For seven decades, Montgomery Bernard "Monty" Alexander has been at the forefront of jazz.
After immigrating to Miami with his family from Jamaica in 1961, it would be a chance meeting at a now-defunct Miami jazz club that would set the wheels in motion for Alexander's five decades-plus as one of the genre's most versatile pianists.
"When I was young and I started to play in Miami, I was playing at a club on the 79th Street Causeway, and one night, Frank Sinatra came into the club with Jilly Rizzo and they heard me playing," says Alexander. "They must've been taken with what I was doing, and that's how I got to New York. They sent me an airline ticket, and I came to the city."
With all roads leading home, even an adopted one, it is no coincidence that Alexander returns to Miami as a now-legendary headliner for the second-annual Miami Beach Jazz Festival.
"It's been an evolution. It's a lot different now. Back in those days, I, like my musical heroes, most of those men were picking up their musical skill by being around each other and interacting in the community that we all share, and I was a younger guy, but that's pretty much how I got into the music." The largely self-taught Alexander has made a career in jazz, playing alongside legends like Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and Sonny Rollins.
Exposed to live performances by Louis Armstrong and Nat "King" Cole at Kingston's Carib Theater at an early age and involved with Jamaican musicians who would eventually form the Skatalites, Alexander's reggae-influenced swing style is as instantly recognizable as it is approachable.
Among his many projects, artfully managed amid one of the most rigorous touring schedules in jazz that sees the darkened masses of large concert halls to the smoky nostalgia of intimate jazz clubs, Alexander has conceived and directed programs at the Lincoln Center, contributed piano to Clint Eastwood's 1988 biopic Bird, and assisted Natalie Cole on the tribute album to her father, Unforgettable.
In anticipation to his performance and in tune with his current tour, Alexander promises "a strong leaning towards some good swinging and a reflection of my native culture" as well as an affirmation arrived at after many years of performing with legends on the road to becoming a legend himself: "Jazz is alive; it's just different than it was, you know, more personal than my time but alive and well."
The Miami Beach Jazz Festival Presents: Living Legends of Jazz at 6 p.m. Saturday, January 10, at the New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $45 to $200. Free concert at the park from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Call 305-673-3331, or visit miamibeachjazz.com.