"If I have a responsibility, it's the responsibility to heal people's feelings."
As a guest journalist for Draai om je oren I got the opportunity to interview the great jazz pianist Monty Alexander. The interview took place on September 5th 2004 in his hotel just before his performance on the Laren Jazz Festival. Monty Alexander was the main act on this festival and played three nights in a row with his trio with Hassan Shakur (bass) and Frits Landesbergen (drums) plus (in some cases) Jeroen de Rijk (percussion). The sympathetic Alexander proved to be just as virtuoso in his speech as he is on the piano and he took plenty of time for this interview. Therefore I got a chance to ask many more questions than just the Take Ten-questions. Although he lives in the US for more than 40 years, his Jamaican accent is still clearly noticeable, which adds to the positiveness with which he talks. A few hours after this interview he gave a fantastic concert, a review of which can be found here.
by Jaap van der Voet, september 2004
What are your current activities in music?
"Just what I've been doing always: touring."
Can you tell something about the group you play with tonight? Is it formed just for this occasion or is it a regular group? Do you also play with the same guys as tonight - Frits Landesbergen and Hassan Shakur - in the States?
"It's really a group that plays together more often. I play with Hassan Shakur already since the late 70's. We really understand each other. Also with Frits I've played many times before. I like to play with him: he's a very good drummer, perfect for what I'm doing with the trio. Also for future concerts he will join the trio. I invite Frits to come with me on occasion, and when he can he does. And in fact, Frits and Hassan are going to join me on the Dutch ship the 'Zaandam'. It's a part of the Holland-America line. It's a jazz cruise and on it there's a lot of other great guys. These jazz cruises in the Carribean are very popular. So Frits will join me on that. And whenever I can I like to have him. But there are a couple of other drummers that I like to have too. So it's a kind of trade-off, you know, cause he's a busy guy with his life and he can't do it all the time."
And what about Jeroen de Rijk? He is also listed in the program of tonight.
"He will not play with us this time. He did yesterday. No doubt that Jeroen is a good percussionist, but for tonight I prefer the trio."
You have played in this trio setting (piano, bass, drums) on most of your recordings, most of them with fantastic bass players like Ray Brown and John Clayton. When I listen to these recordings, I find it interesting to hear that they perfectly follow any chord changes or rhythmic changes, such that it almost seems to be prearranged. At the same time however, it sounds very spontaneous, like nothing has been agreed upon before. Can you tell something about how it was to play with these guys?
"It's an understanding that we hear a certain ideal. We trust each other and we know that when we arrive at this agreement, it's filled with satisfaction. So when we go to play, the seeking of this satisfaction is a big part of it. We do it with a certain attitude of enthousiasm, you know. And it's almost like we do it each time for the first time."
Yes, that's how it sounds.
"It's the first time everytime. It's like we've done it before a million times but each time is the first time. Why? Because it's a mystery of why this music called jazz... it's a mystery. I know people try to write about and explain it, but you can't explain it. It's nice to write about and try to explain it, but you can't explain it. It's like people trying to explain other mysteries of the world and you can't. For me it's still a mystery, and one that never gets old."
Yeah, with some people you have this magic connection and with others you don't.
"Yes. And it has nothing to do with the excellence, the talents or the qualifications of the people. It's an unexplainable sympathy or empathy that happens and fortunately I had it with certain musicians in my life and it helped me to fall more in love with music. Among them were of course Ray Brown and John Clayton and others that I've worked with, quite a few. And this man with me, Hassan, is definitely one of them."
He also plays on your latest cd 'Rocksteady', and there you play some really different kind of music.
"Yes. It's a completely different thing. This music still has to do with pulse, rhythm, melody and improvisation, but it's more a fixed rhythm, whereas in jazz there are different degrees of rhythm. Some of it is so subtle that you have to search to find where the rhythm is. When I play I don't search for it, I have it in me and I feel good about it. This music is a kind of music that is so rhythmic, that we start out with the idea of pronouncing it. And that's what Jamaican rhytmes are. It's like the rhythm and blues of America back in the fifties when they played with real instruments. And it's a kind of a service music for people, that they can dance to it as well. This is what even Duke Ellington and Count Basie had to do. They wanted to play music, but it was also a very satisfying thing for them to know that their music made the people want to move to. Today jazz, a lot of it, has become so serious, so intellectual that people don't think about that. But that was a big part of what I saw. When I saw Louis Armstrong everybody was moving. They weren't sitting and thinking intellectually, which was good too."
