- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

During his four-day gig at Georgetown’s Blues Alley, pianist Monty Alexander is certain to offer up songs from his latest release, “The Good Life,” a 12-track CD celebrating the songs of vocal icon Tony Bennett.

With a little coaxing, though, he may just perform his signature take on the Oscar-winning theme from “Exodus,” recorded live at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild for his acclaimed 2001 CD, “Goin’ Yard.”

“It’s a rallying type of song if you know anything about that film and its soundtrack,” the Jamaican-born Mr. Alexander says in a phone interview from New York, adding that fellow countryman and reggae master Bob Marley also figured in his shimmering, Caribbean-inflected interpretation. “It’s also very emotional, and I can’t help but feel it each time it’s performed.”

He feels much the same way about his album of standards by Mr. Bennett, one of the “greats who is helping to keep jazz alive,” says Mr. Alexander, whose Blues Alley appearance is part of the District’s fourth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, a weeklong event that begins on Wednesday.

“People like Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole just kept performing those good songs over the years, but I fear you hear less and less of that classic music today,” he laments.

With more than 70 albums under his belt, Mr. Alexander, 64, has spent his life among the giants of America’s music.

At age 10, he met Louis Armstrong when the iconic trumpeter performed in Jamaica. “I was so crazy about Louis Armstrong, and my father knew the promoter,” the classically trained pianist says. “I had to sneak out of school to attend the concert.”

“And I also got to see Duke Ellington, the very man this festival celebrates,” he adds.

Little did Mr. Alexander know the two would later cross paths when he performed for Mr. Ellington when he was just 17.

“I got the audition through Irving Mills, who was his manager at the time. I didn’t have sense enough to be nervous,” Mr. Alexander says. “I can’t remember exactly what I played, I just remember playing some blues. He loved it.”

So much, in fact, that the great man wrote a letter of recommendation for Mr. Alexander when he applied for American citizenship.

Fate intervened once more when a chance meeting with another great, Frank Sinatra, led to Mr. Alexander’s debut at Jilly’s, the famed nightclub owned by Sinatra pal Jilly Rizzo, in the early 1960s.

“Frank and I crossed paths again when he was performing for Richard Nixon’s inaugural gala and I was playing at Blues Alley back in the ‘70s,” says Mr. Alexander, whose credits also include performances on Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning album “Unforgettable.”

His current engagement is one of a select few he has scheduled stateside. This weekend, Mr. Alexander and his trio will take the stage at the Solvang Jazz Festival (near scenic Napa Valley, California) and after Blues Alley, he will tour Europe through November.

Also on the horizon: a guest appearance with the Count Basie Orchestra on Mr. Bennett’s upcoming holiday CD, “A Swingin’ Christmas.”

“America has never realized the importance of this art form, whereas in Europe, a higher percentage of the people appreciate it,” Mr. Alexander says of the promotion of jazz in this country. “Here, it’s an uphill battle.”

Pianist Monty Alexander performs with his trio (Herlin Riley on drums and Hassan Shakur on bass) Thursday through Oct. 5 at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley in Georgetown. The fourth annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, with more than 100 scheduled events at 40 venues throughout the District, begins on Wednesday and continues through Oct. 7. Performers include blues innovator Taj Mahal, pianist McCoy Tyner, Tony- and Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and the Thad Wilson Big Band. A complete festival schedule is available at dejazzfest.org.

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