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Jazz to Ska Mania

Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin
Detail from 1961 LP All Star Top Hits on the Coxsone label
Duke Ellington snaps his fingers to Count Ossie (seated, left) and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari
Jamaica All Stars circa 1947 or 1948
Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander in Kingston, Jamaica, January 2004
Ernest Ranglin is seated behind saxophonist-bandleader Eric Deans, in the late '40s or early '50s
A flyer for an "Xmas Bonanza" concert
Don Drummond
Jah Jerry Haynes
Johnny "Dizzy" Moore
Late 50's all star band

You don’t drive so much as duck and weave in Kingston. Like much of the city, many streets in Jamaica’s capital need fixing, and the combination of potholes, narrow paths and seemingly random traffic patterns can make for a wild ride. The horn is your best friend.

Pianist Monty Alexander, 60, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, 72, are sitting side by side in our van. Neither one seems particularly happy about being in Kingston today. It’s an intense place. Touring the city brings up many good memories for these two friends, but Alexander and Ranglin see the harsh economic realities that plague the cultural center of Jamaica and their thoughts turn bittersweet.

The almost preternaturally calm Ranglin, who still lives in Jamaica, far away from these bumpy streets near Ocho Rios on the North Coast, doesn’t say too much as we drive. Alexander is mostly silent as well, but he’s anxiously taking in the scene of the city he called home until he moved with his family to Miami in 1962. He was 17 then, and how Kingston has changed since. A couple times during our trip Alexander wonders if we are in a safe area. Our driver assures him we are fine each time, and Alexander goes back to gazing upon Kingston, where almost 700,000 people-about a third of the island’s population-live, with shantytowns right next to gated yards.

It’s not until we pull up to 220 Marcus Garvey Drive that Alexander and Ranglin become animated. Now called Tuff Gong Recording Studio since the Marley family bought it in 1981, the structure used to be known as Ken Khouri’s Federal Recording Studio. It was in this building, located in an industrial part of south Kingston, that history was made.


The studio has been added on to, but Ranglin and Alexander remember the original structure, which is still visible from outside the large metal fence that surrounds the compound.

“Way behind the back there-” Ranglin says.

“-with the zinc roof,” Alexander finishes. “That’s where all the early sessions took place. I remember I couldn’t wait to come out here and buy the saltfish fritter and the Irish moss and all the drinks. But this is where those sessions took place, and Ernie was there and he did all the arranging.”

Ranglin nods and says, “Then later I was the musical director at this place for about seven years-early ’65 to ’72.”

The mid-to-late 1950s recording sessions that Alexander is talking about, made by jazz-loving musicians for R&B-oriented producers, provided the foundation for all popular Jamaican music today.


Jazz came early to the island. Daniel Neely is an ethnomusicologist who studies mento, a calypso-sounding but distinctly Jamaican folk music that came out of the creolization of the quadrille dance songs that slaves were forced to perform for their masters dating back to the 1700s. He has found newspaper references to jazz as far back as the 1920s.

“I have articles with the word jazz used as if it were not a new thing,” Neely says. “I can say with certainty that jazz was in Jamaica by the early ’20s, if not earlier. In fact, I have read suggestions that jazz was in Jamaica as early as the late teens. It’s likely that the Gleaner wouldn’t pay attention,” he says of the leading Jamaican newspaper, which has published since 1834 and, until relatively recently, ignored downtown cultural trends in favor of the upper crust.

Neely says that the Ward Theatre, which still stands in the heart of downtown Kingston, kept a ledger of its performances. “Along with several concerts by sailors in port in the late teens, there were numerous minstrel groups from America who could have introduced jazz. Also, Marcus Garvey was organizing concerts in the teens,” he says, invoking the name of the Jamaican firebrand activist and entrepreneur who is now a national hero. “I don’t know if he had jazz in them explicitly, but it’s possible that with his international connections jazz got to Jamaica rather quickly. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that organized, annual dance-band competitions began being held in Kingston. Some of the bands that competed in these competitions included the King’s Rhythm Aces and the Rhythm Raiders. A major performer of that era was Milton McPherson. They were very, very popular.”


Carlos Malcolm, 69, remembers his dad playing in one of these musical throwdowns: “In 1936 my father took an orchestra to Jamaica called the Jazz Aristocrats from Panama to play at Liberty Hall in a competition with Jamaican jazz musicians.” Malcolm is a trombonist, composer and arranger who formed the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms in 1962 after conversations with Machito and Mongo Santamaria. His group was by far the tightest and most advanced ska group in the era, seamlessly blending Jamaican folk music and jazz and easily mixing harmonic and rhythmic complexities into their always grooving dance-band sound. He lived in Panama as a youth because, like so many other West Indians, his trombone-playing father went there to work on the Panama Canal.

In the early 1940s two U.S. military bases opened in Jamaica, and soldiers and sailors would trade records with the locals, sometimes in exchange for trips to houses of ill repute. A USO club on Old Hope Road in Kingston provided entertainment for the servicemen and work for Jamaican musicians. “World War II really decimated the big bands in the United States,” Malcolm says, “but the big bands in Jamaica were going full blast all the way through the war. Because there was no recording industry there, [the music has] been lost.”

