Chasing the Moment: Monty Alexander
interviewed by Judith Schlesinger
All musicians "play" music, but not always in the fullest sense of that word. Few approach the challenge of making organized sound with the spontaneous delight of pianist and composer Monty Alexander. For more than three decades, Monty has shared his joyful playing with millions of people, both through world tours and his 47 albums as a leader (24 as a sideman) ranging from solo, trio, and big-band jazz to tropical-flavored fusion mixed with steel drums.
Monty has worked and recorded with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, and Mel Torme, accompanied Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, and joined with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis for the "Triple Treat" series for Concord. He also contributed to the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's "Bird" and collaborated on Natalie Cole's Grammy-winning tribute to her father.
But while he's well-known and respected among musicians, he remains curiously underfamous to the public. Part of the problem is that he has entirely too much fun for critics who say you can't be entertaining and credible at the same time. "I don't like the idea that jazz is a museum item," he once told me. "It is entertainment. Your obligation is to uplift people and make them feel better than when they came in."
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1944, Monty began playing piano and accordian at age six. As a teenager, he was inspired when idols Louis Armstrong and Nat (King) Cole performed at the Carib Theater in Jamaica. His own band, "Monty and the Cyclones," made the Jamaican Hit Parade between 1958–60. Monty's break came when Frank Sinatra's pal, Jilly Rizzo, discovered him playing in Miami and later hired him for his New York club, "Jilly's." His trio work (such as with drummer Jeff Hamilton and bassist John Clayton) is unmatched in its mastery and exuberance. His 1997 album, "Echoes of Jilly's" (Concord) celebrates the Sinatra repertoire as well as that magical four-year period (1963–67) when many of his jazz heroes came through the door—and some of them joined him on the bandstand. Downbeat Magazine, in its complimentary review of the CD, referred to Monty's "headlong ecstatic style."
Although Monty still performs jazz—and will duo with Ray Brown at Lincoln Center in February—his focus in the past few years has incorporated more Caribbean rhythms and energy. His most recent release was "Stir it Up: The Music of Bob Marley" (Telarc, 1999). "If the spirit is good and the feeling is there, I love to make all kinds of music," he once told me. "Each thing I'm doing, as long as I can find the key to the lock, I'll do it." A few years ago, he played Rhapsody in Blue with a symphony in Switzerland, under the direction of Bobby McFerrin.
"How will you do that if you can't read music?" I asked him. "I'll just play a little blues in the middle," he said, and proceeded to do it so well that he was asked to do it again in Europe and Japan.
Monty's next album ("Soul Cooking"), due from Telarc in the spring of 2000, is another Island journey—although when I asked him about it, he said, "It's not the 'Island road,' it's my road. I'm enjoying my heritage. I'm not making a concerted effort to stay away from jazz, I'm reacquainting myself with old friends and places." At the same time, he points out that the over-intellectualizing of jazz has only gotten worse—"they've talked all the soul out of the thing. Everybody knows too damn much. It was a folk music, guys on the street playing it—even the wrong notes had life. Now it's such a business—sophisticated, like museum art. If I'd been with Telarc ten years ago, who would encourage me this way, I would've been doing this then."
Monty and I began our dialogue when he generously agreed to be interviewed for my book, Dangerous Joy: The Myth of the Mad Musician, several years ago. His current whereabouts can be found at www.montyalexander.net (along with Real Audio of a full-length performance).
When you play, there's so much joy coming out of you, that people can't help reacting—whether or not they understand what you've just accomplished.
And that for me is when I done did good (grins). I made myself happy, and the guys on the bandstand had a good time—at the end it's like we shouldn't even have gotten paid for this.
Do you consciously decide what to play to bring people in?
If you do it too consciously, it robs it of the honest motive. There's a noble and a lovely motive that genuinely says, "I like you, I want you to like me —let's like each other"—that's different from "I want to win your approval." Because once it's that, you won't get it—it's not coming from a nicer, healthier core. I have these different parts of me, and sometimes my motives are not the best...
...like every other human.
Like every other human, and I'm happy to acknowledge that. If I don't play well in an evening it's because my motives weren't right. Maybe I took it for granted, ho-hum... But I believe that when you play, it's a sacred experience, it's like some people go to church. That bandstand—whether it's a filthy stage in a bar or some concert hall—is like an altar. It's a sacred thing. And if you want this thing to happen with the audience, then you have to treat it like it's holy—you know what I mean? It's not like the Beatles and everyone going, "Yaaaaaaaah!"
You know, for a guy who didn't learn much in school, somehow this thing has brought me here. I would've still been in Jamaica doing something, whatever. But here I am.
