I have always been fascinated by jazz improvisations that make every performance fresh and spontaneous. My adopted hometown, Chicago, is a big blues and jazz town, with music constantly in the air across its diverse neighborhoods and up to the mesmerizing skyscrapers.
And I am proud that one of the international greats in jazz is a Filipino—Johnny Alegre.
Filipino composer and jazz guitarist Juan Bautista H. Alegre III, known professionally as "Johnny Alegre," grew up during the silver age of music whose influences shaped the person he was going to be. “I was born in the mid-‘50s, grew up in the swinging ‘60s and beyond. Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Miles Davis, among others--they loomed and weaved through my daily life.”
Alegre is recognized as one of the Philippines’ renowned jazz musicians and recording artists. His disposition towards composition and originality has been in him for as long as he can remember. “One of my fondest childhood recollections is spinning 7” vinyl records on my plastic turntable, an RCA 45-EY,” he remembers. “Becoming a composer-musician and recording artist was a natural recourse and fruition.”
He was from a mixed-parentage household. His mother, Teodora Hernaez, was from Manila, and his father, Narciso Alegre, was originally from the province of Sorsogon, from an assimilated Spanish expatriate family. In fact, one of Alegre’s proudest achievements was visiting for the first time their ancestral home in Spain, in the mountainous region of Maestrazgo, during a trip in 1997. Clearly, history and culture are very important to him.
He attended the University of the Philippines College of Music, where he studied composition under the tutelage of Francisco Feliciano, who would become a National Artist of the Philippines. Alegre was also a founding member of the UP Jazz Ensemble, which reinforced an already deep-seated interest in music. “I always described myself as a self-taught artist. I learned to recognize the paths both safe and unsafe, as I traveled up and down some perilous mountains,” he says metaphorically.
Alegre has played a special role in contemporary Filipino music, bringing to the forefront musical genres often relegated to niche audiences. For Alegre, the creative experience is deeply personal. “My music is a sonic metabolism of processes within my psyche where things build up, break down, and rebuild,” he elaborates. “I convey this process as I perform and record, which is the drama, the tension, and their release.”
It was remarkable that when he had barely entered the University, he had won second prize in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards in 1974, the Philippines’ most prestigious literary awards, for his one-act play, Aftercafé. This recognition at an early age allowed him to imagine future possibilities to explore.
He launched his first album, Jazzhound, released by the legendary Candid Records label, in London in 2007. It proved to be a landmark event for the musician, who was now on a global stage.
“It defined the artist I wanted to be,” Alegre tells me. He is extremely proud of his Filipino heritage and it is self-evident in his work. “I am a Philippine artist, with no shadow of a doubt. I don't hesitate to employ global tools, which in my view enriches the Filipino expression.”
Alegre’s current engagements involve Johnny Alegre AFFINITY, a hardcore jazz group “embodying the jazz musical language" and the changes he has lived through. He also has HUMANFOLK, which captures Alegre’s musical explorations and observations of the world. Humanfolk is his platform for writing popular lyrics (poetry, actually) and infusing elements of Filipino tribalism, Spanish colonial roots, rock music, folk, global threads, and even electronics.
His music has evolved through the years, creating “momentary illusions,” he explains, as it always tilts and changes perspective. His music underwent a catharsis when he realized that it flowed from the spirit. For him it ceased being a quest for technical bravura or the trappings of academism.
What has made Johnny Alegre successful is that he remains constantly inspired by observation and impressions. “As I journey, I hear so many snatches of conversations and interactions among people, birds, motor vehicles, the weather, etc. Effectively, I am just immersed in the life around us,” he states.
His creative sensibilities and meditative tendencies are complemented by his wife, Jocelyn, a career executive, who shares his creative life and the comforts of home. “My better half provides my artistic career the best possible balance in the real world,” Alegre says with a smile.
Alegre’s longstanding immersion in the music scene makes him recognize that the Philippine music industry is rigidly competitive. His approach remains simple and straightforward. He expounds, “The majority actually come to terms with the daunting business realities of music sooner than later, and it either makes one stronger or makes one follow a siren song. It is a prevalent situation. I always believed that if you truly stayed to your true path, you have the momentum of the universe behind you to guide you.”
Being a Filipino artist in an age of global assimilation creates the right set of circumstances for Alegre to showcase his unique talent and musical sensibilities. He remains hopeful about all the possibilities. “It would be a continuing privilege to bring my music to world stages. I have performed in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Kota Kinabalu, and numerous festivals and events. I have also recorded an album in New York. I pray for more such honors and opportunities.”
And I am excited to watch him perform in Chicago one of these days.
Serina Aidasani works in marketing communications and divides her time between New York and Chicago. She enjoys deep conversations, mocha lattes and tries to appreciate little joys of the everyday.