Mandela, Mandela, when you said ‘freedom now’ they disagreed. You have come to symbolize what it means for all men to be free…Mandela, Mandela, despite imprisoned minds ironically you have come to symbolize what it means for all men to be free.
Fort Greene, Brooklyn was buzzing with energy–an artists’ mecca, and Monte was dating my friend, a wonderful dancer/choreographer. Our crew of young, optimistic creatives were all excited for him when A Higher Fire, his first of two recordings for Columbia Records (the second, Survival of the Spirit) dropped, his anti-Apartheid anthem the last track on the disc.
My multi-instrumentalist friend was born in Youngstown, Ohio to a steelworker and his schoolteacher wife. He has fond early memories of going to work with his mother at the start and culmination of each term – days on which he could “play” the school’s pianos whilst she got organized. Drums, however were his first instrument. “I dutifully attended my weekly lesson and gladly practiced everyday. I was ten when I started and that experience taught me a lot about discipline and investment. Invest your time well; you get a good return.” Introduced to vibes by his drum teacher, he “fell in line with that program,” and acquired his own 1975 Musser vibraphone as a child.
Playing on the Musser instrument he’s had since childhood, Monte demonstrates the 4-mallet technique on Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.”
As he grew older, he frequently sang with and choreographed for vocal groups performing in talent contests and joined a “quasi-jazz group called the Arrie Mae Morton Trio as the singing drummer.” Though “all I was ever concerned with was music,” he excelled academically, graduating at the top of his high school class. With the encouragement of his band director, James McIntyre, he attended the Berklee College of Music, “an accredited college where the focus was what I loved.” The move to Boston left the midwestern naif in a bit of culture shock. The experience proved tricky. “Although my talent was embraced, socially, the Berklee experience was nearly disastrous. Somehow I survived, and set my sights on The Big Apple.”
He arrived in New York City in 1983, during what he sees, “in retrospect, was a jazz resurgence. I was very friendly with a lot of the key players in that resurgence, so I was confident that it was just a matter of time for me.” Things seemed really promising when he signed to Columbia, but he learned a few hard-won lessons.
It was then I found out that when you sign with a major label, a lot of people try to get a piece of it. Producers who never produced jazz, writers who’ve never written liner notes, basically a lot of people who may or may not know you, trying to get some “light” and a paycheck. The trouble was, people at the label were already getting a paycheck, so they didn’t care what happened to me as long as the new pop artist– and chief’s girlfriend–was cool. My old friends who were now jazz stars became conspicuously absent during this period too.
“What is Love?” A personal favorite from “A Higher Fire.”
Monte has good taste in women. Dynamic, talented women. When I met his spirited next love, she and I hit it off right away. Fast forward to 1997 and I was thrilled when he married my fellow Essence alum, the accomplished cartoonist/writer, Barbara Brandon; her sunny vivacity balancing his mellow reserve. On the inherited talents of their loving son, Chase, Monte says, “he’s definitely artistically and musically inclined, two skills he intentionally avoids at all costs.” The whip-smart preteen is carving an individual identity amid creatively flourishing environs.
Monte with his loves: wife Barbara, son Chase and his mallets.
He was, for a time, the frontman of Innervisions, a Stevie Wonder tribute band and I looked forward to their annual May gig at B.B. King’s where they’d raise the roof in honor of Stevie’s birthday, “jammin’ until the break of dawn.” Imagine Spinna’s Wonderfull party with live performance–that energy, that spirit.
Still writing, gigging and mastering even more instruments, (he’s added bass, guitar, keyboards and a stirring chromatic harmonica) he continues to create and share music. To find out more, friend him on Facebook, where you’ll be privy to performance uploads and his musings, philosophical, musical and otherwise.
‘Til then check what this musical heir to Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson is vibing on…
1. Stevie Wonder. “Anybody that really knows me, knows I’ve been greatly influenced by Stevie, but I didn’t really get into him until I lent a friend an Al Green 8-track tape, it broke and he gave me Innervisions in exchange. It was then I started to realize what all the fuss was about. Stevie’s unique; the voice, the songs, his spirit.”
“All in Love is Fair,” side 2, track 3 from “Innervisions”
2. The Vibraphone. “It’s a beautiful instrument, and at the risk of sounding cocky, I know in my heart, I’m one of the best who ever played it… Musser is the industry standard for instruments although Deagan was a more than worthy competitor for many years. I’d like to see if I can find an old Deagan in good condition.”
A Deagan vibraphone.
3. City Crab. “NYC restaurant with delicious food and an informal atmosphere. For Barbara and me, this has been ‘our place’ for well over a decade. I recommend the baked shrimp Imperial stuffed with blue crabmeat”
Photo: J. Huang.
4. Hats In The Belfry. No newbie to millinery, Monte knows he can find the porkpies and stingy brims he likes from the website. “Good inventory, cool styles, great and fast service.”
The Makins “John Henry” sisal stingy brim hat.
5. Jackson 5ive. “I loved a lot of Michael’s solo work, but for me, the Jackson Five was ‘it!’ The group was a big source of mockery in my house, much to my chagrin, so I didn’t get around to seeing them until the Get It Together era, just before Dancing Machine. The whole group was dynamic and today when I listen to the vocals Jermaine was doing when he was 17, I realize they were, as a group, really underrated. I identified with Michael and probably experienced my first feelings of inadequacy, not because of the singing and dancing so much as the fact I couldn’t look like that. It’s so ironic.
The J5 at a 1972 Save the Children benefit concert in Chicago. “This video captures the energy and excitement I felt. I loved the ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’ arrangement then and I still love it!”
6. The Female Form. “I love those curves! It’s what really makes the world go ‘round. Regardless of gender, it seems everyone can appreciate a woman’s body.”
“Undressing Female Nude” 7″ x 5″ Charcoal on “Canson” Pastel paper. From artist Daniel Peci’s blog, A Painting a Day.
7. Ice Cream. “Handel’s of Youngstown, Ohio deserves a special mention.” How could a Larry Graham fan (“I just saw him at BB King’s.”) not love a shop with a flavor called Graham Central Station?
Though he is partial to Ben & Jerry’s, he is “always open to suggestion.”
8. Kenneth Cole. “His designs reflect my fashion sensibility perfectly, right down to the fragrances.”
Monte can immerse himself in all things Kenneth Cole at the Rockefeller Center flagship store.
9. Facebook. The social network “has really changed my life and outlook. It’s the first time I’ve been able to access positive feedback on my work on a regular basis. It also warms my heart to see old, old friends.”
Monte ‘likes’ Facebook.
10. Soul Train in the Seventies. “I’m so glad we get a chance to see these shows again on Centric. I only wish they would show more episodes.”
Over one hundred performances culled from select 70′s episodes round out the Best of Soul Train DVD collection, available from TimeLife.