One of the last local greats
John Alexander's fifty years of experience have shaped the history of jazz in Baltimore, his own music and his outlook on life.
He lived through the glory days of jazz, when Baltimore's scene was alive with promising young talent.
He played with the greats from Baltimore and beyond: vocalist Billie Holiday, guitarist Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and trumpet virtuoso Roy Eldridge, among others.
Now John Alexander is carrying on the tradition with his latest project, The Baltimore Jazz Trio. The pianist, vocalist and composer has been performing jazz since the 1950s, and his sound has been evolving since the first day he sat down to a keyboard, learning, he said, “by thump and aspiration.”
An exuberant character with a colorful vocabulary and an endless repertoire of stories, Alexander reminisced about the height of the jazz era and broke into an impromptu rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer.”
He fell in love with music as a young boy in Baltimore during the 1930s. He recalled the way his nanny, Maggie, would sing songs to soothe him and assuage his fear of heights.
A few years later Alexander heard a program on the radio called “Uncle Bill and Snowball,” in which a blind white man would perform in falsetto to mimic the voice of a young black boy. He was inspired by the man's spirit and the sound of the music.
“It just filled my loneliness,” Alexander said.
As a teenager he perused his sister's collection of swing records and kept company with legends such as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Alexander met some companions who were jazz musicians and developed an interest in performance. Though he was a self-professed “poor piano player,” he enjoyed the music and the atmosphere at his favorite neighborhood bar, Mardick's, where by the age of 26 he was playing professionally with his first group, the Southland Trio.
But then Alexander had an experience that steered his life in an entirely different direction. As he was lying in bed one morning, he heard a voice whispering to him. He recognized it as the voice of Snowball, the young boy from his favorite childhood radio program. The voice was telling him to go to law school. As puzzled as he was, Alexander immediately enrolled in the pre-law program at the University of Maryland in Annapolis, and essentially retired from performing.
Throughout his professional career as an attorney, Alexander never stopped playing music. He was determined to hone his skills on the piano. When his wife died in 1997, “it opened my heart,” Alexander said. He decided to play a memorial service at the Methodist Church on Light Street, supported by a college friend with whom he used to perform.
Alexander rediscovered his love for performance, and within a year, the Baltimore Jazz Trio had formed. The group's name seemed obvious, as Alexander has always lived and worked in Baltimore. “I have never moved more than four blocks,” he said.
But what he didn't realize was that the name would be a great marketing tool. The Trio is often hired for gigs by people searching the words “Baltimore” and “jazz” on the Internet. Alexander is pleased with the influence that the Internet has had on the growing popularity of jazz in Baltimore.
“Most of jazz in Baltimore just wasn't, and recently there's been this wonderful revival,” said Alexander, who largely credits Barry Glassman and the Baltimore Jazz Alliance for the genre's renaissance.
Alexander is accompanied by Gary Kerner on string bass and Phillip Butts on drums. He sang their praises as professionals who are capable of playing all kinds of music, although the band focuses on early New Orleans jazz, blues, ragtime, and swing.
“We rarely play a tune that was composed after 1928,” who Alexander, who mentioned some black folk songs that were popular as early as the 1850s. “Our selection is very eclectic but very old.”
The Trio likes to play a variety of venues and events, including garden parties, wedding receptions, store openings, and birthdays. Alexander also writes and performs his own music about life and its challenges. The creative outlet has been especially important, as the musician has recently been facing some health problems, including problems with his central nervous system, legal blindness and short-term memory loss.
But the best thing, Alexander said, is that the music hasn't changed.
“My band members support me incredibly and kindly,” Alexander said. “The music is better than ever.”
He has been making a conscious effort to play more slowly, more softly and more beautifully, and to enjoy every moment of his performing experience, and he hopes that his audience will, too.
“It's a rare person who relates to our music, but when they do, they deeply do,” Alexander said. “They understand that this is concerted music; we are not just blowing through our skulls.”
While he is happy to see his favorite music thriving in Baltimore, Alexander said that he would enjoy performing even if there was no scene.
“It is important to me that jazz thrives in me,” he said.
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