Nowadays it's more like people sitting and listening.
"Right. And that's why a lot of young people out of frustration of this have gone to the rap music. With rap they have electronic instruments whereas humans used to do it so beautifully. Now they have to find a machine to do it."
When you play this ska or reggae music, do you also have people on the dance floor?
"Well, I don't mind. Because when I'm doing this, I'm just going to a part of what I did when I was growing up. And even though I fell in love with Louis Armstrong, he was a great man of music. In our society, where people liked to dance and those recordings started in the late fifties... I was there. Part of my experience as a musician was to play rhythms. Rhythms on the piano, specifically, no up-and-down and all of that. So that's a part of my whole philosophy of music. A big part of it. And I have been invited to do recordings like this. So it's not that I love this more and I love that less. When I do it I have a satisfaction for that completely. It's almost like the record should say: this is not the same kind of jazz. It's a different thing. I do it happily so, you know. Some people love it and some people can't understand why I would do that."
Maybe there are some jazz purists that say "I don't like it".
How did you end up in music and what kind of education did you have? How did you learn to play the piano?
"Well, I kind of basically taught myself at the beginning. And then I had a piano teacher at school for about 4 years. I took piano lessons, but basically I didn't go to any school or education, music school. So I am a musician that learned from watching other musicians. I didn't take lessons beyond when I was 10 or 12 years old."
Did you learn to read notes or do you play everything by ear?
"Well, they tried to show me and I learned a little then, but I completely erased that and I forgot it. So today I'm not a music reader. Whatever it is that I do comes just out of instinct and experience. I went to - we have a funny way of saying it - 'the university of the street'. Where you watch and get so excited of being with other great musicians that you admire. You have such a good attitude to learn it, watch it and get it, you know. And you smell and taste it. You experienced it, but didn't study. You didn't have the papers and the scales and how to play it. I never did that. I never learned a scale. I heard it."
How was that in Jamaica? Did you hear a lot of jazz or was it mostly ska and reggae?
"I heard all music. The ska hadn't started yet. The ska is just a Jamaican way of playing the blues or R&B. Originally it was 12-bar blues. And we heard Louis Jordan, we heard Bill Doggett, we heard these artists from America, from New Orleans in the late fourties/early fifties that were playing the beat. And it was American jazzmen. Sometimes not the very advanced jazzmen, because the advanced jazzmen wanted to be intellectual, more intelligent, you know. But some people didn't mind playing in that context, because they liked the fact that people would move to the music. And Jamaicans tried to copy that. But when they copied it, a new birth came. And they played as a... it was a dance form. And that's mainly what it was. But I listened to the musicians who played saxophones and trumpets, because they were listening to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and that's what they would talk about."
Did you also listen to Oscar Peterson? Many times they compare you with Oscar Peterson.
"Years ago Oscar Peterson recommended me to his record company and I made a record. And there's no doubt: he is one of my heroes of the piano. But no more than Nat King Cole, Errol Garner. Because these men played with two hands. And when they came to play the piano, they brought the whole band with them. Even though they had bass and drums they were thinking in terms of the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, the excitement and the joy. The complete orchestra experience. A lot of great jazz pianists that were fantastic, they go more in that direction of lines and melodies and ideas, whereas those guys brought the whole works. That's what excited me. And Peterson personified that to a lot of people. I listened to Oscar Peterson when I came to America. But I came from Jamaica when I was 17, so my earlier heroes might be people that you have never heard of. There was a great pianist named Eddy Heywood, who was like Teddy Wilson."
Yes, I know his music.
"He had a way playing the melodies, so he heard the melody. Because to me, the melody is so important. When you play a line, whatever you play, the melody is there, not the scale. And Errol Garner was the other one. I also liked it when I heard Nat King Cole sing. So you heard the melodies and the songs. And later on Oscar Peterson. I was impressed by Oscar Peterson's power, the energy that he brought as well as his great pianistic talent."
