His key to a better life is the keyboard Pianist: A lifetime later, a once-young jazzman finally listens to his muse. You can hear the resulting compositions Sunday.


He'll never play piano like his idols. He doesn't have what you'd call a great voice. So what is John Alexander Jr. doing giving a concert Sunday afternoon at Light Street Presbyterian Church?

There's a simple answer, but it takes some getting to. A man's whole lifetime, really. Have a listen.

John Alexander Jr. is 67 years old. Two lifetimes ago, he was a young jazz man, jamming at the Eagle Lounge, at Martick's, all the bars that used to be on Charles Street between Preston and Mount Royal. He had a high time trying to imitate his idols -- Thelonious Monk, James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington. In the late 1940s and early '50s, he ran around with be-bop musicians.

"A lot of it had to do with a common interest in psycho-active drugs," Alexander says easily, as if he were talking about someone else.

He gave up music to study law at the University of Maryland. No sense hanging out and playing when you don't have the chops to be a star, he figured. He married, started a family. Ten years of malpractice work in his father's firm ended when he became a divorce lawyer.

He made a good living in the world of broken hearts, fighting for houses, money, children. He wishes he still had a Baltimore magazine picture from those days: John D. Alexander, "lord of the realm" in his World Trade Center office, decked out in a de rigueur three-piece suit, bow tie, standard-issue black shoes.

"I made Ken Starr look funky," he says, laughing. "Yeah, it makes me laugh."

He wore a lot of emotional armor in those days. In his words, he was "childish, emotionally sensitive, grandiose and judgmental." He seems none of that now. He's the same height and weight he's always been: 5-foot-4, 130 pounds. But he is soft-spoken, thoughtful.

"How did I change? How to put it," he says, pausing, thinking, pacing back and forth in his South Baltimore home. "I mean, it would be easy to say that I stopped drinking and drugging. I went to AA. I still go to AA."

He started his recovery 18 years ago. Over time, he took a more spiritual look at life, though he never became a devout church-goer. He still played piano, but he had not yet learned to listen to his own muse. That changed after a minor stroke. No longer could he play stride piano, a physically demanding style requiring a strong and nimble left hand. He lost stride, but gained a new way of playing.

"I stopped trying to play like Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller or TTC Count Basie," says Alexander. "I started trying to play what was in my head."

He started composing, finding music in his own world. One song took him back to his childhood and memories of Maggie, a black maid who worked for the family when Alexander was a child in Reservoir Hill.

"I can remember her holding me, sitting me on the windowsill with my feet dangling out, singing me comforting songs," he says. "And in that lonely, dark house, that was sunshine."

Maggie's music stayed with him. "Alley Street" is dedicated to her. In it he tries to paint a sound portrait of life on one of the narrow side streets off Pennsylvania Avenue where Maggie lived. The song begins with early morning, 5 a.m.

"Working black people are about to rise, and the cat is the first up," he narrates as he sits down at his electronic keyboard and begins with a few bass notes bumping along. That's the alley cat jumping from rooftop to doorstep to street. Alexander moves from the moody minor key into the major.

"Yeah!" he says, exulting in the music, body moving to his own, swinging internal metronome.

Nearly 40 years after his jazz age, music has again become his meditation. His wife, Joyce, died two years ago. He is alone. He spends some of his time making chairs and teaching others the styles found in Appalachia and handed down from the 17th century. And then there is the music, his music.

He will share it with whomever will listen. There will be no virtuosic keyboard interpretations at Light Street Presbyterian Sunday afternoon. Rather, Alexander and his partner, Harlan James, will offer something more akin to end-of-the-night ballads, the last cigarette and sip of scotch before the bartender turns up the lights.

It will be the personal music of a man of modest talent. A man who needed a lifetime to understand that even a modest talent can be treasured.

"I've learned that performing and entertaining is a precious gift and that the task is not to entertain, the task is to get inside the music and hear the tones relate to each other," he says.

"The relationship between those tones can be as important and as precious as the relationship between a person and God, or two people, or any group of people. And when I can participate in that I am useful."

Jazz piano

What: John Alexander and Harlan James performing a double-piano program of jazz "standards and surprises"

Where: Light Street Presbyterian, 809 Light St.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 539-0125

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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