“The whole tradition of the dance bands in Jamaica, a lot of that musicianship was developed on the matrix of jazz,” says longtime Jamaican broadcaster Dermot Hussey, now a programmer for XM Satellite Radio. “Those musicians used to play arrangements and scores that they got out of England, largely, but also Ellington or Erskine Hawkins or whoever. There was always a love for the music in the country, especially among the musicians. When jazz changed to bebop in the ’40s, Jamaican musicians were right there and abreast of what was happening. American music has really been like a colonizing agent in that it really has permeated almost every corner of the globe.”


The island’s 1940s big-band scene birthed two groups of musicians: those who left Jamaica to make their mark on the jazz world, such as trumpeter Dizzy Reece, who left for England in 1948, and alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, who left in 1951, and those who continued to play the hotel and club circuit right through the birth of Jamaica’s indigenous recording industry in the 1950s and new musical creations in the 1960s.

The elder statesman of jazz in Jamaica is trumpeter Sonny Bradshaw, a lifelong Kingston resident. The 78-year-old is sitting in his comfy home in a T-shirt promoting the Ocho Rios Jazz Festival, which he and his wife, singer Myrna Hague-Bradshaw, have run for the past 14 years. Despite being in the hospital the day before because of a health scare, brought about by stress from producing a recent big-band concert, Bradshaw is chatty and amiable.

Jamaica had just one radio station, ZQI, in the 1940s and through most of the ’50s, so many people used to tune in overseas stations from as far away as WLAC in Nashville to get their music fix. “I was a radio experimenter, ham radio,” Bradshaw says. “I used to build my own little set, have my headphones on. At home, at work, I listen straight through the night. I could get Armed Forces Radio Service, all the American stations and now again BBC. Miami [WINZ], Cuba, all that Latin music and all that music from New Orleans. I learned [about jazz] on radio.”


Malcolm also cites the influence of Armed Forces Radio Service, which broadcast in Panama to entertain the U.S. troops working on the Canal and played Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats. “The first time I heard Count Basie’s ‘One O’Clock Jump,’ I said, ‘Hey, this thing is for me,'” Malcolm laughs. “The lope of that dotted eighth [note] chugs you along like a locomotive. But I discovered that a dotted eighth is not really a dotted eighth; it’s a triplet with the tongue missing-the middle note is missing, and that is really the essence of jazz.”

To get even deeper into the music he heard on the radio, Bradshaw got a job at an instrument and sheet-music store, Montague’s Musicke. “While I was there my father got me a trumpet-an old trumpet. During that time there were those bands on the road, and I wanted to get in one of them. At that time the musicians were coming out of Alpha, and they were the ones getting the training.”

Alpha Boys’ School is a legendary institution in Jamaican music. The Sisters of Mercy established the home in 1884 as a Catholic home for wayward boys, but over the years it has produced some of the island’s top musicians under the guiding hands of dedicated bandmasters and a tiny woman named Sister Mary Ignatius Davies. Sister Iggy, as she was affectionately known, died in 2003 at 81 after having served at Alpha since 1939. Some of Alpha’s most famous musicians include trumpeter Reece, alto saxophonist Harriott, tenor saxophonist Cedric “Im” Brooks and more, plus four members of the original Skatalites: saxophonists Tommy McCook and Lester Sterling, trombonist Don Drummond and trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore.


“She’s great,” Reece, 73, says of Davies. “I think she bought Blues in Trinity, one of my first records. She used to have all my records.”

“She was a jazz listener,” Bradshaw says of Davies. “The music of the day-she was with it. Swing, then to the bebop period, and then we come to the Jamaican period from ’59-ska, rocksteady and reggae.” In fact, Sister Iggy would even have sound-system dances for her pupils, where she would spin records from her personal collection.

“Most of the musicians who came out of Alpha were largely jazz musicians,” Hussey says, “but they were mostly learning on their own. Hearing recordings and sitting down and assimilating the stuff. Don Drummond was apparently very fond of Bennie Green. Tommy McCook was a great admirer of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. If you listen to some of McCook’s solos you hear Coltrane’s influence. And Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore was influenced by Dizzy Gillespie.”

“People like Ranglin and myself, we never got the opportunity to go in there,” Bradshaw says jokingly, because only the difficult kids went to Alpha. While Bradshaw taught himself to read music by studying the lessons in Metronome at the local library, he says, “We on the outside were at a disadvantage, because they were getting everything in there, everything: rudiments, instruments. So when those guys come out of there they could really play-but they couldn’t play jazz because they played marching band and semi-classical. So we had that little advantage over them in that way, but we had to work to read as quickly and precisely as they could.”


