Vail Daily column: Harlem to Kingston and back again
In an earlier article, I equated jazz music to gumbo; both originated in New Orleans and were influenced by different cultures, primarily West African and Western European. As jazz moved outward from New Orleans, influences (ingredients) from around the world began to be added to the jazz gumbo. With each new home, the gumbo began to take on more local flavors, but in some instances jazz was an important ingredient added to an existing local music and the resulting dish was a new musical genre. So this is the story of how jazz and American R&B went to Jamaica only to return to the U.S. as a jazz sound that was distinctly Caribbean.
Reggae is a Jamaican music style with origins in Africa, the other main ingredients were jazz and American R&B. In the ’50s and ’60s, Jamaican musicians created a new musical cuisine, first blending “Mento,” itself a fusion of European and African folk dance music, with jazz (New Orleans style), American R&B and Afro-American vocal harmonies. A distinctive sound began to be heard that first was known as “ska” and then evolved into “rocksteady.” The primary instigators of ska were jazz players who were members of a band known as The Skatalites, and it wasn’t long before a dash of the mystic qualities and drumming of “Rastafarianism” were added to the fare and reggae was born. This distinctive sound spread from Jamaica throughout the world, adding elements of calypso (African-French music from the Caribbean) and other genres along the way. Bob Marley, a member of The Wailers, became one of the best known reggae artists, but it was probably Eric Clapton’s cover of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974 that propelled reggae on to the world pop stage.
Jazz has spread out across the globe incorporating elements of other music traditions but as the title of this article suggests, it is not always a one-way trip. Jazz went to Jamaica and ska and reggae resulted, but this is the story of what happened when ska and reggae came to America via the Harlem-Kingston Express.
Montgomery Bernard Alexander was born on D-Day (June 6, 1944) and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. As a teenager, Alexander played piano in local clubs and began to play and record with some of the musicians who would go on to transform Jamaican music, including members of The Skatilites. Seeing Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole perform in Kingston, Alexander’s musical world collided with jazz and he would never be the same musician again. At the end of 1961, he left Jamaica for the U.S., and by 1963, Alexander was playing at Jilly’s, one of the storied clubs in NYC in the ’60s. The gig became a platform for him to hone his “jazz chops” as he accompanied Frank Sinatra and played with many jazz icons. By 1964, Alexander recorded his first album, “Alexander the Great,” and he was on his way to an international career, touring and performing throughout the world for the next five decades.
Initially, Alexander’s new influences were jazz piano giants Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Cole, but over time he began to fuse the music of Jamaica with jazz, thereby combining musical idioms and styles into another flavor of gumbo. In 2009, he presented a concert titled “Harlem-Kingston Express,” which led to a Grammy-nominated album and recently a follow-up album, “Harlem-Kingston Express 2: River Rolls On.”
Alexander’s new gumbo recipe combines the two musical worlds he has inhabited, but in reality, Jamaican music was already influenced by America jazz and now it is Alexander’s turn to influence jazz with Jamaican music.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.