Alex Otey is a jazz musician.
That deceptively simple sentence, admittedly, does nothing to convey the depth and breadth of what that means. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that in a lot of ways, Otey is jazz music; someone with whom a conversation is a whirlwind of crackling ideas and total surprises that would border on mayhem if not for the fact that while you might not know exactly where he’s going, you know it’ll be really good when you get there.
People can hear Otey’s music on his first solo album, a vocal jazz collection titled Love Matters Now, which was released this year.
To understand Alex as a musician, it’s best to start by understanding his childhood. That also means understanding the role of his parents in his life. Both were musicians themselves. His mother was “quite a good pianist” who played at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and the one who “taught me Scott Joplin rags,” said Otey, a Ewing resident.
His father, Orlando, was dubbed the “Chopin of Mexico.” He played piano concerts in Europe starting at age 5. For the record, there’s a lot more to say about him, but for now, just know that the elder Otey very much wanted to be an American, which is how he ended up in post-war Philadelphia, taking his coursework at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1940s. In 1965, he began teaching at the Wilmington (Del.) Music School, becoming executive director a year later.
Meanwhile, the Oteys, in 1959, had a son named Alex, who started studying percussion and trumpet at age 7. “I had free lessons as a kid,” he said. “As a kid, you just sort of go along with it.”
Translation: Young Alex thought it was a perfectly typical way to grow up, playing with the school’s orchestra every weekend and learning how to read, play, compose, and interpret music. He didn’t realize until years later that not everyone just has a world-class-musician set of parents teaching them how to think in music.
By the time he was through his teen years, Otey had added piano to his repertoire, inspired heavily by the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John. Throughout his teen and young adult years, he performed with jazz bands and orchestras in and around Philadelphia. He also formed a few small ensembles, including the APO Jazz Trio, but in perhaps the most typically teen way possible, he had zero idea that in the music world, his father was a genuine contender for being The Man. All Otey knew for sure, after seeing his parents make a living in music, was this: “I didn’t feel good about going into music.”
Instead, Otey enrolled in Drexel University in 1979 and earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and atmospheric sciences in 1984. Rather than follow music professionally, he designed software, mainly in the biotech sector. He worked for small companies like TEAMS Inc. and large ones like Johnson & Johnson, a career path that ultimately brought him to Ewing, near the Princeton-New Brunswick pharma corridor.
First, however, was a career layover in Plano, Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas, during the region’s oil and business boom of the mid-to-late 1980s. This foray would be a minor blip if not for his Canada-born apartment manager, Amy, whom he “subtly got to know” over songs at a piano bar. When the Texas energy economy flopped at the end of the decade, Alex and Amy decided to move to northern New Jersey. They moved to Ewing in 1994.
For the record, there’s a lot more to say about Amy Otey too. For now, just know that her jaunty piano bar moments were a bit more than just a hobby, since her own music has earned the couple a Grammy award.
First, the ’90s. This was the time when Otey sought to reconnect with music, in probably the most scientist-guy way possible—he wanted to build a recording studio in his house. He founded Ionian Productions in 1991. Meanwhile, moving to Ewing and being next to Trenton, Otey met loads of local musicians, like jazz saxophonist Richie Cole. While music never left him, he hadn’t had the burn to really dive into it as an albummaker until the ’90s, when three pieces of his life dovetailed: his wife’s music, his father’s story and his son’s birth.
His wife Amy, or Miss Amy as she’s known to her fans, is a children’s music performer whom the National Children’s Entertainment Guide once dubbed the “First Lady of Musical Fitness.” She had been working in administration at a retirement home when their son, Phillip, was born, three months premature.
“He’s 21 now and he’s doing great,” Otey said. But it was a little less sure as Phillip was growing up. Amy started making songs for the youngster, and thus, Miss Amy was born. The reason Amy Otey is fitness music’s first lady has a lot to do with her business, Fitness Rock & Roll, which gets kids dancing and staying fit through music. She works with schools and educators, and her program caught the eye of Michelle Obama, whose tenure as first lady of the United States focused squarely on childhood health and fitness.
