Behind The Byline: Life Lessons With Jeremy Monteiro
Jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro’s new book, a collection of 80 essays, has a distinctly musical rhythm. He returns to a few main themes: his passion for music, the joys and challenges of pursuing a creative profession, and musings on life. Linking these topics is a style that’s freewheeling and improvisational, as if he’s following his thoughts wherever they want to lead him.
Spontaneity, it appears, is pretty important to him—he even declined advance questions for this interview because he didn’t want to sound scripted. We speak to Jeremy on the phone while he’s in Shanghai for a gig, and begin our wholly unscripted conversation by asking if he used music to help set the mood when he was writing the book. “No, I always wrote in complete quiet,” he replies. Since he’s a professional musician, he explains, “it’d be hard for me to have music in the background. I’d pay too much attention to it”.
Music did influence his writing in one way though. When he was younger, “I used to have all these excuses when I was trying to write music”, Jeremy says. “I needed to go to the beach, see the sunset, or have a nice room—all these external things. But I realised eventually that inspiration doesn’t come just because you have these things. You have to go into the room and start the work. Creativity comes out of stillness.”
He applied the same discipline to this writing project, which stemmed from friends encouraging him to turn his Facebook musings into a book. When he wasn’t writing in the deep stillness of the wee hours, he would often steal a few minutes of time in the midst of busy days to tap away on his smartphone.
One striking aspect of the book features a lot of pragmatic advice for young musicians, with Jeremy offering no-nonsense assessments of the tough landscape for those who want to go professional. “The average rate for playing a gig hasn’t gone up for 25 years, but the cost of living has,” he replies when we ask why he was so candid. “Some who play at a very high level will make it, but for others who need more time, my advice is, ‘Don’t do this right away’. Find another way to make a living and balance that with pursuing music.”
Pragmatism, of course, doesn’t mean his passion for growing Singapore’s jazz scene has dimmed in the least. In his book, Jeremy advocates for the teaching of jazz in school music programmes because he believes the genre helps youths learn how to work as a team. “Classical music is like a dictatorship, jazz is more democratic,” he elaborates with a laugh. “Sometimes you lead, sometimes you let others lead. It’s more collaborative.” Happily, he reveals, recent conversations with policymakers and educators indicate that such initiatives are in the works.
In the meantime, Jeremy’s music-making continues. On December 22, he headlines the long-running Jazzy Christmas concert at the Esplanade. He’s also planning more books, including a novel and an autobiography, now that he’s found a groove as an author. “The heavens have opened up, and I don’t want to spurn such gifts.”
Jeremy Monteiro: Late-Night Thoughts of a Jazz Musician is available at Marshall Cavendish and leading bookstores.
This story was first published in Singapore Tatler December 2018.