You moved to the US when you were 17 years old. Was that because of the music?
"No, because my family wanted to move to America. I had no idea of what I was going to do. And at that age kind of inbetween decisions of whether I was continuing going to school or maybe having a job. But I was already late-night hanging around in the bars and clubs, me alone, going around in sometimes dangerous places. Meeting musicians and they were always friendly. Musicians are the greatest people in the world, you know. Kinda like a family, we don't come from the rules most of the time, we accept one another and that sort of things. They accepted me. And in those days there was a lot of racism in America. There still is. But I come out of a society where they didn't look at your colour so much. And when I came to America I was accepted by everybody. Both the African Americans, both the white Americans. So it was like I belonged everywhere. But also they couldn't figure 'who is this guy, where is he from, what is he?'. I had to fit in. This is as much a social experience as it is a music experience. It is how you fit in, who you know, how you react with others. The reason why Lionel Hampton became so great is because he was with Benny Goodman too. People grow in those combinations, you know. So I was accepted and that gave me so much confidence about life. So when I took a job - somebody offered me a job - and got paid for it at 17 in America, I couldn't believe it. That was the license for me to think that I should continue doing this. Because they like it when I play, they gonna pay me for it and my mother at home was surprised that I was getting paid for it and how much happiness I had doing it. So nobody said 'you gotta go to school'."
So they stimulated you.
"Stimulated me... they didn't stop me. Sometimes parents can really hurt children: 'you shouldn't this, you shouldn't that, you've got to keep up the image'. No, my family was OK, because they saw how much happiness came when I played. For me and other people."
What is your personal definition of jazz? Why did you choose jazz as the form of expression for your musical talent?
"First of all it has a lot of challenge. And when you feel accepted by this very elite, very advanced people - people that have this kind of air of 'we know more than the rest of the people', then you find yourself walking in that world and you feel honoured. Honoured that you're accepted. So automatically - especially if you're like me and you enjoy it so much - you have the combination of playing and the acceptance by these very elite people that are so advanced about life. A lot of times they were screwed-up people using drugs or alcohol, but if you could stay away from that it was an incredible journey. And I tasted it from very young. I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. I mean, if anything, I wanted to make the world a better place by telling the people good things, by being friends with them. But other than that there's no more honourable thing than being a musician. And jazz is the subtle expression that doesn't have to speak the same language or words: people feel the music. You can see a whole place change from negative to positive. And I have seen that happen many, many times when I was doing it. So it is something you don't want to stop. Jazz supported that. It means freedom. It means a kind of freedom and in different versions. You have the avant-garde guy, you have this guy and that guy, whereas the jazz as I know it is the music that has the African base of rhythm that stimulates people to feel good. And when it comes naturally without devices, it's a powerful tool. And I consider that the best definition of jazz: it's freedom of expression."
What inspires you?
"Mystery, people, the joy, and I know that that's a gift from a giver. I choose to say that it's coming from a powerful force that makes people continue wanting to have motivation for living. Some people say God, I say God, God is the giver of good things and he gives us the opportunity to make the world a better place. And one of his gifts is this thing... this music. And the music is such a powerful, beautiful instrument of God's grace, that if you can be humble enough and find a way to express yourself in those contexts, you keep finding inspiration from that. The fact that it's such a powerful, powerful thing. If you can realize that, everytime you play, you can't find a better reason to continue to play. It's not to be famous. It's nice to be famous and have money and..."
It gives you an opportunity to go on with it.
What kind of music do you listen to yourself? What are your favorite cd's?
"It comes in the season, in the week. One week don't I like to hear music, really. Sometimes I feel I have too much music in my head, it's like a headache. So the trick is not to think about music and just let the music come. So when I see the piano, all of a sudden I get excited and I sit down and somehow the music will come. But these days, in my life now, I don't really listen to music that much. Because I heard classical music, blues music, calypso, reggae, Polish music, Israelean music, Arabic music... I heard music all over the world, you know. And I was saying it just the other day, when I used to go to the movie theater, the cinema, the music accompanying the screen movies was very, very inspiring to me. Because those composers used classical music, they used jazzy things, they used... Some of those original things that I heard are the most powerful things. It's already enough."