It was Sister Iggy who pushed Harriott to the Sonny Bradshaw 7, which the trumpeter formed in 1950. “He had about another year or so, but Sister Ignatius said she liked our behavior, said we looked decent, and she said, ‘I have just the boy for you.’ And she let out Harriott to come play,” Bradshaw says. “She really wanted him to progress. He learned very quickly because he was quite competent. We really played well. He stayed with us until [bandleader] Ozzie Da Costa asked us if Joe could go to England with him. And Joe ended up staying there,” where he became an experimental cult figure in his lifetime and later a spiritual mentor to black British jazzers of West Indian heritage such as Courtney Pine.

Alpha also fed the popular jazz-dance big bands who played Kingston and the North Coast hotels and clubs, groups led by Carlisle Henriques, George Moxey, Count Buckram, Milton McPherson, Jack Brown, Roy Coburn, Redver Cooke, Roy White, John Weston, Val Bennett and more, with Eric Deans’ Orchestra being one that seemed to have all the best musicians, Alpha grads or otherwise. “Pretty much anyone who was anyone in Jamaican music, at some time or another, played in a hotel band, because that’s where the money was,” says David Katz, author of Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae.

Another problem facing jazz musicians was the amount of travel they had to do in less than ideal conditions in order to play the relatively few music spots spread out across the island. Even today the heart of Jamaica is primarily rural and mountainous. Bands in the old days had to drive over treacherous roads in overstuffed cars in order to get from one coastal gig to another. Bradshaw says that they used to strap the string bass and drums on top of their car, making for an unwieldy vehicle. “We used to do Portland two or three times a month, and we had to go through that winding road over the hills. We were coming back one night, and we fell asleep-and the car turn over on its side. And guess what? We didn’t turn all the way over because the drum and bass on top! That drum and rack up there saved us.”


Feeling that Jamaica was too small for them to fully express their talents and work steadily, jazz men like Reece, Harriott, Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair, Andy Hamilton and Harold “Little G” McNair joined an earlier generation of Jamaicans such as Bertie King and Coleridge Goode in England to seek work and broaden their horizons. “They had to go away,” Malcolm says, who himself stayed in Jamaica until the end of the 1960s before moving to the U.S. to be a music educator. “I know when Wilton Gaynair went away, he didn’t want to see Jamaica again. Not that it did anything to him, it’s just when you graduate to the wider sphere of consciousness you tend to leave it behind.”

The musicians who stayed in Jamaica continued in the hotel and club circuits and many would play the annual jazz concerts that Bradshaw organized in Kingston from 1954 to 1957, with the first happening at the Ward Theatre and then at the Carib Theatre the following year. But these concerts were the last hurrah for big-band jazz in Jamaica. A new sound, based in jump blues and R&B, and a new way of listening to music among Jamaica’s underclass had taken hold-and it wouldn’t let go.

We’re in the heart of downtown Kingston, and school kids are swarming the area around St. William Grant Park. Our driver swings past the Ward Theatre, passing goats feeding on a nearby deserted lot, and we head up King Street toward the bustling Cross Roads to see the Carib Theatre, rebuilt after a fire gutted its interior in 1997.


The Carib was the largest building on the island when it opened in April 1938, and it quickly became as important to Kingston as the Apollo was to Harlem. Movies and concerts, pantomimes and talent shows such as the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour were held here. Monty Alexander remembers the many performances he saw there. “This place had such a big stage,” he enthuses, “and I saw everybody from Nat ‘King’ Cole to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to Louis Armstrong.”

In the liner notes to Alexander’s 1992 album for Chesky, Caribbean Circle, the pianist tells the tale of how he and his father cooked up a scheme for Little Monty to cut school and see Armstrong: “I wore braces that the dentist put on to try to straighten out my buff teeth of the time. I found out that I could simply pull out one of the wires to make it look like it was jooking out mi jaw.” Sent home from school so he could go to the dentist, Alexander ran over to get his choppers fixed and then accompanied his father to the Carib to see Satchmo’s afternoon performance.

The next day Alexander’s dad bought him the trumpet Little Monty had been asking for ever since he saw Armstrong blow in the 1956 movie High Society.


At this point Alexander was already playing accordion, and he would sit in with older musicians. “I would go see bands play at a party or a hotel, and I would go sit in and play with them, from when I was 10 years old.” Alexander started seeing Ranglin play at these events, and he was hooked on the master guitarist. Switching to piano meant Alexander could go play jazz jam sessions, and that’s when he could join his heroes on stage.

“This guy,” Ranglin says, pointing a thumb at Alexander without looking at him, “from the first time I hear this guy, we don’t have to invite him up [on stage]; we were dying to get him up.”

“I remember one thing,” Alexander says. “I come with plenty enthusiasm. Rather than being light and right, I was wrong and strong!”


The two share a big laugh.

By the mid-1950s Ranglin was a veteran of numerous big bands and jazz combos, and he was one of the most respected musicians on the island. But he was supplementing his income by hanging out at the Federal Recording Studio, cutting records for sound system operators Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Prince Buster and Duke Reid.

