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Musician Jeremy Monteiro talks about his career and latest venture Simply Jazz KL

Jul 08, 2023

Acclaimed Singaporean jazz pianist, Jeremy Monteiro (Photo: Zahid Izzani Mohd Said/ The Edge Malaysia)

It was in July this year that Jeremy Monteiro celebrated 45 years of being a professional jazz musician with an impressive concert at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore. "Everyone said ‘Wow, amazing to see so many artists’ and I realised that actually, this was only 5% of my total number of collaborations in 45 years," he says. Not many can claim to have the wealth of experience and impressive track record he has.

Somewhat of a prodigy, Monteiro began playing the piano at the age of seven. His home was often filled with music. "And then at 14, I remember listening to a famous harmonica player, probably the best in the world, by the name of Toots Thielemans. It was a Quincy Jones album with Toots playing a track as guest. My mum asked, ‘Why are you standing in the middle of the living room and crying?’ And I said I had never heard anything more beautiful in my life. I decided there and then I wanted to become a musician," he explains. The song in question? Brown Ballad.

In November 1976, 16-year-old Monteiro got his first professional gig at Club 392 in Singapore, where he was both pianist and band leader.

In his career, he has written over 700 jingles, some national songs, as well as composed numerous pop albums. Fast forward to the present, it is clear that the jazz artist refuses to slow down. Next year, he celebrates 15 years of being EFG Bank's International Arts Ambassador with a Christmas jazz concert. Monteiro is also the executive director and music director at charity Jazz Association (Singapore). The other half of his time is spent running Showtime Productions Pte Ltd, which has been around since the late 1980s.

"All this takes up my performing career. I still practise for an hour and a half, five days a week, to maintain my pianistic abilities. I cannot afford to let it go away because it's my core and if I lose that, I feel nothing else means anything," he adds.

The Lion City's "King of Swing" is even doing a research paper with the National University of Singapore to document "empirical and anecdotal evidence that jazz promotes heuristic thinking which opens up synapses in the brain". If the research is successful, he may go on to achieve a masters of science in psychology. "I am 62 now and actually learning to say ‘no’ more often. Sometimes, I am asked to open a film festival but I need to be selective, not because I’m not interested in that film; I am super interested, but I really need to just nap," Monteiro quips.

It was early in his career when this propeller-setter (what he humorously calls himself because he has no jet) learnt the importance of balance and finding time to rest. "In the 1980s, I once was hospitalised for four days due to exhaustion. I was so bad, not just mentally but physically as well. The doctor told me: you have almost zero resistance. Catch any virus or bacteria and it will fell you, if not kill you. So I was in the hospital for four days and then home to rest for two weeks. After, I went on holiday to the Gold Coast," Monteiro says.

He even recalls a moment during the trip when his wife asked if he would like to go to a jazz show. Monteiro shockingly said he could not stand the sound of music. "That was how bad and far gone I was. Since then, I told myself to always watch the amber lights, to not allow myself to get too tired, hungry or angry. And always have enough rest."

A new jazz lounge

The Covid-19 pandemic had made it very difficult for performers to make a living, and while the Jazz Association set up a crisis fund to help them, Monteiro felt like there was more he could do. "When we opened Simply Jazz in Singapore, what we wanted — and in fact across all of my partner's other outlets — was to give local musicians appointments and gigs again. So, largely, we used all the local musicians at first," he says.

Simply Jazz is a live music lounge brought to life by Monteiro and the owner of Tin Box Group, Adrian Leong. The two met over 10 years ago when Leong was based in China and would invite Monteiro to Chengdu for performances. While the Tin Box Group has other live music outlets — Simply Retro by Tin Box has five outlets in Singapore, each offering a different genre — the Simply Jazz branch has Monteiro as its lead partner and musical director.

Although there was much excitement over the opening of the Singapore lounge, things got off to a rocky start. "It was Nov 21, 2021. I remember the date specifically because it was the soft opening on Friday and Saturday. I went home, switched on CNN and the announcement about Omicron came on. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’" Singapore only allowed live music performances to resume from April this year.

What helped sustain the new space was, surprisingly, the food. Patrons were still able to indulge in the sumptuous and diverse menu, which features wagyu beef, pizza, and even dishes like Johor Baru-style chao ta bee hoon. Finally, when musicians were allowed to take to the stage again, Simply Jazz did so well that it moved to a new location (in Chijmes) to increase its capacity to about 80.

Tin Box has now brought its series of live music lounges across the Causeway to Hive at Trec KL. "As Trec is the largest entertainment hub and F&B hangout in the heart of KL, we would like to bring forth and mirror the live experiences we offer in Singapore to a central location that shares similar offerings to the public in KL," explains Zolyn Low, group general manager of Tin Box Group. The corner lot location includes Simply Jazz, Simply Retro and Simply Live.

Monteiro has a very specific vision for the Malaysian branch of Simply Jazz. "I have played all over the world in all kinds of locations, everything from hole-in-the-wall clubs in Washington DC, in the ghetto, to a 7,000-seat hall in Tokyo, and all points in between. That's the beauty of being a jazz musician. A rock musician wgho has some kind of notoriety won't play in a little club, but jazz musicians will play anywhere you ask us to … In Malaysia, you have the listening room model, but I prefer this jazz lounge to be the sort of place where you are able to eat, drink, chat with friends while listening to music," he says.

This model encourages those who are on the fence about jazz to also come enjoy a meal, and give it a chance. Much like its Singaporean counterpart, the local lounge has a classic, stripped-back aesthetic and the walls are adorned with posters of local jazz legends like Alfonso Soliano, as well as international doyens, such as Charlie Parker, in tribute to their influence.

Monteiro has roped in Malaysian jazz composer Michael Veerapen to curate the lineup of live musicians at Simply Jazz in Trec. "With Simply Jazz, we’re doing something new, which is actually something old," Veerapen says. "After the MCO, a lot of places to play in KL required people to purchase tickets before entering. It's quite successful with venues like Bobo and Jao Tim, and this has engendered a lot of opportunities for many different acts to play during the same week. But Simply Jazz has a resident band concept. A lot of musicians are happy about it, because suddenly, instead of getting a share of the ticket sales, which could be quite bad, they are now issued a fixed fee."

Guests can look forward to Veerapen performing there at least 12 nights a month.

Despite the pandemic, he does feel the local jazz scene is slowly building up. "If you don't define jazz too literally, if you take it to mean live music with a jazzy accent, then I think [the scene] is very vibrant. We have many jazz clubs and I’ve heard more are coming up, so it's thriving in the ‘jazz’ live music sense. So we are very happy about that," he says.

The new Simply Jazz soft launched on Nov 11 and 12 to work out the kinks and for band members to get a proper feel of the space. It is set to officially open on Nov 23. Once the lounge has found its sea legs, Monteiro and Veerapen will focus on bringing in established acts, both local and international.

Monteiro hopes that more and more people will begin to appreciate the nuances of this musical genre the way he does. "I love improvising. I love being able to play the same song, five nights a week and have it sound a little different every time or sometimes vastly different. To me, that's the magic of jazz. The three components are improvisation, swing, and the blues. If you have those three, with the rojak done nicely, it's just wonderful to play. " And equally wonderful to listen to, we might add.

This article first appeared on Nov 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

A new jazz lounge