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Singapore and Jazz - what about it?

By Beverly Grafton

Photo by Russel Wong, Courtesy of Jeremy Monteiro

After a week of reliving my youth going through some of my favourite jazz tunes and sharing them with you, my dear readers, I realised some things. One was how little I knew about the jazz scene and its history here in Singapore and another was how little information there was about it all. So since I started this Journey into Jazz, I figured I might as well go a step further and embark on my own personal journey to learn about the world of Jazz in Singapore. My intent is that with the interviews I share and the knowledge I hope to gain over the next ten days with my posts, both you, my lovely readers and I, will gain a fresh perspective of a topic rarely discussed at length.

I pondered over where and how to start. But it wasn't until I started to write about the inimitable Jacintha Abishegenadan yesterday that I was able to find my starting point. You see, I had initially wanted to feature a video that had both Jacintha and our very own technical genius Jeremy Monteiro but it wasn't a jazz standard so I chose to keep it for next week. Then it hit me. Who better to ask about the jazz world here in Singapore than these two veterans?

So at the very last minute, I reached out to Jeremy and even though it was rushed, he did me a solid one and gave me the answers I needed. (Thank you again Jeremy!) I chose to approach Jeremy first because as one of the most successful musicians here in Singapore as well as a veteran, I felt that he has much to impart and also his opinion has grounding. Here's what he had to say.

Beverly Grafton (BG): What made you realise music was your calling?

Jeremy Monteiro (JM): Listening to Toots Thielemans on a Quincy Jones album in 1973. It was so beautiful that I knew I wanted to make music for a living after that. 30 years later, I played in concert together with Toots and achieved a dream come true.

BG: Did you have to face the same stigma many musicians face from relatives and peers telling you to get a real job when you were starting out?

JM: My Dad was doubtful at first but when he saw I was making decent money at age 21, he stopped being worried. Mum was for me all the way. I never faced stigma from extended family and in fact, everyone was so supportive.

BG: When did you make the decision to focus on Jazz and what transpired to bring you to that decision?

JM: I studied 8 years of classical piano until 1976 but I knew I wanted to play jazz from age 14.

However, even though my main thing is jazz and I have 45 solo albums, I haven't always focused on jazz. I have played on more than 300 pop albums from 1977 until the late 1990s and even received a Silver Medal from the International's Radio Festival of New York in 1991 for orchestral work in Classical-Folk. So although Jazz is my favourite genre to play and what the public knows me for, I do love all kinds of music and will play other genres than Jazz.

BG: What do you think of the local Jazz scene now and compared to back then?

JM: Many more great jazz musicians than back then. But a lot less venues and opportunities to work and earn a living. I do ok because of all the momentum I have built up, but I know it’s not easy for the younger ones.

BG: Do you believe we already have or will develop what we can uniquely call Singapore Jazz?

JM: Most local Jazz musicians want to sound like their New York heroes, both past and present. So, I don't think anyone is actively trying to forge a sound that is distinctly Singaporean as yet.

I think it will happen but it must happen naturally and without force or it may not come across as being sincere.

I do, however, have my own ethno-fusion group, Asiana, that's opened for Simon & Garfunkel and played at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. We still get together every once in awhile.

BG: What's the direction you foresee our scene taking in the near future as well as further down the line?

JM: Things will get worse before they get better. Covid-19 will really affect the Jazz scene for 2-3 years.

It was such an eye opener to learn all this about someone I've known my entire career but have only shared the stage with at rare jam sessions. Jeremy Monteiro is proof that being surrounded with good support, equipped with the ability to be versatile and having a passionate and positive mindset is a great recipe for success. Look out for my next post when I feature the fabulous Jacintha!


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