Buddy Montgomery

By Chris Wong

It hangs on one of the red walls at the Cellar — a framed record sleeve for The Montgomery Brothers in Canada, an album that came out 30 years ago. The cover for the record, featuring Wes, Monk and Buddy Montgomery, isn't on display at the jazz restaurant on Broadway just because it looks cool. There's a historical connection. The brothers recorded the live album in Vancouver at another place called the Cellar, a legendary jazz joint.

That Cellar was on Watson Street near Main and Broadway. The best local jazz musicians and prominent American artists, such as Charles Mingus and the Montgomery Brothers, performed in the club. The current Cellar opened in August 2000. When co-owner Cory Weeds was thinking about how to celebrate the restaurant's first anniversary, he decided to call the only surviving Montgomery brother: vibraphonist and pianist Buddy Montgomery.

"That was pretty weird when Cory called me and said he owned the Cellar," says Buddy, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "I was thinking about the place we played before." After Weeds explained that he runs a new Cellar, Buddy agreed to perform for the restaurant's anniversary celebration, Oct. 26-27.

Buddy doesn't remember much about playing in the old Cellar. According to the liner notes for Groove Brothers, an album under Wes Montgomery's name that actually consists of Montgomery Brothers tracks (including the ones recorded at the Cellar), the brothers and drummer Paul Humphrey performed at the club in spring 1961 for a small audience.

As for the music, it still sounds fresh and vital. When playing chords or improvising fleet solo lines, Wes displayed the singular style that made him one of the greatest-ever jazz guitarists. During his own engaging solos and throughout the tunes, Buddy created vivid colours on the vibes. Monk was a solid presence on the bass. Buddy clearly remembers the musical bond he shared with his older brothers. "It's something you couldn't get with anybody else," says the 71-year-old. "Wes explained that many times. On some of these recordings [solo albums by Wes], when they were asking him to play with so many different people, he was saying, 'I'd rather get back together with my brothers because it's like being at home.'"

The brothers were born in Indianapolis, where they first heard music in church. Buddy followed Monk to Seattle, where they formed the Mastersounds, a jazz quartet that achieved commercial and critical success in the late '50s. In 1960 Buddy joined the Miles Davis sextet after Cannonball Adderley left the group. What was that brief experience like? "Can you imagine working next to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers? That was the group. There was no group that was better than that group."

But Buddy's severe fear of flying forced him to leave the band just before a European tour. "That could have been the beginning of my career really going straight up. He [Miles] even asked me to come back later, but I just decided not to do it."

Buddy and his siblings formed the Montgomery Brothers and played on and off during the '60s until Wes died of a heart attack in 1968. (Monk passed away in 1982.) Buddy moved on to cities including Milwaukee and Oakland, where he formed jazz alliances to provide exposure to both developing and veteran musicians. Buddy kept playing both of his instruments. His most recent release, Here Again, shows Buddy's impeccable sense of swing and harmonic depth on the piano. A new album coming out this month, A Love Affair in Paris, features Buddy on vibes. What continues to attract Buddy to that instrument? "There's something about vibes, even when just hitting one note. It [the vibraphone's sound] is very full. I think in a way hitting one note on vibes is a lot stronger than hitting one note on piano. Somehow it carries. It's a totally different sound of its own."

In Vancouver, where Buddy hasn't performed since the late '70s, he'll play vibes with strong local players: pianist Chris Sigerson, bassist Darren Radtke and drummer Dave Robbins. Looking beyond the Cellar gig, Buddy's other projects include completing a book about the Montgomery brothers. Which brother was Buddy closer to? "As brothers, and in life being around one another, I was with Monk more. But Wes and I had more in common musically."

Neither Wes nor Buddy learned how to read music, but they both became composers. "I don't think reading or not reading has anything to do with being a composer," says Buddy, who doesn't literally write down music. "All I have to do is know the name of the notes, and I just tell people note by note what I'm doing." In fact tunes by Buddy, including songs on Here Again and "Beaux Arts" recorded at the original Cellar, reveal he's a distinctive composer.

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."

© October 2001

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Related link:

The Cellar