The sound-system dances go as far back as the late 1940s, but by the mid-1950s they were at their peak. Live music, radios, records and playback systems were out of reach of poorer Jamaicans, but anyone could hear loud, dynamic, exciting music from the sound systems, which boomed in the streets and lawns through homemade speakers housed in brightly painted cabinets that promoted the sound-system owners.

Though sound systems were a downtown Kingston phenomenon, some middle-class Jamaicans like Alexander were attracted to the new craze. “The sound system help grab me away from the live music and the clubs where jazz musicians were playing. I heard the dances going on, and a man would drive a truck and on the back of a truck was a big, big homemade speaker, with all the paintings and drawings. The most famous men were Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd. I would hear this music, and I hear this bass and the shuffle beat, and the people dancing-and that grabbed me, people dancing to this rhythm.”


The music consisted primarily of hot jump-jazz and blues-boogie by the likes of Louis Jordan, Bill Doggett, Rosco Gordon as well as Afro-Cuban music by Perez Prado, Machito and Mario Bauza, swing by Basie, Ellington, Louis Prima and Lionel Hampton, bebop by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Harold Land, vocal jazz by Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan and dashes of calypso and mento by singers like Lord Flea and Count Lasher.

In order to keep people coming to their dances, producers had to find the newest, hottest, most obscure records to entice the crowd. Records were acquired through frequent trips to America, trades with U.S. servicemen and mail order, and labels were scratched off to foil snooping competitors. (For instance, it wasn’t until years later that patrons found out that Dodd’s theme song, “Coxsone Hop,” was actually Willis “Gator” Jackson’s “Later for the Gator.”)

By the late 1950s Dodd decided that another way to get exclusive records was to make them himself. He rented time at Federal Recording Studios and hired local jazz musicians that variously included Ranglin, bassist Cluett Johnson, pianists Aubrey Adams and Cecil Lloyd, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, trumpeter Baba Brooks and future Skatalites such as drummer Lloyd Knibb and saxophonist Roland Alphonso. They cut shuffle tunes and hard-edged R&B exclusively for sound system use.


Other sound-system men soon followed, with people like Prince Buster, King Edwards and Duke Reid turning into record producers in order to support their dances.

But as these musicians tried to duplicate the U.S. music that was so popular, something funny happened. The woozy, loping beats of Rosco Gordon and the swingin’ jive of Louis Jordan was being twisted by the Jamaican musicians, with the second and fourth beats being accented more heavily than in the American music they were emulating. The offbeat accents of Jamaican boogie in the late 1950s morphed into afterbeat or upbeat accents in the 1960s with the creation of ska. In this new style the guitar and piano nipped at the two and the four albeit in an exaggerated, highly syncopated and clipped style, while the horn sections played melody lines borrowed from jazz, Latin music, mento and R&B.

Marjorie Whylie, an ethnomusicologist, pianist and percussionist at the University of the West Indies, says, “It felt natural. What happened is that afterbeat of the boogie was just taken up by horns-we had not heard that before. What we find in ska is a dynamic tension that is set between regular subdivisions of the beat with irregular subdivision of the beat. So you find that there was an ease in dropping the stress on the afterbeat, and very often on the fourth beat of the bar. The other thing is the harmonic language of jazz. We have a saying in Jamaica, ‘It nedge ya teeth’-it goes a little against the grain. And at times you wonder whether or not they intended that kind of dissonance or whether it was an accident.”

Whether the creation of the ska beat was intentional or not is like much of the history of Jamaican music: open to debate. Everyone from Clement Dodd and Prince Buster to Ernest Ranglin and Lloyd Knibb claimed ska (or at least parts of it) as his own invention. Popular bassist Cluett Johnson used to call people “Skavoovie,” and that’s sometimes considered as one of the sources for the music’s rubric; another is the onomatopoeic sound that a guitar makes: ska ska ska.


Another theory behind ska’s creation is that musicians, like the rest of the population, were excited about the country’s impending separation from British colonial rule and they wanted to create a new style of music for the new Jamaica. Myrna Hague-Bradshaw says, “Jamaica was in a transitional period, politically and socially, so whatever you were doing before, this whole thing of being part of your country’s growth, birthing this nationalism, was what everybody was getting involved in.”

The truth is, we’ll never know the exact origin of ska because music doesn’t develop in a tidy and linear fashion-and neither does memory.

Unlike jazz sessions in the U.S., the ins and outs of making specific recordings in the late ’50s through the late ’60s aren’t well-documented affairs in Jamaica. Many times it’s hard to figure out who plays on which record because nothing was written down. Ranglin’s playing has appeared on hundreds and hundreds of songs, from Bob Marley to Jimmy Cliff, but he wasn’t credited either as a player or as an arranger on many of the early records because he needed to keep his work secret to retain his better-paying society gigs. Jamaica was a British colony until it achieved independence in 1962, by which point a class system was well instilled. “The uptown didn’t like the association with downtown and their music,” Ranglin says. “It’s hard to associate yourself with both in those days. It lessened your ability to earn. So Cluett Johnson, who was my bass player most of the time, he was the person who had his name [as leader] on the records-but that was me. Baba Brooks’ records? That was me.”