What's your biggest example - inspiration, hero - in what you're doing and why?
"Ellington, the man, the musician. He was a very extraordinary guy, who was a man of the people, one of the cats."
Did you meet him personally?
"I met him. It was an interesting situation for me. During my first jobs in America, a guy wanted to manage me and his father was one of the owners of a place called the Cotton Club. And the Cotton Club in Harlem was where Duke played. So this man, the father of this guy, knew Duke. And he told Duke that there's this young fellow from Jamaica, that played blablabla... And I went to New York, cause wanted me to have some other jobs, he felt I was going to be successful. I was only 18 at the time. And he took me up to Duke's office. And I met him. And Duke asked me to play the piano. And I must confess, at that time I didn't know so much about Duke, you know. I just heard about him, he was great, but... So I played and I remember I go up from the piano and he was smiling. I found out later, when I first came to America I still had to get my immigration papers set to be OK and you need sponsorship. You need people to write letters, to say 'this fellow is OK, he should be allowed to stay in America'. And I never saw the letter, but I understand that he wrote a letter to the US immigration. I keep talking about it these last couple of years, so much that I want to go find it. And that letter that was written by Duke, that said I recommend this guy is OK, he's capable, he should be allowed. So that's where I have it, but I never saw the letter. Duke Ellington was discrete, he was sophisticated, he could connect to those people that didn't want to have to do the street, that were like 'we're better than the rest of the world'. He connected to them. He connected to the spirit, a spiritual man. He was a man of much range. And when you see a guy like that... the way he worked: he kept working, he kept writing, he lived the full... the way I saw it. And he's just a fantastic guy for an example."
What are you trying to achieve with your music, for yourself and for other people? What's your goal?
"Well, I don't know how long it lasts after a night of playing, but it is to let people know that it is possible to be positive. You can change from being negative to positive. You don't have to be trapped. And I don't just mean just music, I mean life. When I think about it, more a healer. I don't think I'm a musician. If I have a responsibility, it's the responsibility to heal people's feelings."
You want to see happy faces at the end of your concerts.
"Well, happy faces is one thing, but also in a deeper way that they know there's a joy. There's a joy in life. Happy is a good way to put it, but it's deeper than that. It's like saying 'oh, I had fun last night'. No: they had fun, but they walk away realizing there's something this guy does. When it's happening it makes me want to experience that again. Not just for Monty Alexander, but for other people too. So, it's something I like to do."
What do you consider your highlights in your career? Maybe a certain recording or playing with a certain person? Or playing in a certain place?
"I don't remember. I swear I don't remember. I try not to remember, cause a guy like me, you remember these fantastic moments that you believe never could happen and I start remembering it and I start living in the past. And that's no good."
You want to create new highlights.
"I want it to know as a new highlight. And I'm obligated to forget. That's why sometimes I don't understand why... It's important to honour people and what they accomplished, but I don't care. It doesn't matter. Now is the time, you know. I mean, it's nice that they remember you, that's wonderful but it doesn't have anything to do with how you feel now. Because between then and now some terrible stuff could happen, you know what I mean. I have to say though, that meeting some of these great men and women that affected me for the better - and they weren't always musicians, you know - when I met Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Miles Davis and Dizzy, they gave their approval, appreciation or acceptance that made you grow in confidence. That's the greatest thing. So it's not so much playing on the bandstand, because I can tell you so many times when I played and it was this excitement. So it's not just that, cause that comes and goes, you know. But it's meeting these people, and it's becoming more aware that there's new possibilities. No matter how much you know, there's something more. And it's not knowledge of music paper. No, it's another thing."
It must be fantastic to have been part of such an important part of jazz history with all these great names that you mention, like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.
"Well, I met them. Some I played with a lot. And Miles I never really worked with, but he accepted me as somebody to complement."
You never played with Miles Davis?
