Born and raised in Jamaica, pianist Monty Alexander grew up with the sounds of Jamaican folk music and Trinidadian calypso in his ears, most often sung by legendary calypsonian and singer Lord Kitchener. On March 7 and 8, Alexander brings an all-star ensemble steeped in these traditions to The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center for Lords of the West Indies, a program whose title pays homage to calypso singers who took their names from British generals (like Lord Kitchener).
The term "calypso" owes much to the Trinidadian experience; it was in Trinidad where the music was adapted for a larger orchestration and where the calypso singers worked in a larger ensemble writing political and satirical songs about life and colonial issues. The people of Trinidad, Alexander notes, were more sophisticated, while the Jamaicans flavored calypso with folk music and a country style.
"It was like the blues," says Alexander, "where in America the old masters where playing guitar and banjo and homemade instruments and singing folk songs. There is a real connection to West Africa with what happened in Trinidad, Jamaica, and New Orleans. It's all connected."
Largely self-taught, Alexander has Jamaican roots that reach deep into America's jazz royalty. In a career that spans four decades, he has accompanied such masters as Frank Sinatra, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins. Alexander has also collaborated with reggae royalty Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and others.
As a child, Alexander was exposed to music from different regions, including Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley (influenced by the Jamaican calypso "mento" style), which he believes accounts for his varied musical tastes today. But it was the Jamaicans' love for dance and rhythm that caught Alexander's attention. Jamaican rhythm shared the spotlight with R&B, coming off the airwaves from New Orleans and Miami, which helped launch ska in Jamaica.
Film was another influence for Alexander, namely American Westerns. "I loved the cowboy films. To me, it was a simplicity of expression; all these songs about the prairie and the tumbleweeds and the heroes and the beautiful horses with the cowboy and his guitar."
"Jazz is America's greatest gift," says Alexander, "and the second-greatest is Westerns," he concludes with a smile. Alexander believes that calypso music goes back to Africa. "The human body is reacting from the waist down," he says. "It is not about higher learning, the root of it is very basic. But the British component is strong: the marching bands, military bands where they used the fife and drum that became part of our music in Jamaica. The fife and drum and African rhythm... like a melting pot, just like what happened in New Orleans."
Herlin Riley is one New Orleans musician who will join the international line-up of musicians scheduled to appear with Lord of the West Indies, which includes David Williams (bass/vocals), Etienne Charles (trumpet), Charles Dougherty (saxophone), Dean Fraser (saxophone), Pluto Shervington (guitar), Desmond Jones (drums), Hassan Skakur (bass) and Herlin Riley (drums).
"It is hard for me to have a small contingent of musicians for this," says Alexander, who wanted to include elements of Trinidad and Lord Kitchener because they produced small arrangements so heavily influenced by jazz. Kitchener himself was a bass player who loved Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who heavily influenced his songwriting.
Alexander finds calypso music to be magical for its ability to call forth memories from life and incite emotions of joy and sadness. "You can't explain it," he says. "You can give people the rudiments and how to play it and the history, but at the end of the day: the magic: the mystical power of the music moving through the musician and the excellence of artistry that is involved: there is no definition for it. Music is an unspoken language that grabs people, bringing them together from all parts of the world and from different ages. This music brings everything together."
Monty Alexander: Lords of the West Indies appear March 7 & 8 in The Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. For tickets, call CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500 or via www.jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.