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Rolando Alphonso: 1931-1998
Rolando Alphonso
Saxophonist, arranger

Born: January 12, 1931 in Havana, Cuba
Died: November 20, 1998 in Los Angeles, California

Ska Pioneer With Jazz Roots

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Alphonso, Roland Rolando Alphonso (generally known as Roland) was most famous for his role in The Skatalites, the famous house band at Kingston's Studio 1. Alphonso was the second member of that band to die in 1998, following the passing of fellow saxophonist Tommy McCook in May.

Alphonso was born in Havana, but his mother was Jamaican, and the family moved there in 1933, although his Cuban father was subsequently deported. He suffered a tough childhood after being placed in a reform school for destitute children, but learned to play his first instruments there, beginning with drums before moving onto flute and saxophone.

He began his professional career as an alto saxophonist in Kingston, playing with noted local jazz bandleaders Redvert Cook and Eric Dean in the early Fifties, as well as accompanying the comedy duo Bim and Bam. By the mid-Fifties, however, Jamaica's own music was beginning to gain a commercial foothold, and Alphonso became involved in some of the earliest recordings, initially in the mento and calypso styles, and then through the emergence of ska.

Ska was essentially a marriage of Jamaican and Afro-Cuban rhythms with elements derived from jazz and rhythm and blues, and Alphonso was well-placed to develop that concept. He played on what is regarded as the first ska record, Theophilus Beckford's "Easy Snappin'", but it was the formation of The Skatalites which really advanced the form. The band were led by the brilliant but mentally disturbed trombonist Don Drummond, who was subsequently incarcerated after murdering his wife, and formed the house unit at the studio run by the legendary producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd.

In that capacity they were germinal not only to ska and its associated rocksteady form, but also the development of reggae as an international phenomenon. The musicians they backed included Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Lee Perry, and Toots and the Maytals, while their own recordings became big sellers, notably their cover version of "Guns of Navarone", still the quintessential ska instrumental.

Remarkably, given their standing in the music, The Skatalites stayed together as a band for just over a year, before going in separate directions. Alphonso continued to work with Dodd, however, and headed a number of popular bands, including The Soul Vendors and The Alley Cats, and was the principal arranger at Studio 1, a function he later took on for another famous Kingston-based producer, Bunny Lee.

He was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1977, but subsequently moved to New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. The Skatalites reformed in 1984, and have continued to tour internationally until the present. He survived a brain aneurysm in 1971, but the recurrence of the complaint which killed the saxophonist struck while on-stage with The Skatalites at The Key Club in Hollywood on 2 November, 1998. Despite a temporary improvement in his condition, he died subsequently in hospital.

He is survived by his wife, Hermine, six children, and several grandchildren.

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With 1 reader comment, posted August 5, 2008