5 Minutes With... Jeremy Monteiro
This coming Friday, November 24, the Jazz Association Singapore (JASS) will be hosting its inaugural charity event at the Ella 100, Jazz Forever Benefit Gala Dinner.
Established by Jeremy Monteiro along with music lovers Susan Peh and Albert Chiu, JASS aims to educate audiences about this music genre that originated in New Orleans, and also support two orchestras—a main orchestra and one youth wing—that will perform at major events.
For Singapore’s King of Swing Monteiro, who is a jazz singer, pianist, composer and educator, this cause is close to his heart. He tells us more about the perception of jazz in Singapore, and the cause that JASS supports.
What are some of the common misconceptions about jazz in Singapore?
Jeremy Monteiro (JM) Well, a lot of people still view jazz as some sort of esoteric, elitist music. They don’t know that actually, they listen to jazz all the time—the soundtracks in movies that they watch, whenever they walk into a Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, there’s jazz playing in the background… And even when they go to university, there’s the NUS Jazz Band, so jazz is actually all around for young people, and more and more are taking interest in it.
People tend to say they don’t like something because they don’t know it. So once they are made aware, they’re like… “yeah, sure, I heard this before. Is that really a jazz song?” I mean, Fly Me to The Moon is a jazz song!
Tell us about the Jazz Association Singapore.
JM Eight years ago, I wanted to form a Singapore jazz orchestra. At that point, I spoke to then-senior minister Professor S Jayakumar, who was introduced to me by Singapore ambassador-at-large professor Tommy Koh. At first, Prof. Jayakumar was a little concerned; he didn’t feel that we needed another elitist orchestra. When I told him how socially mobile this orchestra wants to be, he very quickly agreed to be the orchestra’s patron.
However, I could not raise the needed funds back then to run in as a semi-professional orchestra. Even the Singapore Chinese Orchestra started as a semi-professional orchestra before it became fully professional! I thought we’d start modestly, but anyway, I had to abandon the idea. But then three to four years ago, I started thinking: why don’t I form an association that helps to educate the public about what jazz is about, and at the time, it could be a crucible to form two orchestras: the main orchestra I wanted to form eight years ago, as well as young wing. Because by that time, I started becoming more interested in making sure that jazz continues.
Right now, there’s one great musician who’s 75 years old, there’s me, and there are really good musicians in their late 30s, early 40s. There are not many below the age of 35. I was worried that if we don’t do something, then we might not have a good tailback in terms of musicians to succeed and come into the scene.
I already now see—and not just because of the efforts of the Jazz Association, but also by many others like the Singapore Polytechnic and the NUS Jazz Band—that there are many good jazz musicians, all way from 18 to 70 years old! So the future of jazz in Singapore is assured for some time… But what we want is to be something like a catalyst, an organiser, and to pull people’s efforts together.
We’ve also hosted jazz appreciation events, to let people know what jazz is. Later on, we also want to institute scholarships, bursaries and even mentorship programmes for young musicians.
That said, we cannot ignore the people mid-career as well, as there are many great artists—not just musicians—who produce great art in their 70s and so on, and they can be lonely and unsupported. So although we have a strong emphasis on the youth, at JASS we are mindful of those in their mid- and late-careers as well.
Are there any up and coming talents in the jazz industry that you could highlight?
JM Sure. One is a very, very young, talented drummer, his name is Aaron James Lee. He’s actually the son of the very famous Singaporean pop drummer Jimmy Lee. But he is just a talent to behold. I mean, he’s 21 now, playing at a level of many musicians in their mid-30s around the world. So, he’s someone to watch out for, and I’m sure he will go on and study and get even better.
Within the Singapore Polytechnic Band there’s a very young saxophone player whom I invite him to play with the main band on saxophone, his name is Sean Hong Wei. Then, there’s one great bass player, his name is Ben Poh. At the age of 26, he’s already among my favourite bass players to play with. He’s really amazing.
You have mentioned before that you want to add an Asian influence to the jazz scene here. Tell us more about that?
JM I have a band called Asiana—the first time we played was in 1992, when we opened for Simon & Garfunkel when they performed here. It consists of Indian, Chinese, Asian instruments including the Chinese flute, and the tabla, as well as Western instruments. So it has a distinct sort of hybrid, fusion sound. That’s what I want to do with the orchestra, because we have these instruments, is to commission music that would have never been anywhere else in the world.