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Alpha Boys School - "A Musical Tradition" Part 2 of 2

by Rich Lowe

" Alpha Boys School Graduates"


Part 2 of 2


Rich Lowe (2007)




Educating the young men at Alpha Boys School is no easy task, but the outcome is youth with skills to survive wherever they may go in life.  Where music is concerned, discipline teaches Alpha students how to play an instrument, to read music, to compose music, and to arrange music.  Education is the key.  When a musician is taught to read and write music, the possibilities are limitless.  These great heights are expressed through accomplished musicians like Tommy McCook, Joe Harriott, and Don Drummond who are respected around the world for their musical genius.

The impact of Alpha is seen in the 1930's London, England music performances by Bertie King on clarinet and saxophone.  King worked with the Leslie Hutchinson Band in London - playing, writing, and arranging musical numbers.  King made his return to Jamaica in the late 1950s and formed the 14 piece Bertie King's Royal Jamaicans, playing as JBC Radio's studio band. Like Stanley Motta and Ken Khouri before him, King arranged for Jamaican music to be pressed onto 78 speed records in England by Decca Records.  Early 1950's Jamaican Mento music was recorded by Alpha graduate Babe O'Brien when he worked with George Moxey's band on tunes which were recorded at Stanley Motta's Studio.  Babe O'Brien also played with Moxey at The Silver Slipper Night Club in Kingston. 

Alto saxophone player Joe Harriott attended Alpha as a youth and traveled to England in 1951.  Three years after his arrival, Harriott recorded his first full length album as the Joe Harriott Quartet entitled "Cool Jazz with Joe."   On trumpet, Oscar Clarke first attended Alpha in 1914-15 and as an adult toured the U.S. with Jazz legend Louis Armstrong's orchestra.  Being that Clarke played the trumpet like Armstrong, it is likely that he was part of a large orchestra that utilized multiple instruments.   It is unclear as to if Clarke worked with Armstrong before or after the memorable visit of Louis Armstrong to Kingston in May of 1957.  Armstrong greeted thousands of Kingstonians that year when he played and sang at a free outdoor show.      

Alpha School overflows with graduates - many of which are not commonly known.  These graduates often worked as freelance musicians, but Alpha has also produced great singers - Alpha formed a Boys Choir in 1917. Owen Gray attended Alpha School as a youth continuing his singing as a tenor at church. Desmond Dekker attended Alpha after his mother passed away and his father desired a proper education for his son.  Soon after graduation, Desmond was auditioning at Coxsone Dodd's Studio One.  Other students include Winston Francis, Tony Gregory, Johnny Osbourne, and even Yellowman. 

One of the most influential graduates of Alpha is Thomas Mathew McCook.  McCook became interested in the saxophone after he saw his brother Frank playing.  In response, his mother who worked at The Bournemouth Club enrolled him at Alpha in1939 (The Bournemouth Club was one of the first small clubs in Kingston and was originally called "The Bournemouth Bath").  It was not until 1940 that McCook began playing tenor saxophone under the instruction of Alpha School's bandleader George Neilson.  McCook left Alpha in 1953 when he accepted an offer by Eric Dean to play at The Bournemouth Club. The same Tommy McCook went on to form The Skatalites band which played a critical role in the development of the uniquely Jamaican music:  Ska.  It took a full year of work by Coxsone Dodd to encourage Tommy to play for Studio One as The Skatalites.  Tommy was first approached by Coxsone in 1962, but turned Dodd down.  In 1963 he accepted the offer and assisted in the formation of The Skatalites.  At that time mentor Sister Ignatius was looking on with a smile:  "I heard them on the radio station and we also heard them practicing because sometimes they would come up here [ Alpha School] and practice.  Sometimes they would practice down by the sea - Bournemouth, and we would take the children down there for a sea bath."

For the past 45 years Ska has been copied and duplicated throughout the world and is still building steam.  It was no coincidence that when Ska was hitting big in England in 1981, Alpha graduate Rico Rodriguez was supplying the much needed Jamaican flavor with his trombone work on the Clash's #1 song "Ghost Town." The origins remain uniquely Jamaican with the Alpha Boys School signature stamp. 

Rich Lowe


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