In a career spanning five decades, pianist Monty Alexander has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading jazz musicians. On top of an impressive solo career (70+ releases), Monty Alexander has also played with just about everybody—from Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins to Ernest Ranglin, Sly and Robbie and many of the ska originators.
His current band, the Harlem-Kingston Express, has just released their new CD, The River Rolls On. We rang up Monty, and he talked about his early years in Jamaica, working with Coxsone Dodd and his new song, Skamento. And his story of how and where he first heard of ska adds some new weight to the old entomology debate.
Reggae Steady Ska: When you were just starting out, what Jamaican musicians were influencing you?
Musicians that would play anything on the piano, the guitar, trombone—any kind of music—including guys who played in the hotels. Among them there was an amazing piano player named Aubrey Adams, and he became, not a mentor, but someone I would go and watch and see him play in the hotels when I was 10 or 12 years old. With Aubrey Adams there was a man named Frankie Bonitto. These were piano players. And Ernest Ranglin. Everybody knows I saw him, too, at an early age.
There was a bond amongst these guys that would play. I saw and identified with them and their styles. They all wanted to be jazz musicians. They listened to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie…the great masters of jazz that came from the USA. They listened to the band arrangements of Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Duke Ellington — all that music was in there. Meanwhile they had the mento music going on which was the local music and is based very much on the old style rhythm handed down from West Africa. They had those songs that are so melodic, memorable, charming folk songs, and that was a part of everybody’s lives. And there was the music coming on the radio from Havana. We could hear the cha cha cha, the merengue from Dominican Republic — the whole diet of music that I was exposed to. But what made me aspire to certain people was just, I don’t know, the style of Aubrey Adams when he was playing. He knew so many songs. Popular American songs. I was fascinated with it, and I was already playing the piano. As a kid — I don’t know if it was record or on the radio — I heard boogie-woogie music. I heard these guys that sat at the piano by themselves and played funky swinging rhythms, and they would call it honky-tonk or boogie-woogie. It was music with a beat, and depending how you attack the rhythm, how fierce the rhythm would get and people would want to dance and people would clap their hands and everything. At a very early age I was playing these kinds of things I heard because my music ear was developing. This was even before I had piano lessons. For a few years my mother told me to take piano lessons. I heard Bach and Beethoven, those great, great composers but it didn’t get in my blood, it didn’t catch my ear. I was more interested in the popular vibe, listening to the popular songs and picking out the tunes and being around musicians like Ernest Ranglin, Aubrey Adams and all these people.
This was right at a time when that early ska sound was developing. What was that scene like?
I heard this going on there, not far from my house where I lived was an area where a lot of working folks would get together on the weekends — Friday and Saturday — and have a little relaxation in the nighttime in the open air. You could hear the crickets and the frogs singing, making their songs. You would hear these guys start with the popular rhythm and blues, USA, like music from New Orleans — blues-flavored music coming out of America from the African American community where people want to dance, and they were not thinking about being proper and all, they come to have a whale of a time, everybody drinking some rum, swinging and having a ball.
And I would go down there by myself sometimes. These days it can be rough-rough in some areas as you probably know, and down there it could have been like that. But I just went down there and sat, have a look through the fence, in the door, watching everybody dance and listening to this music. And I remember hearing, maybe around the same time as meeting some of the guys, a track or a song where I heard the boogie-woogie thing I was knew at home and playing. It was mek up by accident, and that’s the way the Jamaican musicians heard and felt the rhythm and identified with the musicians from America that had captivated us. There were R&B artists, and among them was Louis Jordan. And I don’t know what year it was but around that time, a guy from New Orleans, Roscoe Gordon. And of course the early days of Fats Domino and Little Richard. When I heard this record I knew it was some Jamaican guys playing saxophone, or playing the beat. It had the other feeling from the rhythm. Maybe they were trying to copy it in the effort, the music came up with that certain identifiably a Jamaican accent or rhythm the way people talk walk or drive. You felt Jamaica coming through the R&B boogie-woogie.
You had your own hit band—Monty and The Cyclones (“Summertime“,”I’m Through“) — when you were still a teen, and you quickly became a much-sought-after session player just as ska was breaking. How did that all come about?
