thrill, but I gotta like it. I can’t explain why I like it. I might hear something, and it’s so-called music, and it doesn’t touch me. It’s gotta touch me, and so much music has touched me, whether it was Rachmaninoff, or it was Little Richard, or it was Art Tatum, or it was Scott Joplin – I mean, it’s all good.”
“One of my heroes, Duke Ellington, he said, ‘There’s two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.’ He didn’t want to say ‘bad’ – just ‘good music and the other kind.’ For me, these various genres, as they’re referred to, are just part of a big bowl of jelly beans.”
Have his life and career evolved in phases, or has it been a continuous stream or thread?
“It’s one continuum of phases – let’s put it that way. Every time I look at the piano, it’s like a new phase – like, wait a minute, I have to reinvent who I am, what I am, because when I play music, it’s like a life experience. I’m like a nutcase when I talk like this (but) it’s really, really like what I feel. It may not make sense, but it’s really true.
“You asked if it’s in phases, and it’s a continuum of phases. That’s what I can say, because I have so many experiences to draw on, ’cause life itself is what inspires me. I could be remembering when I was 9 years old, or remembering certain people, and it never gets boring. Every time I play, it’s the first time, in a way.”
Alexander refers to his life and career as “quite a story.”
“I’m proud that I survived the wars of this profession, music playing,” he said. “I’m still loving being a musician, and I’m loving coming to Irvine in a few days, and looking forward to it.”
Fun facts about Monty Alexander
Alexander is a perennial favorite at jazz venues and festivals worldwide. Since 1976, he has appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival 23 times.
In 1964, at age 20, Alexander recorded his first album, “Alexander the Great,” for Pacific Records in Los Angeles. The energetic, upbeat recording concluded with “Blues for Jilly.”
In the mid-1970s, Alexander formed a group consisting of John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums that created a stir on the jazz scene in Europe. The group’s most famous collaboration is “Montreux Alexander,” recorded during the Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1976.
In 2000, Alexander was awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Medal, and in January 2023, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Jamaica (OJ).
Alexander said a documentary about his life and music, called “The Monty Alexander Movie,” that’s being produced in the U.S., Europe and Jamaica, is “almost finished. They’re putting things together.”