In Gene Rizzo’s Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players of All-Time published five years ago, Jamaican-born Monty Alexander is ranked #5.
That’s quite an honour for the 66-year-old Kingston-raised musician, who was the first in his household to pluck the piano his parents bought when he was just four years old.
Unlike many jazz pianists who are classically trained, Alexander is largely self-taught, having taken just a few lessons while growing up.
“I think not having a degree is one of the reasons why young musicians don’t relate to me or approach me for advice,” Alexander told Share while in Toronto recently for the Wolmer’s Alumni Association annual fundraiser in Brampton. “The brilliant young musicians have scholastic and academic backgrounds while I did not go to music school. I am a product of street corner school. About 90 per cent of what I know came from teaching myself and learning from some of the best in the business.”
Alexander saw Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole perform in Jamaica when he was 10 years old and he hung out with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and legendary guitarist John “Wes” Montgomery in New York after his family migrated to the United States in 1961.
He also ran into trumpeter/bandleader/composer Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson while playing at the then popular Jilly’s club in New York from 1963 to 1965.
Alexander holds Peterson, who passed away three years ago, in high esteem.
“Dr. Peterson generously extended his generosity to me when I first met him,” he said. “He invited me into his inner world and royal chamber as I like to refer to it. He was jazz royalty. I just observed when he played and picked up the vibrations. That was Oscar. He was larger than life and definitely one of my heroes on the piano along with Erroll Garner.”
Alexander was among a select group of musicians invited to perform at a two-hour tribute for Peterson at Roy Thomson Hall in January 2008. He and his ensemble will perform at the same venue on March 5 at an event to honour Peterson’s legacy.
“To be asked to do anything for Oscar is quite simply an honour,” said Alexander who was recommended to the German label, MPS, by Peterson. “He was a universal genius.”
Alexander also had a close friendship with Grammy award-winning double bassist Ray Brown, who died eight years ago.
“He was like a big brother to me and I felt a sense of loss when he passed away,” Alexander said.
The pianist has maintained his Jamaican roots despite living in the U.S. for nearly four decades. He started experimenting with the fusion of Caribbean music and jazz in the late 1970s and his 1999 album, Stir It Up, was a jazz tribute to Bob Marley. Five years ago, he worked with Jamaican session musicians to compile a second album of Marley material, Concrete Jungle: The Music of Bob Marley.
“I just had a ball with that great man’s music, songs and messages,” said Alexander who released his first album, Alexander the Great, in 1965. “You have to be an absolutely soulless person not to be captivated by Marley’s legacy.”
He and his trio have been invited to perform Marley’s music in Dakar, Senegal on December 18. Reggae singer Taurus Riley and Jamaican saxophonist Dean Fraser will also appear on the bill.
“These are guys right out of the Jamaican roots experience and it’s a pleasure to be performing with them,” said Alexander who has maintained a busy schedule.
He started the month performing last Friday in Lithuania before heading to Switzerland – a country he has played in frequently since 1976 – two days later. After his December 18 show in Senegal, he travels to Russia for a Christmas Day concert at the Moscow International House of Music before heading straight back to the U.S. to perform five consecutive nights, beginning on Boxing Day, at the Blues Alley Jazz Supper Club in Washington.
When asked how he keeps up with a hectic schedule, he said: “I am either mad, very crazy or I love what I do.”
Since the 1960s, Alexander has been a regular visitor to this city where he has family and friends.
“After playing in Buffalo, I came across to see some relatives and people I knew back from Jamaica and I have always thought this is a beautiful North American city,” he said. The layout is nice and the panorama is beautiful.”
Though graduating from Jamaica College, Alexander said he was honoured to be invited by Wolmer’s to the event titled, The Great Luncheon Concert.
“It has been quite a while since I have played at a concert for Jamaican folks so this means a lot to be here playing for a Jamaican alumni group,” he added.