So how'd you learn it, then?
It's magic... I got magic. (Laughs) I don't mean it in an arrogant way—I can't explain it.
Magic with a small "m?"
Some people say magic, some say gift, but I don't really have an answer. If I'd taken time out to study more, then I'd be even more magical, I guess—I'd be playing in concert halls and all of that. But I do this thing that I can't define, and when it's happening it makes people feel good.
You could have a diploma, and still not be able to do that.
Truly, truly. But I mean, I work at it, because I want to do it well. I've known for a long time, that you can know bundles of stuff—it doesn't mean a thing.
In any field.
...in any field. It's what you do know, how you use what you know...whatever it is. Count Basie used to go plink-plink, and for what he was trying to do, it was the complete point being made. It was plink, plink, and everyone went "WOW!" And Jobim is singing out of tune, poor guy—that's no Pavarotti stuff there—but it doesn't matter cause it's right, you know? And Miles Davis—clinkers? Ba-bop! Half the notes he played were clinkers... but there was this thing added, you know...
Yeah, and it's that added thing that I'm trying to...
...define. A little. (grins) I don't think you'll be different from lots of other really good-intentioned people who want to get a little closer to the definition. The best definition is it's... indefinable.
Besides, you can't define magic—otherwise you lose it.
Well, look: at the risk of being mushy, how do you define romance, and love? When you eat that delicious piece of whatever it was, and you want to describe how good it was, all you can do is go mmmmmmm, you know?
What about all those "smooth jazz" stations that play meaningless, boring grooves, throw in a couple of exotic instruments, and say "yeah, that's jazz?"
Beautifully said. It's really typical of everything going on in entertainment and media. The jazz thing is just one more aspect, it's all a bunch of seducing and brainwashing and hype and money. You take the money, and you tell people that something is good when it's not. One thing I know with a minimum of hokum: a guy like me, or many others like me, can sit down at an old beat-up piano in a little bar and something happens where people feel as good as they're gonna feel. Even with a small audience it's as rich an experience as the media can contrive.
Tell me about it.
You know? So I'm not smug about it, I'm just happy that I'm going around about my business, just enjoying the life I have...and I'm not famous...
You are too, among musicians who know better. Everybody knows who you are.
That's the greatest honor. That's a wonderful tribute. There's a recent attitude I want to share with you, about those people who say, "Well, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, and THIS IS WHAT IT IS." I used to get sucked in—"what's going on? who's right?"—but now I think THIS IS IT is not nearly as hopeful or as optimistic as saying [whispers] "what is it? this thing that's so wonderful?"
You can make too many rules about music...
...and we have enough rules just living in society, so this thing that's such a bonus, we've got to leave some of it alone. We need the organizers to put it together, but then they should leave it alone, so it can fly. I don't ever want to be onstage doing my music and not have that sense of wonder.
How do the rules get in the way?
I try to get rid of all the supposed-to-bes, the idea that if I play this music, then it's not hip, or it's not cool. I've just got to let myself be who I am, which includes playing something silly to some people, but for me, it's gonna be fun, you know?
Everyone has times when they play better than others, when they can't do anything wrong...you can't miss a note, you're just on top of the world.
And everything's just totally...
That doesn't happen every time.
But when it does happen, what does it feel like?
When it's happening, I know that I have to get out of the way. Because there's nothing I can do to make it any better. It's already that powerful.
Where's it coming from?
Well, I could get sort of semi-mystical here.
Go for it.
I believe there's an indefinable power, something that you can't touch or see, that increases our joy and pleasure. OK, you can say God...how was this put once? God gives us the capacity to eat. But He also gives us an appetite. There's this desire thing we all get that can affect a whole room when it's happening in the music. A whole room is getting affected by this thing, and it's just honest, nobody's getting manipulated. All this emotion—it's like rrrowwwrrr!—and the next thing you know, every living thing within the radius is reacting, even the cockroach coming out of the wall. The cockroach is going... yeah! (grins) It's a wave, it's a power. It happens at that indefinable moment that nothing can force.
OK, you become accomplished and seasoned, you become much better at the art of putting it together, and the people like it, and they're going to say—hopefully —gee, I'm glad I came and heard you. But then there's that bonus moment—the one we're talking about—that's even another elevation.
This gig [Christmas week at the Blue Note in NYC] was a little stressful for me because I wasn't doing what I normally do. It was a constructed presentation for six people, and I had to organize who's going to play what when. The first night we had a little struggle here and there, but it was working well, the club loved it, the people loved it, and I'm pleased with myself. You know? But there was one set where everything was a train wreck. That thing that makes it click wasn't happening. Usually I can do it when I just play my own music—I can bounce it here, or bounce it there...