"I never played in his band, but I knew him, at his home. I would go there and he was supportive of me. Because I didn't want to play with... All I did when I started was to play with the bass and the drums. I was to feel strange about having a quintet, that wasn't what I did, you know. I heard the piano as the main voice. It sound a little egoistical, but to me the piano was everything. The piano was the trumpet, the piano was the bass, the piano was this violin, you know?"
But you did accompany some other musicians, like singers for example.
"Yes, cause they asked me to. I never asked them to, they asked me to. And I enjoyed it, because they were nice people and wonderful singers, you know. And if persons were good singers but not nice persons, I couldn't stand them. I mean, you can sing like that, but you can't be a human being. And I have had a few, not recorded with. People got to be cool, you know."
I saw that you even played with Charlie Parker, although after his death. How was that?
"Well, that's a gimmicky thing. It was fun. And I loved meeting Clint Eastwood (who was directing 'Bird', a film about Parker's life, red.) who is a movie star. A great guy for the movies, but it is all make-believe. Actors are great people, but musicians are closer to the real thing. But he is an incredible man to conceive of what he did. But it was a fabrication and it was fun, but it wasn't like I played with Charlie Parker. In fact a lot of people who really worshipped Charlie Parker were offended that somebody would make a record or do a song and alter things like it wasn't really meant to be."
Yes, I read articles in that time that were not very positive.
"No. But I'm a working musician and a someone comes to me to offer a job. I don't say no, especially when I think it's going to be fun, you know. And Ray Brown asked to do it. Incidentally they're all dead now, man. Johnny Guerin, the drummer, he died. I'm the only surviving member of that quartet (laughing)."
Yes, but you were the youngest member.
"I was the youngest."
What are your plans for the future?
"I wrote a song called 'Renewal'. And the whole idea about 'renewal' is that you can renew, and renewing is that nothing has to get old. I don't have to do another thing, besides what I'm doing. And when I got a gig to go play in Laren or to go play London or New York, I look at that as one more reason to renew."
You don't have a special project in mind to play a certain type of music, like last record where you play reggae and ska?
"No. I'll probably be doing that less and less. And I had a fun period playing these recordings where I remembered my Jamaican heritage, the things that people that like that can relate to. But any other... You know what I'd like to do? (laughing). This is a challenge pleasure, but you may have seen my cover for 'Rocksteady': I love the westerns. I'd like to do an album where in a jazz way I do a serious dedication to a lot of the music that came out of the westerns. And a whole collection of that, with the guys who do that, or survived, cause most of them are all gone. There's sons of the pioneers, there's that whole Roy Rogers... It's a kind of a - how can I say - it's a fun project, but respectable. I respect that, because that music has meaning. Because it's writing about nature. Singing about the mountains, the prairies and... I like that. Rather than the city, that's congested."
Do you live in the city now?
"I live in the city, but in my mind I keep forcing myself to live in the country. OK, I live in the city and the city is great, but - you know - if I think I'm by the river or by the hill, things like that, or the seaside... I like to go away from the city. And when being here, even in a town, I like to see nature, like now. I grew up with that. And I wanted to go to the city, that excitement: the city is exciting. But after a while, people don't have time to be people as easily. So I prefer the country."
Do you live in New York?
"Manhattan. I live just a few blocks away from Madison Square Garden."
Are you playing in the clubs there regularly?
"Yes, regularly I play at Blue Note. I'm going to play at Lincoln Centre, coming up in November, which is a brand new club in this incredible location in New York. That's where Wynton Marsalis has made such a big impact. The Lincoln Centre, and I'm going there for a week. And I'm going to play the Blue Note at Christmas. In fact I'll do a completely different thing. I'm having special guests Freddy Cole - brother of Nat - and Clark Terry and do a dedication for Nat King Cole. And the people will turn out and they'll love it, because it's Christmas time. And with the music and what he represented."
Did you ever meet Nat King Cole himself?
"That was a missed meeting, but I saw him at the stage of a Jamaican theatre. And that was a very important moment. In that theatre I saw Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole. And a lot of other artists in jazz and popular music. But those two guys were to me exemplified elegance. It's a combination of elegance and yet the dirt. The street, the rugged, you know. There's something about that. They didn't forget their past."
Picture: Jaap van der Voet