Brian (Bassie) Atkinson
Leader: Soul Vendors
Rolando Alphonso 1931-1998:
A Remembrance of The Chief Musician...
written by: Brian Keyo, www.skatalites.com .
It's not easy to assess a life in music such that Rolando lived. His career spanned 50 years,
and he was one of the first musicians to record in Jamaica. When Roland started in 1948,
Mento was the only Jamaican music. Largely a country pastime, it was the province of buskers
who'd play at parties and often to cruise ships for spare change. Remember that this was before
there were any electric instruments. It was a time when Louise Bennett was writing patois poetry
lamenting the departure of the trams [street cars]. She suggested "Buy A Tram", reasoning that,
"We fortune done meck ef we put We tram pon East Street line!"
There were but a handful of bands in Jamaica in the forties when the tram was replaced by the bus
on East Street. All of those bands were based at hotels and played foreign music, and if musicians
weren't in one of those outfits, they had a warm time. That means it wasn't easy to hustle for
country gigs and play for 2 or 3 shillings a night at the "Coney Islands" around Kingston, like
Dodge City in Jonestown or the Crown & Anchor on Bond Street.
It was that music scene of the late forties and its limited opportunities that prompted
Jamaica's first generation horn men, tenor Bertie King, altoist Joe Harriot and trumpeter
Roy Burrowes, to leave for England and America. Now, however the Jamaican music scene
has grown into an industry that employs hundreds. There are literally dozens of recording
studios in Kingston and Jamaica has the world's highest per capita output of music.
Those considerations will take you to Rolando Alphonso. Roland's flavor was one of the
first tastes of the emerging nations' musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped
Jamaican music at its "Boogie Shuffle" inception, and into and through Ska, Rock
Steady and Reggae. As one of the country's most recorded musicians, his instrumentals
and solos can be heard on thousands of recordings, and he was a member of over a
dozen bands while leading a half dozen more. The most famous were The Skatalites.
As a member, Roland played in Jamaica, Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, in over 40
American states and even the Indian Ocean island of Reunion!
The musical component of this package surveys Roland's work for producer Clement
Seymour Dodd during his most prolific years, 1958 to 1968. Roland was the best
supporting actor in Dodd's musical cast, and played on more Studio One recordings
than only Jackie Mittoo. The remembrance that follows seeks to go beyond the music
to describe the life of the man behind the horn. What was Roland like as a person?
Well, as he often said, after his stroke at age 41, he was a changed man. He became
deeply religious and he struggled with the aftereffects of stroke. But he never let
that limit, in any way, what he wanted to do. It was inspiring to see the way the
man lived. Roland was dedicated to his family and to his music, and loved nothing
better than to play, talk about or listen to music, particularly Jazz. "It's Jazz
I was playing before the Jamaican sound," was a common observation of his.
One of Roland's greatest pleasures was to hear and feel the applause after he
uncorked a solo. Whether on record or in concert, the music he made swings,
pulsates and sparkles as did his horn, his heart and his eyes. This is what I
know about my friend Rolando, and I hope it helps everyone come to love him as
his family and friends did.
The 30's & 40's
Roland was born on January 12, 1931, in Havana, Cuba to his Jamaican mother,
Gertrude Russell, and his Cuban father, Bernardo Alphonso. According to Roland, he
returned to Jamaica with his mother when he was 2 and lived first in the Parish of
St. Ann. He left St. Ann around the age of 5 and went to Kingston where he lived with
his grandmother, Mrs. Lewin. After a few years, she and Roland's mother decided that
he should go to a school where he could board. So Roland was started at the Stony Hill
Industrial School, where he also received his first musical instruction.
Roland was the only Skatalite who attended Stony Hill and is often mistakenly taken
for an "old boy" or alumni of the Alpha School, which is where four Skatalites were
His first instrument was the side drums, which he began playing in 1941 at the age of
10. According to Mickey O'Bryan, bandleader and journalist, who was a class and
bandmate of Roland at Stony Hill, "Roland was taught by a senior boy, Cummings,
and he got quite professional on drums before he switched to saxophone."
He played drums for nearly three years before asking his mother to ask the bandmaster,
"please to put my son on saxophone." The master complied, but only after first trying
Rolando out on trumpet. The Stony Hill school band played overtures, strolls, waltzes
and dead marches. The latter was played on at least one memorable occasion when,
according to Roland, a classmate climbed an electric post near the schoolyard and
fell to his death, electrocuted!
The first sax that Roland owned was an alto purchased for him by his mother at
Montague's Musicke store on Tower Street in Kingston for 25 pounds, a considerable
sum in those days. Roland told of how future bandleader Sonny Bradshaw was working
at the store then and he wrapped up the sax. Also, of how Mr. Montague made it loud
and clear to the teenager (15) that he had better appreciate, "how kind your mother
is to you, to buy such a saxophone for you." Montague's was the only place in
Kingston where sheet music with orchestrations and Jazz could be purchased in
the forties, according to Roland.
Illinois Jacquet was the sax player that Roland cited as his first influence.
Later on, he grew to deeply appreciate John Coltrane, calling him "the master for
the century with the saxophone. He get gifts from the master and that man inspire
me a whole lot man. He let me know that saxophone can be played man, it depends on
how you take it".
It was around his 17th birthday, in January 1948, that Roland left Stony Hill for
his big break, an offer to play with the vaunted Orchestra of Eric Deans.
However, he departed Deans band after a few months, explaining to me that,
"Eric Deans treat me like a child man, and it was six nights a week for small money.