Well, you had five people on your back—maybe it was harder to bounce?
(Laughs) Yeah. But then there was this other night, and there it was: that thing we're talking about. I just knew the moment was there—and once again, it was time to get out of the way. And I thought (big grin) I'm really going to enjoy this now, because it was a bonus for me. I never said anything to the guys—I don't usually talk about it—but the drummer, Dion [Parson], said as we were getting off, "Man, that was a great set." And I said, "Yeah, it was kinda good."
I was discussing this special moment with a musician friend, who said it's the main reason musicians put up with all the b.s... in the music business...
...like the ambiguity, and the insecurity, and the not having health insurance or knowing how much money you're going to make—just to feel that way again.
And I said, is there anything you can do to make it happen more often? He said no, but he noticed it tends to occur more when he's angry and when he's happy. When he's depressed, he composes.
I appreciate that.
Maybe the energy of the elation or anger kicks him into that state?
Anger is definitely a catalyst, and elation—even depression. Certainly, I get depressed sometimes, and during those times, I write songs. So, your friend—he nipped it real good.
These days, some psychologists claim that all creative people are depressed and messed up; they're just trying to deal with their miserable lives by making art. Nobody says they're being creative out of joy.
Yup. I'm reading all this stuff, and suddenly it dawns on me: they're jealous. Maybe they've never had a creative moment in their lives.
OK, this sounds like a really good one...yeah, instead of pink toilet paper, they pick blue. That's as creative as it gets. (Laughs)
Maybe they're also frightened of that moment where "you have to get out of the way"—being out of control like that is terrifying to them.
They have to acknowledge the mystery. They can't handle it. And yet Einstein spoke of God.... And that whole thing about we're doing it because we're all messed up? Every human being's messed up...but those who talk about it, they're all—all of them—people who, if they could have been on the bandstand, would have been on the bandstand. They might be great players, but that thing that makes it breathe? If they had it, then they'd be chasin' that moment. If you knew what swingin' was, you ain't gonna let it go! You've gotta go for it!
Do you think musicians are different from other people?
Musicians who are in a position to express their music—especially for other people—are not different, but they sure are fortunate. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting away with a lot (laughs) just because I have this wonderful opportunity. I mean, when I come talking to you right now? It's a reminder. Because I don't go around saying, "Gee, I'm lucky," you know? Sure, I've travelled the world, and I've met this one and that one, but after all that, just to do this—like your friend said, to look for that moment—wow, I want to do that again! Having access to the power of it—that's the thing.
You've said that your goal was to make people happy with your music.
No ifs, ands, or buts. I passed through the stage of trying to impress them with my skills. That's just between me and me, you know? But I remember not getting any respect from so-called experts, because they said I just wanted to entertain people, and be a cheap sideshow kinda thing—that what I do is not really deep, and it has no meaning—because they see some little guy bouncing up and down on the piano, enjoying himself as I've always done since I was 14 years old.
I've seen some of those reviews. They didn't seem fair at all.
That was long ago, but it did affect me, and I thought, gee, am I a side show or am I something else? It kicked up my doubts. But afterward I grew up a little bit. You get to the point where you say, the heck with Mr. Pseudo-Intellectual who's gotta hear himself jabber. You have to reaffirm the things that you know are good and true and right, and you eventually wake up one day and say: well, man, you can't do what I can do—which is just to sit there and close your eyes and all this music stuff comes out.
Aside from finding that wonderful moment, and making people happy, what are some other uses of music?
Here's a little belief I have: if they used jazz—good jazz, that really goes—during confrontational meetings between nations, it would help people to come together, because it creates the most joyful environment that says "we are all one".
Music is so powerful that the walls come down, so that they want to know where you grew up and why you like green or blue. I mean, it gets personal. I really believe the government has no idea how valuable a tool music is—especially jazz, because jazz cuts across everything, it's that multicultural thing. I think it's probably the greatest thing that America's ever done, you know?
Just one more question: when you're sad, do you play the piano?
I might. There's nothing that I do or don't do. I might go eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream. I might play Sinatra singing. But if I'm sad when I get on the bandstand, believe it, the moment I hit the bandstand, I ain't sad no more. I'm playing, and the next thing you know...it's not so bad.
Did we talk good?
Yeah, we talked real good.
Judith Schlesinger is a psychologist, musician and author whose last book was a film biography of Humphrey Bogart. She is currently working on "Dangerous Joy: The Myth of the Mad Musician."
Copyright ©1999 by Judith Schlesinger