Night Lights Classic Jazz

R.I.P. Buddy Montgomery

The late Buddy Montgomery was a jazz educator and ardent advocate of jazz. He leaves behind a more than respectable musical legacy.

  • King & I

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    Photo: album art

    The Mastersounds with Wes Montgomery, "King & I"

  • Montgomery Brothers

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    Photo: album art

    The Montgomery Brothers, "Groove Yard"

  • Buddy Montgomery

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    Photo: album art

    Buddy Montgomery, "Live At Maybeck 15"

Buddy Montgomery, the pianist/vibraphonist and last surviving member of the Montgomery Brothers, passed away this Thursday at the age of 79. Indiana University jazz educator David Baker called me with the news this afternoon, and Indianapolis jazz photographer Mark Sheldon has confirmed it as well.

Remembered by some primarily for his association with his brother, guitarist Wes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery was a founding member of the underrated West Coast group The Mastersounds, a piano/vibes/bass/drums quartet that’s often compared to the Modern Jazz Quartet (though for my money, they always swung a bit more than the MJQ). He was a jazz educator and ardent advocate of jazz, who leaves behind a more than respectable musical legacy of his own.

A Short History Of Buddy Montgomery

Born January 30, 1930 in Indianapolis, Buddy Montgomery got his start as a pianist in the late 1940s and early 1950s with blues singer Big Joe Turner and with Lionel Hampton‘s big band (with whom brothers Monk and Wes did tours of duty as well).

In the mid-1950s, Montgomery acquired a set of vibes and began to play around his hometown in a group nominally called the Indianapolis Jazz Quartet, which included Benny Barth on drums, Al Plank on piano and Wes Montgomery on electric bass. Through Monk Montgomery, and with a couple of personnel changes, the group (sans Wes) landed a gig in Seattle and changed their name to the Mastersounds. After  Pacific Jazz owner Richard Bock released a tape of the group’s Seattle performances, they found steady work at San Francisco’s Jazz Showcase.

Reinterpreting Rodgers & Hammerstein, And Other Albums

It was Buddy Montgomery who proposed that the Mastersounds record the music from the hit musical The King and I. It was also he who arranged the songs, resulting in the group’s most successful album. Though Jazz Impressions of The King and I may strike some modern jazz fans as a bit sleepy at times, it holds its own in the popular late-1950s “jazz-goes-Broadway” genre, and its best moments of lift generally come from Buddy Montgomery. His vibes on “We Kiss in a Shadow” perfectly evoke the quietly heady, stealth romance of that song.

Follow-up albums Kizmet and Flower Drum Song kept the group’s popularity building; drummer Benny Barth told jazz historian Ted Gioia that they drew overflow crowds at the San Francisco jazz clubs where they worked. Buddy also enjoyed personal renown, winning Downbeat’s 1958 award for best new vibraphone player and best new arranger.

The Montgomery Brothers Trump The Mastersounds

At the end of the 1950s, however, the Mastersounds broke up, in large part because Buddy and Monk wanted to form a group with their brother Wes. (Buddy also played vibes for several months in 1960 with Miles Davis; if there are any extant recordings of that ensemble, please let me know!)

That group can be heard to good advantage on the albums Groove Brothers and Groove Yard. In their review of Groove Yard, Penguin Jazz Guide editors Richard Cook and Brian Morton wrote,

Buddy’s vibes playing was not quite in the Milt Jackson class but it was more than workmanlike, and his piano playing, which developed in years to come, is bright and rhythmic, with a slightly melancholy quality which suits the group very well.

The cut “Delirium” offers up three choruses of Buddy’s piano and the Montgomery Brothers in full flight, accompanied by Bobby Thomas on drums. Sadly, the Brothers had a harder-than-expected time finding work and by early 1962 had disbanded.

Solo Years

Buddy Montgomery moved to Milwaukee in 1969 and then to Oakland in the 1980s. He continued to perform and record intermittently. One of my personal late-period favorite albums is Buddy’s Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, a solo performance that really gives listeners a chance to savor his fully-flowered, mature style. As critic Derk Richardson notes, Maybeck showcases “the modernism of his harmonic choices, the judicious use of space and silence…his shifts from dramatic block chords into rippling arpeggios, wry infusions of blue notes, and spare, effective use of lean single-note runs.”