With producers like Duke Reid, Prince Buster and Justin Yap starting to produce indigenous Jamaican music, the flood of recordings that came out of the country in the 1960s is astounding. “There were times when we didn’t even know what the guy’s going to sing,” Ranglin says, “and you have to try to tailor this-cut this up, put that down-and eventually we get a tune. It was done so fast that I don’t know how we used to do those things,” he laughs.

It wasn’t until 1963 that Dodd opened his own facility, Jamaican Recording and Publishing Studio-aka Studio One-at 13 Brentford Road in a former jazz nightclub, the End. This allowed him the freedom to cut as much music as he wanted, for retail or for sound-system exclusives, and he needed a core group of skilled musicians who could tackle tune after tune with very little practice. Many of the nine musicians who went on to call themselves the Skatalites for the brief period of May 1964 to August 1965 were the primary members of that house band.

In fact, the Skatalites musicians freelanced for all of the producers because of their ability to adapt to any style, play it well and work efficiently. But they were also rebels, as evidenced by their song titles and their embracing of Rastafarian ideals about repatriation to Africa. In fact Knibb learned the burru style of African drumming from hanging out in the Wareika Hills Rasta camp with Count Ossie, who was a favorite of Duke Ellington and whom Randy Weston invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1973. Don Drummond and Johnny “Dizzy” Moore were also frequent participants in Count Ossie’s “groundations,” which included a lot of drums, a lot of improvisation and a lot of weed.


Ethnomusicologist Herbie Miller says unequivocally that the Skatalites’ Don Drummond “made Marley what Marley is.” Miller is writing a dissertation titled Syncopated Rhythms: Jazz and Caribbean Culture; he also managed Peter Tosh for a while in the 1970s, ran the short-lived Blue Monk jazz club in Kingston and then managed the reformed Skatalites for several years in the 1980s. “Marley blew up what Drummond’s trombone was saying,” Miller says. “Listen to ‘Mesopotamia,’ ‘Far East,’ ‘Eastern Standard Time,’ ‘Addis Ababa,’ ‘Beardman Shuffle,’ and you find him making these statements not only in song titles but in tonality and mood that is all about imagination and memory and retention of roots culture.”

Because of the Skatalites’ “Marcus Garvey spirit,” the more presentable Byron Lee and the Dragonaires received the government’s nod to represent Jamaica and promote ska at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.

But other than the odd hit single-such as the Ernest Ranglin-arranged Millie Small single “My Boy Lollipop”-ska didn’t catch on in America.


“It was too fast, it just keeps going. That may have been one reason why [the ska period] didn’t last long: You couldn’t dance all night to it-the Americans couldn’t,” Bradshaw laughs. “The ska was very energetic, because we could play and we wanted to stretch out. We’re coming from bebop. That may have been the spearhead.”

Ska started slowing down by the mid-1960s, with bass lines becoming more prominent and vocalists rather than instrumentalists handling the songs’ melody lines. One tale has it that the summer of 1966 was so hot in Jamaica that the producers decided to cut the ska tempo by half so the sound systems wouldn’t wear out their dancer-patrons so early into the night. Whatever the case, the new music, dubbed rocksteady, became simpler, and jazz-level skills weren’t necessary. Rocksteady morphed into the slightly peppier reggae at the end of the ’60s; reggae birthed dub music in the 1970s. Even today the roots of ska can be heard in the computer-driven, intensely rhythmic Jamaican style called dancehall, which relies on almost no musicianship whatsoever.

“There are two strains of musicians from Jamaica,” says Gary Crosby, a British bassist and nephew of Ernest Ranglin who leads the remarkable Jazz Jamaica All Stars-mostly musicians of West Indian heritage who tackle Wayne Shorter and the Skatalites with equal vigor and invention. “There’s the guys who were Jamaican musicians who listened to jazz and were associated with ska, but there was another strain of musicians who were jazz musicians who were Jamaican. I used to think it was split by class lines, but that was proven wrong to me by listening to people like Cedric Brooks. It’s more based on age. People like Sonny Bradshaw are jazz people through and through-they know harmony, they can talk about harmony and they’ve been studying it from pre-bebop.”


Four months after our Kingston tour, Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin are at the studios of XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C. As the twosome soundchecks, their old friend Dermot Hussey prepares for his interview with them. Alexander and Ranglin are in town to promote their new CD, Rocksteady (Telarc), which takes on such Jamaican classics as Don Drummond’s “Confucius,” Winston Riley’s “Double Barrel” and “Stalag 17,” Augustus Pablo’s “East of the River Nile,” the Congos’ “Row Fisherman,” Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

Rocksteady was recorded with a full band, which allows for the leaders to stretch out on their solos while the ska, rocksteady and reggae riddims provide the thrust. But how will the duo of Alexander and Ranglin approach such groove-heavy material without a percussionist or bassist?

Easy. To echo Gary Crosby, they’re jazz musicians through and through.


