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Chronology: Buddy Montgomery, a Little Brother Like No Other

His siblings Wes and Monk got most of the attention, but the pianist, vibraphonist, composer, and arranger deserves props too

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Buddy Montgomery (L) with his mentor Milt Jackson backstage at Merkin Hall, New York, February 1999. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)
Buddy Montgomery (L) with his mentor Milt Jackson backstage at Merkin Hall, New York, February 1999. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

Great individualists in jazz often constitute a School of One—musicians with such personal and idiosyncratic identities that they hover in a liminal state, anchored in the tradition but also slightly to the side of it. A few examples: trumpeter Frankie Newton, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and pianists Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk. 

One more: pianist, vibraphonist, composer, and arranger Charles “Buddy” Montgomery. There is nobody like him.

The youngest of the three gifted Montgomery brothers who came swinging out of Indianapolis, Buddy (1930-2009) never became a household name like his brother Wes, among the most influential guitarists in jazz history. Buddy also defies thumbnail description like his brother Monk, a pioneer of the electric bass. Barely namechecked in jazz histories, Buddy lived a rich life within the marrow of the music.

He performed and recorded with his brothers. He played vibes and arranged nearly all the material for the underrated West Coast cooperative the Mastersounds (1957-60). He spent a hot minute playing vibes with the Miles Davis Sextet in early 1960. He made important contributions to the scenes in the Bay Area, New York, and Milwaukee, where he lived for 15 years beginning in 1969 and mentored younger musicians like pianist David Hazeltine and trumpeter Brian Lynch. 

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More self-effacing than his talent required, Montgomery recorded just nine dates as a bandleader—10 if you count 1958’s The Montgomery Brothers and Five Others (World Pacific), which features four of his originals, all his arrangements, and liner-note credit as the leader. His final six recordings, concentrated between 1986 and 2000, raised his profile a bit as a sui generis musician who forged his own path through the modern mainstream. 

Montgomery rewards deep listening. Not because his music is opaque. To the contrary, his soulful expression funnels ever-fresh lyricism and blues-scented oratory into a common-man touch that elevates the spirit. But beneath the surface élan lurks a wealth of organizational detail, creative orchestration, formal ingenuity, and spontaneous harmonic and rhythmic invention.

I can’t think of another composer who might have written the beguiling “1,000 Rainbows” on Here Again (Sharp Nine, 1997), a fine introduction to Montgomery’s art. He leads a trio with bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Ray Appleton, plus Wilson Corniel, Jr.’s congas on two tracks. Everyone writes bass ostinatos on Latin songs, right? But Montgomery’s inspired line on “1,000 Rainbows” delivers an insinuating rhythmic foundation that also functions as melodic counterpoint to the wistful theme and harmony. His savvy use of space contributes to a judicious solo that sustains the bewitching mood. The evocative performance lingers like the memory of an alluring Burgundy. 

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Even Montgomery’s blues structures are unpredictable. A 24-bar form, “Aki’s Blues” employs a syncopated motto, rhythm-section hits, fragrant harmonic twists, and melody delivered in vibrant chords and single notes. His sly voicings convey the elegance of an old-school hipster. Montgomery’s inventive solo piano lines pop with vibes-like ping and loose rhythm; his notes circle all sides of the beat.

“There’s a unique sprightliness—flittering runs when he plays a flurry of notes,” says pianist Michael Weiss, who grew close to Montgomery when they worked together in the 1980s and ’90s. “He also mixes simple and complex harmonic choices in a personal way. He can make a triad sound profound by what he puts on either side of it.”

Given Montgomery’s fondness for astute harmonic tailoring, it is astounding that, like Wes, he did not read or write music. He could spell notes in chords, but he taught musicians his music by ear or recorded songs on cassette for others to transcribe. Still, Buddy’s sophisticated musical constructions prove that, also like Wes, he was no primitive. 

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Montgomery rewards deep listening. Beneath the surface élan lurks a wealth of organizational detail, creative orchestration, formal ingenuity, and spontaneous harmonic and rhythmic invention.

Buddy didn’t come out of nowhere. His compositional aesthetic grew from precisely plotted and orchestrated pieces by Horace Silver like “Ecaroh,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Enchantment.” Montgomery’s adventurous “Budini” suggests Silver on steroids. It’s a scampering, through-composed Latin steeplechase in C minor with dazzling syncopation, interlocking bass and melody lines, and multiple sections of irregular length (30 and 34 bars). Montgomery recorded it with Ron Carter and Ralph Penland in 1988 on So Why Not? (Landmark).

Montgomery’s piano influences included Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Indianapolis legend Erroll Grandy. On vibes he took inspiration from Milt Jackson, though Montgomery’s approach to that instrument was just as singular as his piano playing. The content of his improvisations is identical on both instruments. Montgomery’s articulation is more percussive than Jackson’s, probably the result of harder mallets, and the shimmer of his sound suggests a slightly faster tremolo speed than Jackson. 

He played vibes exclusively with the Mastersounds, whose instrumentation mirrored the Modern Jazz Quartet but with a more freewheeling attitude. Montgomery runs away with Jazz Showcase: Introducing the Mastersounds (World Pacific, 1957). On “Old Devil Moon,” he’s swinging so energetically that he overwhelms his bandmates. The ersatz Oriental tropes in the overstuffed arrangement have dated, but the wild chord substitutions in the second ending and mambo interludes during the blowing remain awesome. The integrated quartet’s 50-50 racial split was unusual for the era, with Buddy and Monk paired with white musicians, pianist Richie Crabtree and drummer Benny Barth. 

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Montgomery held his own with Miles Davis. Via YouTube, a rare tape of “So What” from San Francisco in March 1960 finds him soloing aggressively after an incendiary John Coltrane. Montgomery was slated to tour Europe that spring with Davis but backed out at the eleventh hour because he was afraid to fly. Would a more extended stint with Davis have pushed Montgomery to wider visibility and acclaim? Probably. Famous or not, however, he told his own stories in his own way. 

Further Listening

The Two-Sided Album (Milestone)
Never reissued, this exceptional 1968 LP remains Montgomery’s best all-around recording, showcasing his piano, vibes, composing, and arranging. A young Billy Hart anchors two potent bands.

Ties of Love (Landmark)
Strong material, an infectious spirit, and bicoastal bands recorded in 1986 with Fathead Newman, Eddie Harris, Ron Carter, etc., etc. 

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Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Fifteen (Concord)
Spectacular solo piano recorded in 1991. Montgomery interprets standards with wit, wisdom, and romance.

Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.