Two decades after the start of Miss Amy as a professional musician, she has released five albums, two of which were Grammy nominees in their own right. Alex, as her producer, is also a two-time nominee. But, Miss Amy also won a Grammy for her work on All About Bullies… Big And Small Compilation. Her track was “Keep Your Head Up,” on which Alex played and was a producer.
Now back to Orlando Otey, who was born in Mexico, but wanted to be an American citizen. As a young man, he specifically wanted to fight Nazis in the air as an American, but the U.S. was not yet in World War II. So Orlando flew for the British R.A.F., eventually getting shot down over Germany and becoming a prisoner of war.
He handled his incarceration by escaping with the help of the French resistance.
After the war, the man who had started studying piano at age 2 got a scholarship at Curtis and wrote prolifically, Alex said. Orlando, along the lines of the Gershwins, didn’t see the need for music to just be classical.
There was jazz to be infused, new things to try. Later, when went to Warsaw, the Russian judges offered him all sorts of perks and luxuries if he just stated that he was a Mexican citizen, rather than an American citizen (Cold War politics, and all that). But he refused—he was an American now.
Alex Otey knew pretty much none of this until he started building his acoustically attuned recording space. But when he learned it, he realized that his father, despite being a brilliant and prolific composer, and despite being considered by some in the music world a peer of Vladimir Horowitz, had never really been recorded. So Otey he decided to rectify that, and the music produced through Ionian is the definitive record of Orlando Otey’s music.
Orlando Otey died in 2011, still teaching music to the last. A year later, Alex left Johnson & Johnson after almost 20 years, and decided that now was the time to start making his own music professionally. He still consults in the software field, and he never didn’t play music, but this is the first time he’s decided to fuse all the history and surprises of his life into music as a recording artist.
Jazz, of course, is his preferred path. But Otey is not all about the dense, hard-to-grasp jazz that so many people associate with the genre. Remember, Alex Otey thinks and speaks like jazz—but the kind of jazz that welds the bridge between the esoteric and the accessible. He wants his music to engage you and challenge you, but not be so cryptic that you’d need to be his father (an influential music theorist on top of everything else, it turns out) to understand, much less enjoy.
Some of this has to do with the business itself. Music, unsurprisingly, is a competitive and volatile field where talent gets you as far as playing an instrument in front of people. It doesn’t guarantee money, but money is certainly needed when you run a business.
Otey’s first solo album, a vocal jazz collection (yes, Otey also sings) titled Love Matters Now, is a bit of a tightrope walker between the commercial and the artistic. Critically, it’s already making waves. In August, the album won Best Jazz Album, and the song “Richie’s Bop” (yes, Richie Cole) won Best Jazz Song at the Akademia Music Awards. That song, along with “Happy Days” and “After All This Time,” were final-round contenders in the 2017 U.K. Song-Writers Contest.
Love Matters Now is a little less boundary-pushing than where Otey wants to go as he develops what he expects to be a quintet of increasingly challenging albums. For now, he said, he doesn’t want to get too esoteric, and he definitely never wants to get overproduced.
“I’m scaling back this time,” he said. “I want to do it from a more jazz-trio aspect, but explore it musically.”
He likes the small, trio-sized band. For one, it allows each musician to be heard, and for another, it’s much more commercially viable (especially just starting out) than trying to lug a gigantic Benny Goodman-style orchestra around from gig to gig.
Otey is scheduled to perform in the area on Sunday, Oct. 1, at Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Pennington and on Friday, Oct. 13, at 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing.
On display will be the merger of the practical (Otey is a scientists after all) and the creative. Ultimately, of course, what he wants is for people to come to his music in a way that will allow them to access what he’s doing and enjoy the music as it stimulates them intellectually.
“Music,” he said, “is for the people.”