The Skatalites: Jazz in a Ska Background

The Skatalites’ influence on Jamaican popular music cannot be underestimated-and neither can the role jazz played in influencing the Skatalites. The musicians would often put the ska beat behind the chord changes they cribbed from jazz songs, including the Crusaders’ “Tough Talk,” Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” (retitled as “Malcolm X”), Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” (dubbed “Skaravan”), Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” (as “Surftide Seven”) and the Artie Shaw-associated “Jungle Drums” (cut as “African Blood”). And Ken Stewart, the Skatalites’ current keyboardist and manager, says, “Almost the entire Watermelon Man album by Mongo Santamaria has been covered by the Skatalites.”

The Skatalites are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year-disregarding the time apart during the many long and often acrimonious breakups they’ve had-but with just three of its original members: bassist Lloyd Brevett, drummer Lester Knibb and alto saxophonist Lester Sterling. Sitting backstage before a show at New York City’s Knitting Factory, Sterling remembers when jazz first grabbed him: “My first instrument was trumpet. The trumpeter I was hearing about at that time was Harry James, so I started to learn from a Harry James book-learn the fingerings and such. Then I start hearing about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and I really started listening to the bebop. I got the influence of playing alto sax from Charlie Parker. He was playing ‘La Paloma.’ Somebody put on that record [starts humming melody]. I stay there all night and listen to the LP.”

Even after the Skatalites broke up, Sterling looked to jazz for inspiration. His late ’60s hit single “Bangarang” is built from Kenny Dorham’s version of Ernie Henry’s “Cleo’s Chant,” while “Forest Gate Rock” is based on Parker’s “Barbados.”


Reggae historian David Katz says, “Lester Sterling and Roland Alphonso told me that they were really happy to migrate to America because America was the home of the jazz greats. Lester said, ‘You get the opportunity of seeing great musicians. At that time, Miles Davis was alive, Dizzy was alive, so you get that opportunity.’

Steve Barrow, co-author of the essential The Rough Guide to Reggae, says, “Monty Alexander once described Roland Alphonso to me as like ‘a funky Stan Getz.’ Johnny Moore told me Roland’s favorite player back in the day was Tex Beneke from the Glenn Miller Orchestra.” Alphonso has also cited Illinois Jacquet, and Katz says, “I interviewed Roland Alphonso shortly before he died [in 1998], and he was so enthusiastic about the greats of jazz, particularly John Coltrane.”

Tommy McCook, who died in 1998, was the original leader of the Skatalites, and Katz says, “I think the reason why Tommy was chosen to be the leader was because he was so steeped in jazz. The legend goes that Tommy initially refused to join the band because he said, ‘I’m a jazz player. I don’t play ska.'” Ken Stewart says, “Tommy would have probably always preferred-before, during and after the Skatalites-to have played pure jazz.”

Trombonist Don Drummond has received praise from jazz folks like George Shearing and Sarah Vaughan, and Delfeayo Marsalis went to Jamaica to study his work. But Drummond, who was influenced by Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson, suffered from mental problems and he died in an asylum in 1969. Still, he was the Skatalites’ most prolific composer. In Katz’s Solid Foundation book, singer Clancy Eccles says Drummond was like one of those “‘crazy jazz cats from America.’ He said everywhere you saw him he wasn’t wearing shoes. There was this whole thing where they saw him putting bits of clay and dirt in his Ovaltine. So they asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Atomic energy. These are supposed to build atoms inside you.'”

While McCook was the leader and Alphonso was the people’s choice among the Skatalites’ soloists, Caribbean jazz historian Herbie Miller says Drummond “was the most musically advanced” of the group and “a true visionary.”

To explain these Jamaican musicians’ love of jazz, Miller looks to the Duke: “As Ellington suggests in Music Is My Mistress, before the ingredients of jazz came to New Orleans it made its presence felt in the West Indies. That ingredient or a major part of it came with these people who were brought to the West Indies. Duke went on to say that when you ask a West Indian to play jazz, he plays what he thinks is jazz. He said Tricky Sam Nanton and his people from the West Indies were followers of Marcus Garvey, and bebop is the Marcus Garvey of jazz.”

It’s no wonder the Skatalites loved it so.

Jazz to Ska From JA: A Listener’s Guide

JA Jazz

Monty Alexander, Rocksteady (Telarc) with Ernest Ranglin; Stir It Up (Telarc); Yard Movement (Island Jazz); Jamento (Pablo); Island Grooves: Jamboree & Ivory and Steel (Concord)

The CDs listed here are the cream of what could be termed Monty Alexander’s “Jamaican roots” series, where he mixes his R&B-steeped bop piano with rhythms and tunes from the Caribbean. Alexander has also issued umpteen groovy trio recordings; take yer pick.

