Monty Alexander on Being a Jamaican Who Plays Jazz: "I Was There Before Reggae"

"I was there before reggae," says Monty Alexander, speaking of his native Jamaica, in a way that's perfectly balanced between humble admission and matter-of-fact declaration.

"I was playing in the studios of Kingston Jamaica, with the masters of Jamaican music, The Skatalites, before they were The Skatalites. I played for Studio One. I was 14, 15."

When asked about the source of his early, prodigious talent, Alexander can only describe the musicality embedded within his DNA as "a gift."

"I never understood why, but I loved muic from the get-go," he recalls. "Since I was three, four years old."

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The Alexander household had a piano and little Monty was quickly enchanted. "I'd sit down and play little tunes," he fondly recounts.

However, his parents' attempted to reign in their son's atypical, personalized techniques with classical training.

"They did send me to a piano teacher. I took these lessons trying to get disciplined [enough] to play classical music and I couldn't get there. I was in rebellion. I stuck with playing with what I liked to play on the piano. I never learned to read music."

"I just picked it up. Why? Because you develop a passion. My passion was music and what could happen when you played. How it made you feel. You could feel good, you could feel sad. And then you can make other people feel good. It never gets old. When you see the joy it brings to people, you just don't want to do nothin' else.

While describing his family as "not really" musical, the pianist explains that he learned about jazz and popular music from radio and movies, quickly becoming obsessed.

"I had seen Louis Armstrong in the movies. I was so smitten that when he came to Jamaica, it was the greatest thrill of my life. I got to shake his hand. I feel like I'm doing the same thing he did. I like to make people feel good."

But while Alexander generally operates within the milieu of American jazz, he explains that the influence of his home country cannot be denied, citing internationally revered reggae icon Bob Marley.

"Jamaica had such a strong root in its rhythm and spirit, it lent its own approach to jazz and blues. When Bob Marley was singing, he was very influenced by Curtis Mayfield and people like that. I play music that reflects Jamaica. But I also have a great regard for classic American jazz -- Duke Ellington, the great masters of American jazz."

When pressed to explain where Jamaican music and American jazz intersect, Monty is quick to cite the music's "integrity." And a big part of that abstract notion is technicality and skill.

"The way you play an instrument: with excellent artistry and fantastic virtuosity. I've worked with Art Tatum and when he played the piano, he was like Michael Jordan times ten. Because he could play, and arrange notes and harmonies with such expertise. That struck me even when I was a teenager, 'This is a challenge.' And that never got old."

Despite championing specific traditions like jazz and reggae, Monty insists that his approach is pan-musical, describing himself as "a sponge" that soaks up as much transnational influence as possible. All he asks for is a good beat.

"I have a commitment to rhythm," he declares like it's a party platform. "Rhythm is how the sun comes up in the morning. How your heart beats."

Miami Jazz Fest 2012. Saturday, November 17, and Sunday, November 18. Klipsch Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Single-day tickets cost $45 to $90 plus fees and two-day passes cost $65 to $295 and up plus fees via livenation.com. Call 305-405-JAZZ or visit miamijazzfest.com.

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