50 Years of Monty’s music

It’s a bitterly cold Sunday morning in New York City and I am on the world-famous stage at the Blue Note Jazz Club interviewing the extraordinarily talented Jamaican jazz musician Monty Alexander.

We must get this interview done in a hurry before Monty jets off to Davos-Klosters in Switzerland for a performance at the World Economic Forum, where he will play for a number of world leaders. We’re running late due to snow.

In less than an hour hundreds of jazz lovers will start pouring into this intimate West Village landmark for Sunday brunch and a live show at the club that has been home to jazz greats like Sarah Vaughn, Lionel Hampton, Dizzie Gillespie, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine for three decades.

A tense and agitated club manager approaches us and his thoughts shift towards the interview from below the stage. He studies his watch and he is clearly wondering how much more time we will need so his staff can move into final preparation to welcome the excited crowds outside hungry for live lunchtime jazz. Instinct is telling him to quickly get us out the way, but he pauses and recalculates. The subject of the interview is the widely respected and internationally acclaimed Monty Alexander so the manager yields, smiles warmly, and gestures to us to take all the time we need to complete the interview.

Such is the respect that the Jamaican-born pianist commands in New York City jazz circles; a respect that he has earned for dishing out magical, mesmerizing and superlative jazz performances worldwide for 50 years. Monty was born in Kingston and he was only 17 when he first migrated to South Florida. It wasn’t long before his music talent became abundantly visible in South Beach jazz joints and Monty was soon recruited by pop icon Frank Sinatra to relocate to New York from where he launched a tremendously successful career, sometimes accompanying Sinatra and other jazz greats of the sixties on piano.

In a dazzling career that has spanned five decades, Monty has produced 70 albums. He has played on virtually every major jazz festival worldwide and in prestigious venues like the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Years ago, when Monty was seeking permanent residence in the United States, it was Duke Ellington and Count Basie who wrote his letters of recommendation. Monty has collaborated on recordings with the likes of Quincy Jones, his longtime friend, and with Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole on a number of Billboard smash albums, including Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable, and he played on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird.

Monty’s latest album The Harlem-Kingston Express (Motema Music) celebrates his grounded connectivity to American jazz and Jamaican reggae. The album soared to the top of the charts, comfortably riding the number one position on the Jazz World Chart for fourteen weeks. The album has also earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. In his quest to win a Grammy, one of the crown jewels of the American music industry, Alexander is up against other illustrious names: Shaggy, Stephen Marley, Ziggy Marley and Israel Vibrations.

But for Monty, the real finger-licking icing on his 50th anniversary birthday cake is a two week jazz and reggae festival that he has planned for the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York form February 20 to March 4 that is called the Full Monty Experience. The festival is, in a sense, a musical retrospective that will showcase the many moods and the musical memories of Monty, and it will also synergize exciting new millennium partnerships between classic American Harlem jazz and Kingston’s roots reggae.

The Full Monty Experience Jazz & Reggae Festival will take place in two parts. Part 1, Fifty Years in Music will bring together a number of extraordinary and unique jazz talent, some of whom worked alongside Monty in the past and who represent classic jazz from various eras, from the 60s to the present. Each night is themed and will showcase a different guest. The lineup for the first week includes Christian McBride on bass, Russell Malone on guitar, Dr. Lonnie Smith on the Hammond B3 organ and Pat Martino, jazz guitar genius. Freddie Cole, Nat King Cole’s youngest brother who just turned 80, will also perform, and he will represent the era of Jilly’s, a popular New York City jazz club in the 60s that was reputedly a comfort cradle for Sinatra and a magnet for movie and music celebrities of the day. Three-time Grammy award-winning jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater will also make a grand and glittering guest appearance.

The theme of Part 2 of the festival is Jamaica Meets Jazz- A One Love Celebration and here Monty will go directly to his Jamaican roots, offering a rare opportunity to see a number of reggae luminaries performing in a Jazz milieu. Invited guest performers are Ernest Ranglin, Sly & Robbie, Shaggy, Toots Hibbert, Tarrus Riley, Dean Fraser and Diana King. A jazz tribute to Trinidad & Tobago will also take place on February 25 when the individual brilliance and the collective dexterity of calypsonians Designer, Etienne Charles and Othello Molineaux will be on display at the Blue Note.

“I am acutely aware of my early music roots back home and the role that my early Jamaica foundation has played in shaping my eclectic musical journey”, Monty declared proudly. “Elements of mento, ska, rock steady and the influences from Coxone Dodd , Duke Reid and Chris Blackwell are all a part of who I am musically”, Alexander added. “So It is of course with much honor that I present the Full Monty Experience to New York City,” he continued.

Despite the fact that Monty has left Jamaica for fifty years, he still cherishes the fondest of memories of his homeland. He remembers boarding school at DeCarteret College and Jamaica College and a youthful Robert Lightbourne playing the piano at Sir Alexander Bustamante’s home on Tucker Avenue in Kingston long before Lightbourne, a former trade minister, had penned Jamaica’s national anthem. Monty who grew up in the Stanton Terrace area of Kingston also recalls regular concerts at Carib, Tropical, Globe, Gaiety and Tivoli theatres, Nat King Cole playing at Kingston’s hottest nightclub in the 50s, the Glass Bucket, Louis Armstrong playing at Carib Theatre in 1956 and Harry Belafonte visiting Kingston around the time of his monster hit Island in the Sun and staying with a family called Benaim . In later years Monty lists former prime minister Michael Manley as one of his fans who was devoutly passionate about music.

Monty Alexander’s 50-year celebration is a very happy and a very fulfilling period for him. There appears to be no shortage of good news coming his way. His latest glad tidings are confirmed dates in London during the Olympics when our Jamaican athletes are expected to create global euphoria in that city. But at the end of the day, all Monty wants to do is bring out people of all races, creeds and persuasions to enjoy an exhilarating musical experience.

“I want multi-ethnic, multi-cultural people to come together for a fresh, powerful and mind-blowing sonic experience, the Full Monty experience, one that knows no boundaries, no borders and no limits”, Monty Alexander concluded.

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