So I left him and went to play with Redver Cooke's band. Redver used to steal Dean's
band all the time, regularly." Cooke was a drummer and bandleader with a hotel
engagement in Montego Bay.
Soon after leaving Redver Cooke's aggregation, Roland began playing with Willie
Nelson's band. A year or so after that, he was with Roy Coburn, and then the bands
of Cyril Beckford, Baba Motta, Sonny Bradshaw and Val Bennett, not necessarily in
that order. Also, he alternated between tenor and alto, depending on the needs of
the group. For instance, in Coburn's legendary Blu-Flames Orchestra, Rolando
played alto in a section with Bobby Gaynair and Coburn. The Blu-Flames also
included future Skatalites Tommy McCook and Don Drummond.
Hermine Alphonso, widow of Roland, recalls that when he started with Cyril Beckford,
"he asked Rollie to play tenor as he already had an altoist. That was his start on
tenor." Of course, there were other gigs such as backing comedians Bim and Bam on
stage at various theatres and playing in the house band at The Metropolitan Hall.
Roland's talents were also utilized by foreign artists visiting the island, who
wanted a big band but weren't willing to fly down their orchestras. According to
Roland, Sarah Vaughan brought a rhythm trio and augmented it with a Jamaican brass
section for seven or so shows at the Regal Theatre.
The first recordings that Roland participated in were as a member of a hotel band.
He was likely playing with Baba Motta's group that was in residence at the Myrtle
Bank Hotel in Kingston when he first heard himself on a soft wax, an early form of
record also known as an acetate. That was also around the time that Lester Sterling
first met Roland. As the bebop altoist related in his inimitable fashion, "When I
first met Roland? Oh, that was in, let me see, in 1954. He was in Baba Motta's band."
Baba's group recorded at his elder brother Stanley Motta's "studio" on a one track
board, starting in 1952. Stanley must have liked Rollie's work as he used him on
recordings he made of calypsonians such as Young Kitchener, Count Lasher, Lord Flea
and Lord Fly. For instance, Roland is featured as a soloist and also plays the intro
and ending on "Reincarnation", as sung by Young Kitchener and included on the seminal
LP Authentic Jamaican Calypsos, released on Motta's MRS label.
Roland was making waves on the Jazz scene in Kingston by the time he performed in the
Big Band All Stars concerts first organized by Sonny Bradshaw and Lloyd Adams in 1954.
On December 11, 1957 Roland played at the Carib Theatre in the Jazz All Stars 3rd
annual concert. He was a featured soloist on two numbers in Section 1, "Big Band
Sounds". Both solos were in compositions by Woody Herman. In Section 2 "The Combo
Sounds", Roland played with the Baba Motta Sextet. His write-up in the program
reads, "Roland Alphonso's work is so well known that very little need be said
about him, he can speak for himself. He's about the most fluent saxman on the
local Jazz scene, and certainly an asset to the Baba Motta Septet." That type of
regard among the Jazz cognoscenti in Kingston certainly gave him an edge in the
fledgling recording scene that was starting at Federal Records under the engineering
of Australian Graeme Goodall.
Mr. Clement "Coxson" Dodd did not mince words in an interview speaking about his
start. "I first went into the studio with Roland Alphonso- Federal Records owned by
Ken Khouri. That was in 1956," according to Mr. Dodd, which was when he first cut
material for play on his Downbeat sound system. Unfortunately, that session's tapes
were lost on their way to get mastered. "It was Bell's Studio in New York we sent
them to, on Long Island I think. They never came back," Sir D recalls. [Bell Sound
Studios were on West 57th in New York City] All agree that Roland's first recordings
for Dodd were made with Cluett Johnson and his Blues Blasters.
The Blues Blasters started by backing the first vocalists to record for Dodd,
Jackie Estick and Theophilus "Easy Snapping" Beckford. Roland soon became a regular
with the Blasters, playing tenor on many of Dodd's early sessions at Khouri's
Federal Records studio. However, Dodd recently said it was not only Roland on tenor
with Clue J. "I came up with the Blues Blasters name and that was a recording band.
Is not only Roland on tenor, Sammy Ismay is the soloist on 'Shuffling Jug' and 'Cane Juice'
and others. Dennis Campbell was contracted to me from then too. Although he was not
too great a soloist." Dennis "Ska" Campbell was however the consummate section man.
Roland explained to me that it was several years after he cut at Stanley Motta's when
he first made a record designed for local consumption. "I was working at Tower Isle
Hotel and the band went to Khouri's studio [Federal] to make a recording for the hotel.
After we were finished, Coxson come inna the studio and say Roland, man you have to
do something for I, cause we're starting up Jamaica's sound. Then after he say that,
'Four Corners' just come into my head and I blew it right away. I name it as I want
it to be heard, 'Four Corners of The World'."
That's not quite right according to Mr. Dodd. "Roland's memory could get shaky
sometimes. About 100 tune after Roland started cutting for me he did 'Four Corners'".
It was likely 1958 when Roland and the Blues Blasters cut the earliest track chosen
for this set, 'Proof Rum'. 'Hully Gully Rock' is likely from 1959. Both exemplify
what's known in Jamaican parlance as "Boogie-Shuffles." Derivative of the wailing
sax and dance beat that was proffered on so many platters out of New Orleans studios
and devoured by Jamaican dance fans, "Proof Rum" projects Roland in a role that his
inspiration, Illinois Jacquet, often played. Honking his horn, he leads the band
into and then out of a bluesy romp that's spiced by hot solos. "Hully Gully Rock,"
while similarly showcasing the soloists, is done at a distinctly Jamaican tempo.
Continued ... next page