Ernest Ranglin, Sounds & Power (Studio One); Boss Reggae (K&K); Ultimate Ranglin Roots (Tropic); Now Is the Time (MPS); Memories of Barber Mack (Island Jazz); Below the Bassline (Island Jazz); Modern Answers to Old Problems (Telarc); Gotcha! (Telarc); In Search of the Lost Riddim (Palm)

For a guitarist as astoundingly talented as Ernest Ranglin is, his leader discography is as small and his sideman credits are large. But he’s been on a great run these past few years with the albums he did for Island Jazz, Telarc and Palm. Lost Riddim is especially good because it features Ranglin with African star Baaba Maal and his band. From the early years, Sounds & Power, Boss Reggae and Ranglin Roots are perfect mixes of deep reggae and killer lead guitar. Now Is the Time is a collection of Ranglin and Alexander’s finest moments for the German label MPS.

Dizzy Reece, Mosaic Select 11 (Mosaic); A New Star (Jasmine) Progress Report (Jasmine); Asia Minor (New Jazz)

On Miles Davis’ recommendation to the label, Jamaican-born trumpet hero and Alpha school attendee recorded some blistering hard-bop albums for Blue Note from 1958 to 1960. Mosaic’s essential comp has them all. The pre-Blue Note recordings Reece did in Britain are excellent, and his lone widely available post-Blue Note recording is 1962’s Asia Minor, and it’s also a keeper.

Joe Harriott, Indo-Jazz Suite (Koch); Indo-Jazz Fusion I & II; (Redial); ; Free Form (Redial)

The Suite is alto saxophonist Joe Harriott’s first album with Indian composer John Mayer. While you can get the first volume of Indo-Jazz Fusion in the U.S. on Collectables-though it’s inexplicably paired on a two-fer with a Dixieland album-the import edition has both volumes. Free Form is from 1960, and while it’s not free in the way we think of today, Harriott’s music was breaking out of bop conventions. All these albums feature fellow Jamaican expat Coleridge Goode on bass. More Harriott is out there on CD, but you’ll have to search a bit. For more about Jamaicans and West Indians in the British jazz scene, check out Goode’s autobiography Bass Lines: A Life in Jazz and Alan Robertson’s book Joe Harriott: Fire in His Soul.

Cecil Lloyd, I Cover the Waterfront (Studio One)

Roy Burrowes Reggae Au Go Jazz (Studio One)

V/A, Jazz Jamaica (Studio One); Reggae Jazz and More (Moodisc)

Studio One’s Clement Dodd was a jazz man at heart. But he had to keep the dancehall dancing with ska and reggae, which is why over his long career he produced just three jazz albums. Cecil Lloyd’s 1962 album Waterfront is available only on LP right now, but it’s worth getting just to hear future Skatalites Roland Alphonso and Don Drummond soloing over some easygoing swing. Jazz Jamaica, cut specifically to honor the country’s independence in 1962, features a who’s who of Jamaican jazzmen, including Ernest Ranglin, Lloyd, Drummond and Alphonso. Reggae Au Go Jazz features former Ellington trumpeter Roy “Bubbles” Burrowes soloing over classic Studio One riddims with contributions from American saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Charles Davis. The instrumental album Reggae Jazz and More features jazzy soloing over reggae beats, and it includes Tommy McCook, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Dean Fraser and Lennie Hibbert.

Andy Hamilton, Silvershine (World Circuit)

Tenor saxophonist Andy Hamilton left Jamaica for Britain in 1949, but he didn’t cut his sweetly swinging debut album, Silvershine, until 1991-when he was 73 years old. David Murray says of Hamilton in the liner notes, “My hero. It’s his tone, man,” and Art Farmer adds: “So soulful, so mellow, so beautiful.” So true.

Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair, Blue Bogey (Jasmine); Alpharian (Konnex)

While he’s little known outside of British jazz circles-and even there he’s a cult figure-Dizzy Reece describes Wilton Gaynair as “the best saxophonist out of Jamaica.”

Sonny Bradshaw, Jamaica Big Band Live (Jamaica Roots); Do It Reggae, 1969-1975 (Jamaican Gold)

Sonny Bradshaw’s big band runs through Ellington as easily as they do Marley. Available from Bradshaw at 876-927-3544; To hear the pop side of the traditionally jazzy Sonny Bradshaw 7, check out Do It Reggae.

Jazz Jamaica All Stars, Massive (Dune)

Imagine Mingus’ band with a ska beat and you’ve got Gary Crosby’s Jazz Jamaica. Excellent, richly layered jazz that still makes you want to dance. This band is ultimate synthesis of American swing and Jamaican groove-from a crew of Brits mostly of West Indian heritage. Their Hannibal albums Double Barrel and Skaravan are well worth searching out as well.


The Skatalites, Foundation Ska (Heartbeat/Studio One); Phoenix City (Trojan); Ska Boo-Da-Ba: Top Sounds From Top Deck, Volume 3 (Westside); Stretching Out (ROIR); Ball of Fire (Island Jamaica Jazz); Hi-Bop Ska (Shanachie)

Foundation Ska is a perfectly named two-CD collection. The double disc Phoenix City highlights the records the band made for Duke Reid. Ska Boo-Da-Ba features the cream of Justin Yap’s recordings with the group and includes the band’s take on Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”; meanwhile, volume six of the essential Top Deck series has the Crusaders’ “Tough Talk” done in a ska style. The killer live album Stretching Out features the band reunited after almost 20 years apart. And Ball of Fire and Hi-Bop Ska are among the group’s jazziest efforts, with a lot of room for solos; the latter disc even features guest appearances from Monty Alexander, Lester Bowie, David Murray and Steve Turre. Also, the various Studio One memorial albums to deceased Skatalites Don Drummond, Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso are worth seeking out; there are many duplicate tracks to the comps above, but there are also swinging rarities.

