You are one of Singapore’s most iconic jazz musicians. Tell us about your first steps as a musician.
I started learning Classical piano since I was six years old in 1966. I started to get interested in jazz when I turned 14 in 1974. My dad was a Mobil oil executive but he played jazz guitar and had a great selection of jazz guitar records. He often had jam sessions with his friends at home and so in a sense, he inspired me to become a jazz musician.
After my O levels, I worked as a solo pianist and organist at the now defunct “Country Club” hotel in East Coast Road and in early 1975, I went for an audition to be a pianist at Club 392. The owner, Mr AJ Isaac hired me as a pianist and bandleader. My musicians were in their 30s and 40s at the time.
A writer in Hong Kong once described your style as “a mix of Ravel and the Blues”. Would you agree with this statement?
That’s actually quite an accurate description. I love the French Impressionistic harmonies including that of Ravel. And I love the Blues. So somehow how I synthesised that and came up with a style which also combined some Bebop licks and even some Country and Western stylistic touches.
When was the Jazz Association (Singapore) (JASS) created, and can you share with us about its mission and what has been achieved so far?
JASS was formed in 2016. We set out to help raise the level of excellence in jazz in Singapore. We also aim to grow our audience, work closely in developing our youths through mentorship like the “Lion City Youth Jazz Festival”. The scholarship programme that we have enables those interested in pursuing jazz the means to kickstart their professional study. Other activities that we are participating in include projects with children with auction, Down’s syndrome and cultural diplomacy efforts. Our main orchestra JASSO has performed in the US, China, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Thailand.
Since Covid-19, we have continued our cultural diplomacy works through our online presentations, which has seen our online shows attain hundreds of thousands of views from all over the world.
We added a new pillar to our work in 2020, the JASS Crisis Fund to help jazz musicians in financial distress through Covid-19 and beyond, with short term financial aid.
What will be the highlights of the JASS Benefit Gala Dinner on 31 July 2022?
We are excited about our upcoming gala. We will be the first arts company to hold a full-fledged in-person gala with a full big band since the easing of our Covid-19 measures.
The theme of our gala is “Swing It!” and we are looking forward to playing some swinging jazz standards with the Jazz Association Singapore Orchestra (JASSO) and our special featured guest artists Nathan Hartono and Joanna Dong.
Our gala night will also be a triple celebration where we celebrate Jeremy Monteiro’s 45th career anniversary, the 121st birthday of jazz legend and father of modern jazz, Loui Armstrong and JASS’ upcoming 6th anniversary.
This year’s gala will be a night to remember.
What are the main avenues of work for JASS in the coming five years?
One of the main aspects of our artmaking work will be developing an amalgamation of the instruments and music of our Asian heritage with jazz to try and create a truly unique style of music.
Of course we will continue our work in promoting jazz as one of the mainstream genres, but we are excited about this new offshoot.
On the community work front, we intend to do our “Jazz for Kids” and “Jazz for Seniors” programmes and to reach out to the communities and bring jazz to the neighbourhoods as well.
We also want to make jazz accessible and inclusive and will continue our partnership with ART:DIS (previously known as Very Special Arts).
From teenagers to seniors, is it easy in Singapore to find suitable jazz classes or a jazz academy?
Currently, jazz is an elective subject for the O Levels and I notice that jazz is also been infused into the general syllabus for primary and secondary schools. One can also study for a degree in jazz studies at LASALLE College of the Arts.
There are also many music teachers who teach jazz privately for those interested to learn how to play it privately.
JASS as we are known by our acronym also conducts jazz appreciation talks for the public as well as professional talks like our “Jazz improvisation for Classical Musicians” to help demystify jazz for classical musicians.
How are you reaching to new audiences? What is currently being done to get the younger generation to appreciate jazz?
Even before JASS was formed, it was amazing to see young musicians in their teens develop an interest in straightahead jazz and attain very impressive levels.
Both the Singapore Polytechnic and the National University Jazz clubs have become a hotbed of jazz activity and some of the younger ones from a few years ago have now become serious professional level jazz musicians. One of them is Sean Hong Wei, who we first had in the youth orchestra when he was 17. Now at 23, he plays as the lead alto player in both the main and youth orchestras in JASSO and JASSYO!
Another leader of the youth jazz movement is Aaron James Lee, one of our current JASS scholars studying towards a jazz degree at LASALLE and is already one of the top call jazz drummers in Singapore.
What are your favourite places to listen to Jazz in Singapore?
Currently, there are two main jazz clubs in Singapore but live music has not been allowed for more than two years already because of the pandemic. One is Maduro on Dempsey Hill, and the other is Simply Jazz, a jazz club I opened at CHIJMES in November 2021 with the Tinbox Group. Before Covid-19, there were also other clubs like Blu Jazz that was a favourite for the youth musicians.
Tell us more about this exciting collab you recently participated in, “re:Sound Collective”?
The collaboration that I did with re:Sound Collective was indeed a special one for me. In 1991, I won a Silver Medal for Best Music Score at the International Radio Festival of New York. After that, I moved away from writing large ensemble works to concentrate on being a jazz pianist.
In the last 10 years, I have been hearing the siren call to go back to writing large ensemble music so about two years ago, I decided to start writing symphonic jazz works again and help in catalysing the Symphonic Jazz movement in Singapore.
The concert with re:Sound Collective gave me an opportunity to write and perform my orchestral works. I had been writing these compositions for the past two years so it was wonderful to see it come to life with the magnificent re:Sound Collective orchestra.
You have also been busy with the opening of Simply Jazz at Chijmes in 2021. What is the concept behind the club and why has it become the go-to place for jazz lovers?
Simply Jazz has the best of both worlds — a great chef with a menu that would excite the well-travelled Singapore palette as well as a really exciting jazz atmosphere. With a live jazz band playing almost every night, Simply Jazz has become one of the go-to places for jazz in Singapore.
If you were to name one person or musician who has influenced you greatly for your love of Jazz, who would that be?
I’m afraid it’s not one person but three. One is my mentor and godfather of Singapore jazz Louis Soliano, who remains active at 79; the two-time Grammy award-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts with whom I have been making music with since 1987 with more than a hundred shows since then. I have also written more than 10 pieces with Ernie that have appeared on both his albums and mine.
Finally, the late great Grammy award-winning bassist Eldee Young was my best friend and I had a group with him together with Grammy winning drummer Redd Holt from 1986 until 2007 when Eldee passed away. Together as “Monteiro, Young and Holt”, we played on the main stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival, which the late founder Claude Nobs called one of the great concerts in the first 22 years of Montreux.
For more culture reads, click here.