By Chris Wong
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