Deon Brown NYC: The Monty Alexander-hosted, Jazz & Reggae Festival was completely sold out. The event which ran from February 20-March 4 at the world famous Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City featured some of the best names in jazz and reggae, playing alongside Alexander who conceived the programme to mark two major milestones - his own 50 years in the music business and his birth country’s 50th Independence. Music lovers celebrated with him and showered Jamaica with ‘One Love.’ More than a week before the festival opened, every single night of the two week run was sold out. Even the media launch, the standard event employed by show organisers to offer programme details and boost ticket sales, had to be cancelled as there were no more tickets for the public. The overwhelming response spoke to the continued appreciation of Jamaican music by international audiences and the heightened interest among the diaspora community as Jamaica celebrates 50 years of nationhood. It’s a happy coincidence of history that Alexander, one of Jamaica’s finest sons should be sharing a golden anniversary with his beloved country. After all, it is Jamaica’s native music that has nurtured him, and sprinkled his jazz style with a unique flavour. aware “I am acutely aware of my early music roots and the role that the Jamaican foundation has played in shaping my eclectic American musical journey,” the jazzman said proudly. “It’s an incredible irony that this is happening and it dawned upon me when I wasn’t even looking! I was surprised and delighted that I’ve come this far and I thought it would be a beautiful thing to celebrate this milestone with this event.” The festival dubbed, “50 Years In Music & 50 Years of Jamaica” was scheduled to run in two parts. The first week, aptly titled “The Full Monty Experience” was a retrospective on the jazz icon’s spectacular five decade-career, demonstrating how he successfully traversed several musical forms, grafting the traditions of American jazz to Jamaican roots music and in so doing helped to globalize Jamaican cultural offerings. During each night’s live performances, he played alongside featured guests such as jazz greats Ernie Ranglin of Jamaica (guitar); Russell Malone (guitar); Christian McBride (bass); Dr. Lonnie Smith on the Hammond B3 organ; jazz guitar genius Pat Martino; jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater; bass and drum duo John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton; and Freddie Cole, Nat King Cole’s youngest brother who just turned eighty and whose live performance is a rare treasure. Week two was all about Jamaica. Billed as a “One Love Celebration,” the programme paid homage to early Jamaican sound, what Alexander lovingly calls “our heritage music” - the folk forms of mento and ska, before crossing over into rocksteady and finally reggae. Musical guests for that segment included Shaggy, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, Toots Hibbert and Diana King. The festival was clearly conceived with love - for music and Jamaica, and is only the first in a series of concerts planned by Alexander to mark the big 50. “It gives me a special opportunity to look back musically to 1961 and my first jobs in Kingston, Jamaica, with my first group, Monty and the Cyclones,” Alexander added. “I was there with the birth of ska. I used to sneak out of Jamaica College and go down and record for Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Chris Blackwell - the pioneers of Jamaican music - I was 14/15 years old playing with Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso and others.. I played with the mento bands with names such as Lord Power, and Count Lasha..” It is fair to say Alexander and Jamaica grew up together. His precocious entry into music happened at a time when a young Jamaica was experimenting with different musical forms to find its own voice. Arguably, it is Jamaican indigenous music that helped the country to develop its identity. Monty Alexander, as a witness and participant is uniquely placed to tell Jamaica’s musical story, fifty years on, having travelled that same fifty year journey. It’s a shared history. “As a youngster I would go to clubs around Kingston, clubs like Glass Bucket, Rainbow and The End to go seek out local musicians and bands for dances,” he reminisces. “I met many favorites like Aubrey Adams (saxophone), Billy Cooke (trumpet), Taddy Mowatt (bass) Lenny Hibbert who was very encouraging to youngsters and so many of the musicians that played around hotels in Kingston, MoBay and Ocho Rios- hotels like Silver Seas near Ocho Rios and Tower Isle, Myrtle Bank, Courtleigh Manor Hotel etc. I also met many of the artists who played for Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, Ken Khouri (Federal Records). They all inspired me in a powerful way and so all those influences are now very present in my music,” he added. Journey His musical development continued when he moved to the U.S. in the 1960s to work with some of the masters of jazz, who were revered by the Jamaican musicians and band leaders back in the day. Every instrumentalist back then wanted to be a jazz man until in tinkering they discovered their own rhythm - the ska beat, the foundation for reggae. The Jazz & Reggae Festival traces the connection between the genres and the musical friendships that resulted. “I must point out that I enjoyed an equally stimulating experience with jazz where I was very much right there in NYC in the mix when jazz was raging across America and I enjoyed friendships with greats like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown and other legends of Jazz.” The Jazz & Reggae event is a showcase of truly gifted musicians in jazz and reggae artistry - a worthy tribute to Monty Alexander and Jamaica. It kicks off the Jamaica 50 celebrations in the Northeast.