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Artist Interviews
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Monty Alexander, John Clayton & Jeff Hamilton

Three Jazz Giants – One Iconic Trio!

We’re excited to have Monty Alexander sailing with us again on The Jazz Cruise in 2022, because of his prodigious talent, exuberant personality and unique influences. Although he’ll be performing with his own group, he’ll also reunite with former bandmates John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton for a performance or two during the cruise. Bringing the three together is the sort of programming that The Jazz Cruise is famous for. The three share a colorful and storied history both as individual artists and as a powerful trio.

Born in Jamaica on D-Day (June 6, 1944), Monty was a true prodigy, entertaining neighbors and family on the piano starting when he was just 5 years old. When he was 10, he saw Nat King Cole perform at the Carib Theater in Kingston, where a few years later he saw Louis Armstrong. That jazz influence mixed with the music he was hearing around him in Jamaica shaped him as a pianist. “I soaked up everything — the calypso band playing at the swimming pool in the country, local guys at jam sessions who wished they were Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, a dance band playing Jamaican melodies, songs that Belafonte would have sung,” he explained.

When he was 17, his family moved to Miami, where he played at various clubs and hotels around town. Just a year later, he was “discovered” by Frank Sinatra and his friend Jilly Rizzo, who owned a nightclub in Manhattan that served as a virtual clubhouse for the Chairman of the Board. Monty ended up being flown to NYC where he became a fixture as the regular pianist at Jilly’s, as well as at the Playboy Club. Heady stuff for the still young Monty who was suddenly surrounded by jazz royalty like Miles, Dizzy, Count Basie and Milt Jackson.

Monty would go on to work with Jackson in a quintet that included Ray Brown, who became a pivotal figure for the pianist. Monty would work and record with Ray for many years and the bassist was also a bridge to his meeting two young musicians who had bonded at Indiana University. In 1976, Monty had been leading his own trio for several years and needed to find a bassist and drummer for a show at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis, Md. Brown had already introduced Monty to a tall skinny bassist in L.A. named John Clayton, and when Monty asked John if he knew a drummer who would work for that gig, he had a ready answer.

“Both John and I wanted to play with Monty when we were 19 and 20 years old. We got his albums and learned all we could,” Jeff Hamilton told the Vail Daily in 2016. “We thought if we got good enough we could play with Monty Alexander. From that experience the week of the audition, we all knew we were on the same page. We all heard the beat the same. We were all intuitive to what each other was going to do. We knew where we were going, and nobody else did.”

The three played together from 1976 until 1978, performing by Monty’s estimation an astounding 300 dates a year and recording two albums including the seminal Montreux Alexander ’76. The cover of that live album shows the three musicians each sporting what seemed to be a large Afro. “Well, it was definitely a contest because we were on the road 50 weeks a year for two years and we didn’t trust anybody to cut our hair,” Jeff told JazzTimes last year.

Monty would go on to a long and successful career leading his own trio, as well as a larger ensemble celebrating both jazz and ska. Of course, both John and Jeff went on to form the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, as well as lead their own bands – The Clayton Brothers Quintet and The Jeff Hamilton Trio.

John and Jeff are part of the original group of musicians that both started and propelled The Jazz Cruise to its lofty status. The Clayton Brothers Quintet with John and his beloved brother, Jeff, has been a fixture on The Jazz Cruise since its inception. We miss Jeff dearly as he was always there to add something special to The Gospel Show and the many tribute sets that he created.

In recent years, John has been leading Anita’s Big Band, The Jazz Cruise’s All-Star Band. With energy, skill and dedication, John has made the performances of Anita’s Big Band “must-see” and “must-hear” cruise events. John’s leadership extends beyond the band, as Music Director Shelly Berg and Executive Director Michael Lazaroff rely heavily upon John’s expertise and judgment in selecting musicians, creating special events and more.

In turn, Jeff Hamilton’s trio featuring Tamir Hendelman and Jon Hamar are perennial crowd favorites on The Jazz Cruise. And Jeff makes special appearances with other artists on the cruise. Who can forget that performance by Jeff in a dynamic power trio with Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride in 2020? In the 40-plus years since their big hair days, Monty, John and Jeff have reunited for occasional performances, but all three are looking forward to spending an entire week together in January on The Jazz Cruise ’22. They’ll bring along not only their shared history, but a lifelong love and respect for each other and the music.

Not to be overlooked is Monty’s long and illustrious run on The Jazz Cruise. We have been able to sail with Monty for nearly half of all sailings of the cruise. Each time he has wowed our guests and provided inspiration to all musicians. About the only person who trembles at the notion of Monty performing on The Jazz Cruise is our piano tech. As he tells it, no one attacks the keyboard quite like Monty. When he is finished with the set, a full inspection and tuning is required. Passion, man, passion.

There is no time like the present to get into the cruise spirit by listening to a little Monty Alexander! The Jazz Cruise’s Emmett Cohen created this Spotify playlist featuring his favorite Monty tunes!