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R.I.P. Buddy Montgomery

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

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