The last member of an Indianapolis musical dynasty has passed. Described as a genial, understanding, and humorous man, Buddy Montgomery was a good guy both to play and hang with – and that’s no small success story. Based on his work with his brother Wes, his recordings with the Mastersounds, and his post-1962 leader dates, Buddy ensured that more than one Montgomery will have a place in post-1945 Indiana jazz history and beyond.

For More Buddy Montgomery And The Mastersounds

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • http://none Vidal Muniz JR

    I,Had the oportunity and pleasure of playing with Buddy at the very young age of 18 very satisfiying and knowledgable i met MR Montgomery at an audition i beleave was the Marc Plaza in Milwaukee,Wisc my most deepest love for buddy may he rest in peace.

  • Henry Peters

    I would like to thank Brent Johnson for doing this warm tribute to Buddy Montgomery… I would also like to quote from the above linked interview with Buddy, (some of which is) in his own words (I hope you will read the whole interview):

    “While he’s never achieved the fame of his brother Wes, Buddy has no regrets about his career choices. “If it were the kind of situation where I always wanted to be a leader and a big star and I always wanted to be the one that stood up in front, then I would have a seriously terrible life. But it [being in the background] never bothered me. As long as I was playing music and making things happen in music, I was satisfied, and I’m satisfied now.”

    I would like to testify to the truthfulness of these words. I used to hang out with the Montgomery brothers some, when & as they kept a terrific “jazz” club alive in Berkeley CA in the early 1960s… It was called “TSUBOS.” This is the place where Wes recorded his now classic album, “Full House” (it was because it was a full house, & the word was that the Berkeley city fire chief said he would close the place down, if one more person came into the club! I was trying to watch the back door, to make sure that would not happen).

    At any rate, every weekend the brothers (mostly Buddy & Monk) would perform, allowing guest musicians & young musicians to sit in with them… would make sure someone would give me rides back to San Francisco (if they were not going themselves, say to “Jimbo’s Bop City, an after hours club, where almost everyone (!) played in actual “jam session” in perpetual progress), after the club was closed, early in the morning, & there was minimal bus service…

    I ran into Buddy in San Francisco, years later (1986?), in a club there (we were both there to listen to music) just after he had been working in Milwaukee… he told me of Monks efforts to help organize musicians in Las Vegas… “…that he was just succeeding when he died…” All I can say for sure… is that my life would have been oh so different with out the Montomery brothers… & their elegant sense of beauty & responsibility. I’ll miss all of them.

  • http://mitchellmcrae.com J.B. Mitchell

    I am very sadden to hear of the passing of the great Buddy Montgomery. My mind goes back several years to a gathering in Los Angeles at the local
    47 Jazz musicians union. The year was about 1995 or 96. A well known jazz bassist had passed away an much of the local jazz comunity had come to the union hall to pay tribute to him. Many very well known and the not so well known musicians were in attendance. I remember seeing people like jazz organist Jimmy Smith, guitarist Kenny Burrell and many others. The place was packed, standing room only. At some point I got up from my seat to go stand near the back to take in more of the sights and the experience. As I leaned near a wall I noticed a gentleman out of the corner of my eye standing next to me in a bright red jacket. With the hustle and bustle of people streaming back and forth I paid him little to no attention. One thing I did noticed clearly was that everyone that passed him they would stop and pay homadge to this man giving him great honor and respect. This went on for quite a while. Finally I decided to turn my head to take a look and see who this person was held in such high esteem. To my utter shock and surprise I found myself standing next to the great Buddy Montgomery. I had been and continue to be a fan of all the Montgomery brothers and especialy Wes since I was a teenager. I knew who he was from the Wes and Montgomery brothers album covers that I had. After gaining my composure I said “Hi you’re Buddy Montgomery” he responded that I was correct and from there started a conversation that lasted for several minutes. He talked with me as though he had known me for many years. He was one of the most gracious and down to earth people I have ever met. He will be greatly missed.

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