I was 18, and one of the people who was always warm and friendly to me was Coxsone Dodd. He was looking out for me. I also met Ken Khouri. My father knew Ken Khouri, he was a business man, and he was fascinated with music and started doing recording sessions. And I don’t remember if it was at his studio, but with Monty and The Cyclones it was just a bunch of my schoolmates, we got together and we would copy stuff off the radio. I was probably the one more interested in the music how to play what to play…fascinated and kinda crazy about it. I put it together and I would say, let’s play this, let’s play that, and out this we would make these little 45-records, and we got in Jamaican Hit Parade. I started to play in sessions because Ken Khouri and Coxsone weren’t paying that much money. But we weren’t thinking about that. We were middle class, fairly ok to pay the bills at the end of the month. They gave me 1 pound and I didn’t care, I was so happy to be on the record. One pound for every track I played on. What a rip off! But I loved to play. I played with ska artists Higgs and Wilson, Keith and Enid, Owen Grey. I’m remembering The Blues Busters — those were the great guys, Phillip and Lloyd. I was playing on all those records. So I was getting about. One thing led to another and I started going to the jam sessions. The jazz guys would play, call it straight-ahead jazz without the boogie beat and that. I was just trying to fit in. I was much younger than the others but everyone accepted me as far as I could tell. And I must have known what I was doing, because everything about music and me is by spontaneity. I play by ear. Everything I do is by ear. Any record you may hear me on it’s all by ear.
So when did you first hear ska?
I remember the first time I heard the ska, the name. Ernest Ranglin among others, we were sitting in the studio to accompany somebody who was going bring a song. We don’t know if this guy singing from the country part or the town part. He come to the studio and Coxsone Dodd say, “All right, what song is this?” And the guy start singing his little song, and the musicians sitting listening to him. “Yah man, give him a bolero beat,” and we’d play the song, record the song. Then another guy comes in, “Give him the cha-cha beat,” you know. Every song had its own thing. But then, most of them wanted what they called the smokey with the beat. And the way I heard the guy say it, “You know, the one that had the beat,” and he described it—ska, ska, ska, ska, ska. And that was one of the musicians. I heard him say it. Ska, ska, ska, ska, ska, ska. And that word—as far as I’m concerned—that’s where that little word came from. Next thing you know, the guy’s saying it on the radio. “Now we’re gonna have a new ska by so-and-so,” playing and spinning the record. And about that time Theophilus Beckford’s song “Easy Snappin’“, which is a very, very lazy way of a little song that captured everybody. But he was easy, like playing that beat on the piano.
Do you remember which musician said that?
I don’t remember who said ska. I remember Ernest saying—him and the drummer—there were different guys sitting in—maybe Lloyd Knibbs on that session — or Roland Alphonso, who, by the way, personally speaking, was one of my favorite people in the world. He was such a kind gentleman, a beautiful life. I think he and Coxsone went to school together. They were friends, and they were all big jazz fans, loved bebop. That word ska, I heard among them Ernest saying, “ska, ska, ska.” It’s the same like jazz. Some guy came up with that name and it stuck.
I saw you with the Harlem-Kingston Express last summer at the Rochester International Jazz Fest. It was a huge nighttime, outdoor show on the street—and the power went out. Twice. But it didn’t seem to faze you. You kept going and the crowd loved it.
I’m glad I left that impression. Your first reaction is, “What the heck is going on?” But I come from a school where music is like your heartbeat. You just tell yourself, man, if you stop your heart beating, you’re gone. To me, music is of such a value and you get so caught up in what you’re doing that that you’re kinda not thinking. You just keep going. It kinda reminds me of those guys in the terrible movie, The Titanic. The ship was going down, man, but those musicians were still playing those songs. [Laughs] If you are really into your music, you don’t care about the power, you have your own power.
Your new CD, Harlem-Kingston Express 2: River Rolls On, blends your Jamaican roots with your long career in jazz. One song, of course, will jump out to RSS readers and that’s Skamento. What’s the story behind that song?
The original title of the song I composed 35 years ago, and it was called Jamento. It was a just word I coined, I said I like this word, I made it up. The J-A. Take the word Jamaica. Jazz is there, J-A. And mento is this music that most people call calypso, folk songs in Jamaica — that’s what musicologist call mento. Which is good. So I updated the tune, I updated Jamento, and I started to play it instead of just with the mento rhythm, I put the ska, which is something very, very indigenous and very natural to all of us Jamaican people, and that’s how it became Skamento. I brought it back to life because I love playing it because every time I play it, it reflects the time of when that the music was being prevalent—you heard it all over—every calypso in the song we play it on. That’s what Skamento is, a simple tune that brings up that experience. Skamento is my youth, my life, my Jamaican coming up before popular rocksteady, reggae and all that stuff hit the world, before Bob came from Nine Mile. I know that there are ska-philes around the world and I would be nice to know that that song got across to them and they all started playing it. I would be so delighted.
[Got a ska festival? Monty says he’s eager to reconnect with the ska scene so drop his people a line. CB]
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