Monty celebrates 50 years of music in SAPeter Feldman
Peter Feldman: Celebrated pianist Monty Alexander celebrates 50 years in music this year in a career that spans five decades.
And part of the celebration will be in Johannesburg at this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Newtown from August 23 to 25.
This legendary musician, whose music explores the world of American jazz, popular song and the music of his native Jamaica, is no stranger to these climes, having performed here on several occasions.
“I’ve performed in Johannesburg and Cape Town and have very fond memories and we are enthusiastic and looking forward to coming again to show audiences what we’ve been doing over the last few years.”
His latest album, dedicated to Harlem, will form a good slice of the concert: “Harlem is a wonderful place and we are going to take a musical journey which will bring in my love of American classic jazz and the music that I grew up with as a native Jamaican.”
He described himself as a “pioneer” and “one of the early guys who played Jamaican music”, but his gurus at the time were icons like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. “I live in those worlds, but it’s become one home now. And that’s why I call it the Harlem Kingston Express.”
When I mentioned his impressive output of 70 albums, he couldn’t believe the figure. “My goodness,” he exclaimed in genuine surprise, adding that inspiration came by “tapping into the environment and recording what I feel at the moment”.
This is what he has been doing as a professional for the last 50 years, an anniversary that coincides with the 50th year of Jamaica’s independence. “It’s a kind of special time for everything.”
A big part of what he does, he said, is mixing experience and spontaneity in his music. “I can’t programme my stuff too much. I like to play what I feel. Before I get on the bandstand, if someone says play that or that, I’ll say ‘you’re darn right I’ll play that.’ I also play music for me, for my players, and, most important, for the people.”
Alexander admits he doesn’t quite understand the “gift” he’s been given but concedes it has contributed to his musical longevity. He sees it as “just the power of what happens when you express yourself musically”.
He adds: “I have enjoyed this situation my whole life from when I was six or seven years old and started playing the piano. There are times when you are not as spirited but 90 percent of the time I love what I do. I really have a great bunch of guys, classic players as well as my root brothers from Jamaica.”
He said he would love to work with South African musicians. “I’ve heard South African music here and there, but I would like to apply whatever I have to a musical project with South African musicians where I can pick up the instincts of the music that I am ready to play, too. Music is about people. I hear the music of the people, whether I am in Poland or in Ireland. I love folk music, as well as the electro stuff.”
During his illustrious career he has performed and recorded with artists from every corner of the musical universe: Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Ernest Ranglin, Barbara Hendricks, Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare, among many others.
“I sometimes have to pinch myself,” he admits. “When I came to America in the early ‘60s I was full of desire, passion and love for the music and musicians. I was determined.”
During his musical ascendancy he played the piano for Ray Brown at the Playboy Club in New York and met Quincy Jones who took a liking to him. He did some recordings and TV shows and, as he says, “my confidence levels shot up a bunch of decibels there. I also had the pleasure of playing for Frank Sinatra but I never worked for him.”
The music of his formative years have left a deep impression on him and he recalls seeing Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole as a child in Jamaica and the effect they had on him.
Being from Jamaica I enquired whether he liked cricket. “I love cricket but the truth is I haven’t been around cricket for such a long time that I’ve lost a lot of the sense of what’s going on in the cricket world. But as a kid at school I played cricket and I remember one time fielding a ball in slips. I caught it and I was the hero for the day.”
In the musical arena, he has been a hero for half a century, not out!
Monty Alexander performs at Standard Bank Joy of Jazz on Friday, August 24 and Saturday, August 25.
Feldman has been a journalist and arts critic for over 45 years and served on The Star in various capacities for 35 years, ending up as a specialist writer on films, music and theatre. During that time he travelled extensively on assignments and interviewed many international film and pop stars, both in South Africa and overseas. He also covered some of South Africa's biggest film and musical events. He is active in the freelance field and his work over the past 12 years has appeared in a variety of South African newspapers and magazines. He writes regularly for Artslink.co.za, The Citizen, South African Jewish Report, The Sunday Independent and is a contributor to "Eat Out" Magazine. He also contributes movie reviews on Mondays to The Gordon Hoffman Easy Morning Show on 1485 Radio Today (www.1485.org.za) and has worked on TV in his specialist capacity. Over the years Feldman has been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the SA record industry. He wrote lyrics for some top artists, including Sipho Mabuse, and had a hit disco single, "Video Games," which was released in 1988. After retiring from The Star in April, 1999, Feldman joined the PR and events management company, Dlamini Weil Communications, where he currently works as an entertainment and media consultant.
Newtown Precinct, Newtown Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa