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Mento and Jazz

 

Page last revised: 6/17/14

 

Jazz and mento have enjoyed a long relationship, with recordings first appearing in the 1920s and continuing today. Jamaica produced not only a rich repertoire of folk/mento songs, but also a host of talented jazz musicians. It's not surprising that Jamaican jazz musicians would take these songs and perform them in jazz. 
 

Jump to:

1920s - 1940s

The liner notes of Boogu Yagga Gal alert mento fans to the early Caribbean-Jazz recordings of two Trinidadians, Sam Manning and Lionel Belasco. Both traveled to New York City, where they recorded the earliest versions of Jamaican mento songs in the jazz style of the 1920s. As seen below, these songs can be heard on CD collections that are in print and readily obtainable.

Sam Manning

Though Sam Manning was Trinidadian, he sometimes used Jamaican musicians in his bands. From 1924 through the start of the 1940, he made 53 jazz recordings. Eleven of them are mento songs, or utilized part of a mento song. Manning recorded a number of these sides with either the Cole Mentor Orchestra or Aldophe Thenstead's Mentor Boys. Interesting! The fusion of 1920s jazz and "mentor" music, often complete with banjo, is an enjoyable combination. Thirty years before mento's golden age began, jazz-mento recordings were being made in New York City. (Thanks to Matthias Münchow of Hamburg, Germany for the picture, right, of Sam Manning, circa 1935.)
 

The complete recordings of Sam Manning are collected on two CDs on the Jazz Oracle label. Each volume includes comprehensive liner notes.

Below are the mento songs on these releases:

Amba Cay La (melody from Yellow Bird)
Bargee (with different lyrics)
Bongo (melody from Rukumbine)
Bungo (melody from Rukumbine)
Lignum Vitae (two versions) (Mama Look Tea)
Sly Mongoose
Susan Monkey Walk (melody from Mattie Rag)
Hold Him Joe (instrumental, plus part of Penny Reel)
Sweetie Charlie (melody from My Matilda, or What A Hard Time)
Womans Sweeter Than Man (also includes the melody from Yellow Bird)

The CDs did not capture all of Manning's Jamaican-related sides.

On Decca, this Sam Manning album of 4 78s dates from December 1941. It's called West Indian Folk Songs, and as the jacket indicates, three are from Jamaica. His backing band for all 8 sides is jazz band The Felix Krazy Cats. The same image appears on the back jacket.


The Jamaican songs are

"Salt Lane Gal",
"Iron Bar"  and
"Tillie Lend Me Your Pigeon".

The latter, part of a medley,
may not in fact be part of
Jamaica's folk song repertoire.


 
 

Lionel Belasco

 

Around the same time that
Sam Manning
made the above
recordings, or perhaps even
earlier, Lionel Belasco 
recorded "Sly Mongoose".
(He also composed and recorded "Caroline", which is sometimes performed by mento bands. )

Belasco led the first black jazz band to have been recorded. He is also considered to

  

be the first recording artist to help popularize music from the Caribbean. "Goodnight  Ladies & Gents", on the Rounder Select label, is the only collection of Belasco's recordings. Sadly, that
leaves about 90% of his output out of print. Happily, the collection includes "Sly Mongoose". (Thanks once again to Matthias Münchow for the picture, right, of Lionel Belasco, circa 1955.)

At the end of the 1930s, the unlikely named Jack Sneed And His Sneezers recorded several sides of jazz out of New York with some Jamaican elements. Sneed sings with a WI accent, but I am not sure he is Jamaican. His songs include:

  • Sly Mongoose, 
      the ever popular
     
  • West Indian Blues,
      in which he sings about returning to Jamaica
     
  • Jamaica Mama,
      utilizing the melody
    Sly Mongoose with new words listing
      some Jamaican foods
The first two track can be heard on the too narrowly named CD, "Jazzing The Blues Volume 4". Jamaica Mama along with a handful of other Jack Sneed songs can be heard on the out of print CD called "Billy Kyle, 1937-1938".

1940s and 1950s

In the 1940s, Jamaica had a thriving jazz scene, with a number of prominent big bands, such as The Eric Deans Band. Sadly, there are no recordings from this era, so I can only speculate that these bands included Jamaican folk/mento songs in their repertoire.

When Jamaica's own recording industry began in the 1950s, in addition to the rough and rural country style of mento that was a forbearer of reggae, a second type of mento was performed and recorded. This was the more polished and dance-band style, which utilized jazz musicians and jazz music to arrange mento songs. Artists included Lord Fly and the Dan Williams Orchestra, Ben Bowers and Baba Motta and His Orchestra, Hubert Porter and The Tower Islanders, American jazz-calypso-mento singer Marie Bryant, and others. Additionally, some artists, such as Count Lasher would record both in the rural and urban mento styles. Urban mento jazz song clip can be heard on the More Artists and Favorite Song Clips page and the original records can be seen on the Scans pages. The 2004 CD release, "Mento Madness", has a good portion of 1950s jazzy urban mento. 
 

Look at this portion of a page from the Daily Gleaner from December 31, 1954. There was an exciting array of live jazz and/or mento option to choose from that News Year's Eve. You could select Count Lasher, Charlie Binger's Orchestra, Baba Motta, Sonny Bradshaw, or others.
 

(To allow legibility, the large version of this image is over 700 KB and 1,400 pixels wide.)

Hartley Neita, writing in the June 10 issue of The Gleaner, richly recalled the Kingston’s dance band scene in his article “Dancing in Clubs of Yesteryear”. Many familiar names from mento and other less familiar names were remembered by Harltey.

During the 1940s and 1950s, there were at least twelve night clubs in the Corporate Area which featured live orchestral music some for two nights (at week ends); others up to six nights weekly.

These orchestras were of various sizes from trios led by Frankie Bonnitto, to twelve-man bands led by Roy Coburn, Eric Deans, and Ivy Graydon. The latter, the only female dance-band musician at the time, played at Springfield in eastern Kingston. Coburn led a jazz dance band at the Bournemouth, also in eastern Kingston, while Deans played at the Colony in Cross Roads. Other bands included Whylie Lopez, George Moxey, Milton McPherson, Baba Motta, Cliff Beckford, Redver Cooke, Baron Lewis and Don Hitchman. Sonny Bradshaw's sessions at Silver Slipper in Cross Roads brought out the teen-age crowd with their jitterbugging, buggy-riding and other dance steps of the time.

These orchestras also played before the matinee shows at the Carib and movies in Cross Roads, or before the first night shows at the Palace and other movie houses. In addition to the music at these night shows, there were also what was called "other acts" and which included belly dancing by Madame Wasp, Madame Sugar Hips and Madame Temptation. The bands also played for the Opportunity Hour contests promoted by Vere Johns, and which unearthed many top talents in singing and dancing.

The Corporate Area lost many of its musicians, such as Bertie King, Ossie DaCosta, Wynton Gaynair, Joe Harriott, Coleridge Goode and Ben Bowers, who migrated to Britain where they became well-known stars and were invited to accompany American orchestras when they went on tour of Europe. Many of our musicians, such as Cecil Lloyd, Billy Cooke, Leo Wilson, Lennie Hibbert and Janet Enwright also went to Montego Bay and later Ocho Rios to play in the hotels. For three months each year the winter tourist season, these musicians were not heard of, as the hotels at the time did not welcome Jamaican guests.

We had great individual jazzmen at the time. The Mecca at which they performed was the Bournemouth. Coburn's orchestra included Gaynair, Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Vernon Muller, Raymond Harper, Fitz Colash and Roland Alphonso. The band played there twice each week, with the stage sometimes having 30 musicians. These included Harold 'Little G' MacNair, Ernest Ranglin, Lloyd Adams, Seymour 'Foggy' Mullings, Con Allison and Cluet Hamilton.

As late teenagers and early twenty-year-olds, we took the bus and tram to Outlook Avenue on these nights, walked to the Club, and after the dance ended (11:00 p.m. on Wednesdays and 1.00 a.m. on Friday nights) we walked home to Vineyard Town, Cross Roads, Beechwood Avenue and elsewhere in the Corporate Area. No gunman or rapist ever harmed the girls.

It was also the glory age for singers. There was Archie Lewis who migrated to England during the early '40s and became Britain's most popular singer. Some, as Winston Roach did, patterned the style of Nat King Cole, but there were other great song stylists, such as, Sheila Rickard, Blossom and Louise Lamb, Francisco Francis, Buddy Ilgner (whose voice had echoes of Frank Sinatra), Carlyle Heywood, Hubert Porter and Mercedes Kirkwood. There were also the mento and calypso singers. Lord Flea and Lord Fly ruled the roost, along with Count Lasher. They added spice to the glory.

1960s

In the 1960s is was common practice for Jamaican hotels to sell singles and albums by their resident musical acts. These ranged from classily rural to sophisticated jazz, with some falling in-between. Good examples of a very jazzy hotel LPs are "Jamaican Carnival at The Myrtle Bank" by Baba Motta and Orchestra" and "Carnival at The Tower Isle", by Cecil Lloyd and His Orchestra, both released on the Carib label and described on the Middle Period Album Scans page. Songs clips from the former can be heard on the More Artists and Favorite Song Clips page.

The liner notes for the LP below, "Jamaican Party Time" start with the statement, "This is an unusual album". This is true for a number of reasons. First,  it does not appear to be hotel affiliated. Second, the liner notes are informative with information on the featured musicians and on each song -- and even explains that it's mento, not calypso! Third, it gathers an impressive collection of talent:

   

Side one is mento jazz featuring:
Baba Motta (piano),
Ernest Ranglin (guitar and bass(!)),
Thaddy Mowatt (vibes) and
Bertie King (sax and pan whistle)
unknown percussionists
1. Linstead Market
2. Wheel and Turn Me
3. Come Back Liza
4. Solas Market
5. Brown Skin Gal
6. Mango Walk

In the June 4, 2006, Jamaica Observer, an article by Herbie Miller give us some background on Bertie King, who’s career ran from the 1930s through the 1950s. Miller explains that King was a Jamaican jazz musician who:

"was a fixture on the European scene. King played clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone equally well and was an extraordinary arranger. King was on British piano legend George Shearing's first recording and also played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. After performing with many of the top calypsonians in Britain, King returned to Jamaica in the late 1950s where he was a pioneer radio orchestra participant at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), where along with Sonny Bradshaw and Carlos Malcolm, he produced entire musical programmes. He was also responsible for the success of the hit mento recording Healing In The Balm Yard by the Ticklers."

Side two is not mento or jazz. Other than the second track, the instrumentation is uncredited, though Mohair Slimhas informed me that the guitar is by Melbourne, Australia’s Dennis Sindrey (as part of The Caribs).

1. Tell Me Darling (R&B with vocals by Wilfred Edwards)
2. Dragon's Paradise (Cha Cha instrumental by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires)
3. Worried Over You  (R&B with vocals by Keith and Enid)
4. R&B with vocals by Wilfred Edwards)
5. Pretty Baby (Cha Cha/R&B with vocals by Teddy Brown)
6. Time To Pray (R&B/gospel with vocals by The Mellowlarks)

Thanks to George Dixon of NYC for a copy of this LP, the scans, and for sharing his recollections below:

This LP is probably one of the very first albums I asked my aunt to purchase for me when I was about eight years old. I've loved and appreciated this LP ever since then. Every single track on this LP brings back memories of the house I lived in above my aunt's grocery store in town of Retreat, Jamaica West Indies. When most young boys are out playing sports, I was inside listening to my precious ska, mento and calypso music. Thanks to this web site, we can promote and extend the life of these rare gems.

In 2010 I heard from Lowell Morris, the drummer for The Caribs  with the following recollections:

I am Lowell Morris, the drummer with THE CARIBS band in Jamaica 1958 to 1962. I found a few errors in the lineups with that LP. First I played with Ernest, Monty and Taddy (not Thaddy) Mowatt who was a bass player and I don't think Ernie ever played bass. I'm not positive about the drum player, it could have been me depending on the date it was made. Excerpt for "Dragon Paradise" and "Time To Pray" the rest of side 2 were all originally on 45s, the singers were backed by The Caribs, Dennis Sindrey and Ernest Ranglin (guitars ) Peter Stoddard ( piano ) Lloyd Brevett (bass) and me (drums). Any sax bits could have been either Max Wildman or Roland Alphonso. Dennis, Peter, Max and I were all Australian. Regards to you and yours. Lowell, PS I also played and or recorded with Ernest, Monty, Roland, Cecil Lloyd, Bertie King and Carlos Malcolm.


 


On the Sundown label, here is "Unforgettables", an LP from the late 1960s or early 1970s by Baba Motta. Motta is showing off his range, with medleys covering mento, fox trot, waltz, ballad, cha cha cha, bolero and jazz. The mento medley consisted of the songs listed right. From the better than usual liner notes, we learn of Motta's musical history travels over seas, the names of his quartet and that his real first name is Alfred. And the jacket features Baba's photo.
 
The mento medley:

Teacher Lick The Gal
Fan Me Soldier Man Fan Me
Linstead Market
Iron Bar
Ruccumbine
She Pon Top

  Courtesy of Charles Jackson, of Massachusetts is this interesting LP by Baba Motta. Taking the label at face value, it's an audition record that Baba had pressed. It consists of his piano and vocal ranging through a collection of standards, plus Linstead Market.

Charles had four copies of this LP for sale. For details, see the For Collectors page.

Here is an autographed 1960s LP by golden-age urban mento band leader George Moxey:
"Plays Music For Dancing" on the Twilight label.

   
 


The autograph reads:

To Mr Harry Atkinson
With best wishes
From George Moxey
17/3/79

Though there is little that is mento or Jamaican on this jazz LP, at least the liner notes  give us a bit of biography on Moxey. He is native to Nassau and was active since the late 1930s. Moxey was all over Jamaican radio through the 1940s. He returned to Nassau in 1954. The LP is recoded with the Ernest Ranglin trio and he counts Ranglin as something as a mentor.

Recorded in 1964, but not released until 2014 as an LP on the Federal is Jazz Jamaica by guitar great Ernest Ranglin. Ernest, backed with piano, bass and drums runs through 9 familiar folk/mento songs in a jazz style.

  1) Sly Mongoose
2) Gimme Back Me Shilling
     [Mango Walk]
3) Solus Market
4) Water Come To Me Eye
5) Hold Him Joe
6) Emmanuel Road
7) Linstead Market
8) Make Him Tan De Burn
9) Iron Bar  


 

In 1993 Jazz Jamaica released their first album, Skaravan. It included a jazz-mento version of "Peanut Vendor". The band is led by nephew the of Ernest Ranglin, bassist Gary Crosby.

 

1980s thru today and Monty Alexander

Though the dance band style of mento faded away by the end of the 1960s, jazz would continue to enrich Jamaican music, as illustrated in the Jamaican Music Roadmap. From the 1980s onward, Jamaican jazz keyboard star Monty Alexander revived the mento-jazz tradition from its brief slumber. Though he left Jamaica in the early 1960s to bring his piano skills to a who's who of American jazz and pop, Monty Alexander never lost his Jamaican roots. In addition to fusing reggae and jazz, Monty also made a number of mento songs part of his jazz recording and performing repertoires. (Visit the Non-Mento Cover Versions of Mento Songs page for a list of mento songs Monty has recorded.) By this, Monty brings the mento-jazz tradition into its ninth documented decade. Both pictures are from a June 26, 2004 performance in NYC, where Monty Alexander and special guest Ernest Ranglin included "Sly Mongoose" in their set. 

In November 2005, Charlie Hunter, Ernest Ranglin, and Chinna Smith  released the jazz CD "Earth Tones" on the Gse label. It includes a version of "Island In The Sun".

In March 2006, Monty Alexander's "Concrete Jungle" CD featured a track with the Rod Dennis Mento Band. It's a rural mento cover of Bob Marley and The Wailers' "Three Little Birds", featuring Monty on melodica.

To celebrate the release of this CD, on April 24th at B. B. King’s club in NYC, Monty Alexander staged the ultimate Jamaican music mash up. First, there was the fusion of reggae and jazz. Monty’s jazz trio was supplemented by six reggae musicians. The group would switch back and forth from jazz trio to big reggae band, often within the same song. Monty’s jazz piano dueled with reggae organ. Stand up bass traded licks with electric bass. Jazz and reggae drummers took turns or played together. The lines blurred as Monty jammed on melodica, playing jazz lines and reggae rhythms.

A generous portion of Bob Marley tracks from “Concrete Jungle” were performed. During the only Monty Alexander composition of the night, “Strawberry Hill”, Monty’s solo touched on “Linstead Market” and “Mango Walk”, and urban jazz-mento, as first recorded in the 1920s, was added into the mix.

Next was guest star Dean Frasier, who played leads and solos galore, including leading the band in a rendition of “Dick Tracy”, as ska joined the party. Then guest star Luciano took the stage and performed several spiritual neo-roots originals (such as "It's Me Again Jah") with jazzy backing, and shared vocals with other band members on a jazz-reggae version of Marley’s/Selasie’s “War”.

Monty and band with Dean Frasier, center.

But that was not all for this pepper-pot. As a finale, mento singer and banjo player Carlton James from The Rod Dennis Mento Band joined the proceedings, and played an unidentified mento song. The dapperly attired Mr. James charmed and good spirits abounded on stage and in the audience.

“That’s a banjo!”, a beaming Monty exclaimed. The band and audience laughed. The electric bass simplified to emulate a rumba box. Dean Frasier jammed on soprano sax. Monty explained that he was playing the sound of a bamboo sax, “like Sugar Belly”. On cue, Dean played the refrain from Sugar’s hit, “Skokian”. A smiling Monty rubbed Dean’s considerable midriff, and proclaimed to the the
audience, “sugar belly!” Monty added piano and reggae melodica as Carlton lead the group in a mento “Three Little Birds”, as the audience danced and sang along. Nate Chinen writing a review of the show in The New York Times took note of Carlton as "an elder statesman of the Jamaican folk style called mento. Beginning 'Three Little Birds' by himself, Mr. James offered an unsweetened, intoxicating taste of that tradition".

This was the first time rural mento was performed in Manhattan since – ever?! Not to mention combining rural mento, reggae and jazz into one sound.
 

    It was an exceptional night of musical excellence and positive vibes. Musicians of the highest caliber respectfully played a tapestry of Jamaican music styles that spanned more than 100 years. There should be more shows like this!

In March of 2008, Monty Alexander did it again, staging 4 performances of a show called "Lords of The West Indies" at Jazz At Lincoln Center in NYC. It had jazz, calypso-jazz, mento-jazz, reggae-jazz, acoustic rural mento (small combo and big band), and jazz renditions of Bob Marley music. It was an ambitious show and its ambitions were fully realized.

First, the concert goers were entertained pre-show in the lobby by a pan (steel drum) player and by a quartet of nyabinghi drummers called Ancient Vibrations. As you can see in photo below, Cedric Im Brooks would sit in, while Carlton James looked on. Brooks would later jam with his saxophone.

 

 

Monty opened with his trio and included a jazz-mento rendition of "Mango Walk". A reggae-jazz rendition of "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown" with Monty moving from melodica to piano excited the audience. Calypso performers joined the stage for a calypso set. Some songs performed would be familiar to a mento, such as Lord Kitchener's "Love In The Cemetery" (a song covered in mento and reggae) and "Bebop Calypso" (a video of Lord Flea covering this song is on this site).

Then came a mento set that began with "Nobody's Business", performed by (left to right), Joseph "Powda" Bennett of The Jolly Boys on lead vocals, maracas and dancing, Pluto Shervington on guitar, Albert "Calypso John" Morgan of The Happy Smilers on rumba box and backing vocals, and Carlton "Blackie" James of the Rod Dennis Mento Band  on banjo and some lead vocals. This was well received by the audience, but when the septuagenarian Powda began to dance, he stole the show. Additional musicians
supplemented the quartet for the next song, a mento-jazz rendition of Sly Mongoose: a horn section consisting of Cedric Im Brooks on sax and Dean Fraser on alto sax, Pluto Shevington on acoustic guitar Desmond Jones of Chalice on drums and Monty on piano. Not one to leave an audience  wanting, Powda broke into dance several times, delighting the crowd each time. At one point, Monty ran up and held his microphone to Powda's feet! Next they performed a wonderful version of "Salt Lane Girl". And if you thought you heard all you need to from "Day-O", the version performed here would change your mind and leave you wanting more. Monty's jazz band joins in, creating a big band. At points, the instrumental theme from "Rukumbine" worked in by the saxes and Monte on melodica.

The calypso musicians joined and the band now numbering fifteen played "Mary Ann". As an encore, Monty closed with a pair of Bob Marley songs, Redemption Song and No Woman, No Cry, done in jazz, with Dean Frasier sitting in. 

Monty Alexander must be recognized as the single artist that most appreciates, demonstrates and celebrates the breadth of and relationships between the different forms of music indigenous to and otherwise enjoyed in Jamaica.

This show will be eventually broadcast on the BET J network. Information will be posted when available.

Also see:

 

email me at:
mike@mentomusic.com

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