Alston Jack - Renowned Steel Pan Arranger

by Priscilla Taylor

Republished from -  Steelbands of New York with permission from Doris Green

A When Steel Talks Exclusive Reprint

Oral History

I was born on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, which has one government. It is located near to South America, that’s in the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea. The population is over one million. The island I came from, Tobago is actually 116 square miles, and has about 45,000 people.

When did you become interested in the steel pan? Tell me about your experiences in Trinidad?

Well, I was growing up as a young person in the West Indies, in Tobago and liking music, rhythms and different things like that, you have no alternative but to play the steel drums. My parents didn’t have the kind of money to run and buy a piano for me or a saxophone, so the best thing was for a steel drum to fall into. I got interested in the steel drums around 1957. I started playing actually in 1959.

Nineteen Fifty-Seven? That’s a long time ago. You look kind of young. How old are you?

I’m 34.  Aah.

You started as a young boy?

I was nine years old. When I was twelve years old, I started to arrange for a band, the Tobago All Stars, the same band that I started with when I was nine years old. That’s three years later. I was arranging for the same band and took them to competition. That was in 1962.

You arranged and you performed? Did you have your band?

No, at that time I never had my own band. I always wanted to, but the instruments I couldn’t buy just like that. I didn’t have the money.

So, you came to the United States...

I came to the United States in 1969, with the Desperadoes Steel Band. The government of Trinidad and Tobago gave us, all the band members a scholarship to do music at the Third Street Music School in Manhattan.

You say music, do you mean the steel drums?

No, I mean theory.

You studied the piano?

No, we just studied theory. I took up the piano a couple of years later.

How long did the course last?

It lasted a year. We came here October 6, 1969 and we performed lecture demonstrations in the schools in New Jersey mostly. In 1970 we started classes at the Third Street Music School...

You came in 1969 with a band (the Desperadoes) headed by Mr. Rudolph Charles? Did the band return to Trinidad?

The band returned to Trinidad in 1969 and came back in April 1970.

And you stayed on?


When did you form your group here?

Well, after being here with the Desperadoes in 1970 and going to school with them for a year I decided I wanted to do more. I had a big head. I wanted to do more arrangements, so I figured let me get myself a group, see if I could organize a group and get some fellows from Trinidad or wherever that understand the steel drum and try to form my own group. I formed my group in 1975.

Rudy King
 “Lil Jack”  aka Alston Jack - well-known pan player in his own right, on double seconds out front, in red hat.   Rudy King is seated, on drums, in one of King’s ensembles

Prior to forming your own band, did you play with others?

Yes, I was arranging for a band called the Tropican[s]. The leader of the band was Mr. Rudolph King.

You arranged for Rudy? What year did you arrange for Rudolph’s band?

It was in 1973-74.

You know that Rudolph was the first person to bring pan to America?

Yes, in 1949.

What other bands did you arrange for?

I arranged for the Harlem All Stars that is now functioning there right now. As a matter of fact, the first song I did for them for the Labor Day parade, the first time they came to Brooklyn, they had a big uproar. You know, the music had a big effect on the people, because it was different and exciting.

Who headed the Harlem All Stars?

It was headed by Pops McCarthy.

Is he still alive?

No. As a matter of fact, Ralph MacDonald started with him. Presently, I am arranging for a big group called Moods.

Did you perform with these groups?

Yes, I performed and arranged with all of them.

Where did these performances take place mainly?

They were in parks, schools, colleges. Around 1972, I played with the Tripoli Steelband, headed by Hugh Borde. We played on the same bill with Liberace at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1975, I formed the Bamboo Steelband.

Does the band still exist?

No, because I’m going on my own as a soloist.

How large was the band?

Six members.

When were the bands mounted on the stands?

From the 1960s (1964) the bands no longer carried the pans with straps suspended from the necks, because there were so many different instruments added to complete one instrumental pattern. Sometimes it took two to four drums to complete the whole set. Therefore, it was not possible to carry more than one drum around the neck, so stands were built.

Were there any changes in the style of playing?

Sure, during the 1960s, the music was not as intricate as in the ʽ70s because there were not so many notes on the pans in the ʽ60s. The guys were experimenting more, their heads were now getting bigger as they say, and more ideas were coming to them. It was actually in 1966 that the big change happened, more notes, you were getting three octaves, etc.

You say that you are now performing as a soloist or with a small group. What is the name of this group?

Alston Jack and his Caribbean Rhythms, Hillary Borneo and my younger brother, Christopher Jack, perform with me.

Let’s return to your experience here in Brooklyn. Where did you perform mostly? I’m sure that you took part in the Carnival. Tell me about your Carnival experiences and the preparation.

Well, Carnival experiences are something that you never can forget, because it takes so much out of you. You have to sit up night after night. Sometimes you never sleep for a whole week. Just sitting up making costumes, bending wires, drinking coffee, talking a lot of old jokes, riddles, whatever.

You made costumes?

Yes, bending wires, making head pieces. Sometimes you play an Indian mas’.

You say the panmen wore these?

Sure, in Trinidad. As a matter of fact, long ago, playing the steel drum you had to be like a masquerader too. You had to have a uniform playing those steel drums ʽcause if you did not have a uniform, you could not play the steel drum. It was that organized long ago, but now the guys get disorganized and you don’t need a costume to play.

Oh, I see. But here in Brooklyn, you say that the bands wore costumes during Carnival?

Only some bands. Not too many, bands.

So your making and bending wire took place mainly in Trinidad?

No, mainly in Tobago.

So now the bands wear mainly tee shirts sponsored by a business concern?


How many Brooklyn Carnivals did you participate in?

I participated in many Carnivals, I put a lot of energy into it, but it was not like in Trinidad. I always have to refer to Trinidad, because most of the time you can’t put out here. You have to go to work and you have many commitments. You are not as relaxed.

You mean you don’t work in Trinidad?

If you are in Trinidad and you have to do mask bending and even if you work in the government house, they will understand that if it’s Carnival time, that you may not come in for a week or two.

In other words, the government understands the commitment to Carnival?

Yes they will understand, but not here.

You can never prepare here 100%. Sometimes you might see a group coming down and not looking as you might expect them to be. It’s not that they can’t do the work, it’s the time and money. Sometimes, you don’t get the compensation for the hard work that you do here. But my participation with the groups in Labor Day time was fairly enough I would say for America, because there are too many bands that’s taking part in it, and the prizes that you get is not something that would boost you, or give you an incentive to do much more things. It kind of like dampens the black man’s mind from inventing or innovating.

I see you have recorded with Ralph MacDonald on his album, “The Path.” Have you recorded with other groups?

Sure, as a matter of fact, I recorded with Rick Derringer, in 1975 the guy who made “Hang On Snoopy.” I played the steelpan, doing contemporary music and rock and roll. I also did some jazz and calypso in 1976 with Ralph MacDonald. With Ric Cherwin, I did voices and some steel drums in 1983. I want to be a complete musician. I want to do everything. Other recordings were made, including work with Herbie Mann.

How often do you perform presently?

Well, for the winter I don’t do too much unless I leave the country and go to Trinidad, especially during their Carnival time, when I work almost everyday, where I arrange and perform, mainly with the Desperadoes. I am required to spend up to two months in Trinidad. Fortunately, my wife Grace, is very supportive. She maintains our home and cares for our three children, Stacy 13, Sean 11, and Samantha 3, in my absence.

As you know I recently returned from Trinidad where I attended the funeral of Mr. Rudolph Charles, leader of the Desperadoes. He was a cousin of my wife. Mr. Charles was given a state funeral by the government of Trinidad, because of his tremendous contribution to the development of steel band music.

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