V/A: The Rough Guide to Ska (World Music Network); Skatalites & Friends at Randy’s (VP); Kings of Ska (King Edwards); Prince Buster Record Shack Presents the Original Golden Oldies (Jet Star; two volumes); Deep Ska (Proper); Trojan Ska Box Set (Trojan; two volumes)

These discs could all go under the Skatalites listing as well since they played on practically every track. The Rough Guide CD features top-notch ska from Randy Chin’s label, including the Skatalites’ rewrite of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” as “Malcolm X”; for more Chin-produced tracks, check out Skatalites & Friends at Randy’s. King of Ska compiles two albums worth of King Edwards releases onto one CD and it includes Roland Alphonso’s “Jazz Ska.” Both volumes from Prince Buster’s productions are essential, but the second CD has both Count Ossie’s “Oh! Carolina”-the first recording to feature Rastafarian drumming-and Raymond Harper and the Skatalites rewrite of the Artie Shaw-associated jazz standard “Jungle Drums” as “African Blood.” Deep Ska is an inexpensive, four-CD collection of recordings made for Duke Reid’s labels, and the two Trojans are inexpensive three-CD sets.

Rico Rodriguez, Rico’s Message: Jamaican Jazz (Jet Set); Tribute to Don Drummond (Trybute)

Original Jamaican ska star and jazz-trained trombonist Rico Rodriguez has lived in England for more than 40 years, acting a musical ambassador for the island in groups as diverse as the Specials and Jazz Jamaica. These albums highlight Rodriguez’s way with sweet-toned solos, gutbucket ska and reggae grooves.

Carlos Malcolm, The Royal Ska (Jamaican Gold); Ska Mania (RPH); Bustin’ Outta of the Ghetto (BGP)

Trombonist Carlos Malcolm was one of the most talented arrangers and musicians in Jamaica, and you can hear his ear for harmony in full effect on The Royal Ska, which includes the Ska Mania LP and more. Bustin’ was originally released on Ahmad Jamal’s label, AJP, in 1970 and it’s a joyful mix of funk, ska and jazz. Beat junkies will not be disappointed.

Beyond Ska

Jackie Mittoo, Tribute to Jackie Mittoo (Heartbeat/Studio One); Last Train to Skaville (Soul Jazz); The Keyboard King at Studio One (Universal Sound)

These three excellent comps (with relatively little crossover) highlight the prolific and deeply greasy organ playing of the Skatalites’ Jackie Mittoo.

V/A, Interpretations & Improvisations: A Tribute to Reggae’s Keyboard King Jackie Mittoo (VP)

Monty Alexander and long-time Jamaican jazz pianist, percussionist and ethnomusicologist Marjorie Whylie are but two of the fine musicians who celebrate Mittoo on this 18-track CD.

Cedric “Im” Brooks & The Light of Saba (Honest Jon’s)

This excellent collection of Rastafarian roots and dub reggae from the Light of Saba band features loads of Cedric Brooks’ jazz-informed tenor sax. Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins are two of his biggest influences.

V/A, Studio One Story (Soul Jazz)

A DVD, CD and mini book about Coxsone Dodd’s label. The film is low budget and meandering, but it’s still a nice romp through Studio One’s history.

JA Roots

V/A, Mento Madness (V2)

In 1951, Stanley Motta became the first person to record and release records in Jamaica, and he concentrated on mento, the calypso-sounding Jamaican folk music that featured call-and-response vocals and improvisations on the topics of the day. The comp collects Motta’s finest mento moments from 1951 to 1956.

Count Ossie & the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, Tales of Mozambique (Dynamic)

V/A, Trojan Nyabinghi Box Set (Trojan)

Count Ossie brought nyabinghi drumming and Rastafarianism into Jamaican music, and you can hear him and his crew in fine form on Mozambique-an album that Duke Ellington coveted from Jamaican DJ Dermot Hussey during one of his trips to the island. The Trojan set has music by Ossie and others in an inexpensive three-CD package.

V/A: Drums of Defiance (Smithsonian Folkways); Music of the Maroons of Jamaica (Smithsonian Folkways)

The Jamaican Maroons are escaped slaves, and they kept their heritage alive through music. These ritualistic drum celebrations are part of the Kromanti tradition, named after a historic slave port on the Gold Coast of West Africa.

Mail Order

Ernie B’s Reggae should be your first stop. It has a great selection, fantastic prices and the best service.

This New York City store has a nuts and bolts Web site, but if you call, chances are Jammyland will have the CD you want. Originally Published