John Leslie Montgomery
“Listening to [Wes Montgomery’s] solos is like teetering at the edge of a brink,” composer-conductor Gunther Schuller asserted, as quoted by Jazz & Pop critic Will Smith. “His playing at its peak becomes unbearably exciting, to the point where one feels unable to muster sufficient physical endurance to outlast it.” Legendary guitarist Joe Pass simply says this about Montgomery’s place in musical history: “To me, there have been only three real innovators on the guitar—Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt,” as cited in James Sallis’s The Guitar Players.This high praise is a testament to the ability of a man of contradictions: Montgomery was a musician who never learned to read music, and he enjoyed commercial success rarely afforded to jazz musicians during the 1960s, while suffering critical—and personal—disapproval.
Born John Leslie Montgomery on March 6, 1923, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Montgomery showed no early musical aptitude or desire. At the age of nineteen, shortly after he was married, Montgomery heard a recording of “Solo Flight” by the Benny Goodman Orchestra with Charlie Christian on guitar. The impression was such that Montgomery immediately purchased an electric guitar, an amplifier, and as many Christian recordings as he could find, listening carefully to the guitar solos and learning to play them note for note. Montgomery’s neighbors complained about the noise, however, so he abandoned the guitar pick in favor of plucking the strings with his thumb. He found the resulting sound mellow and pleasing. Later, while experimenting with different styles and approaches, he discovered the technique that would become his signature. Gary Giddins, in Riding on a Blue Note, explains: “Almost as an extension of that dulcet, singing tone, he began to work in octaves—voicing the melody line in two registers.”
Within a year, Montgomery played in local clubs, imitating Christian solos. Exposed to other musicians and musical ideas, he developed his own concepts, and in 1948 was asked to join Lionel Hampton’s big band. As a sideman, Montgomery toured and recorded with this group until 1950 when, having missed his wife and children, he returned home to work as a welder for a radio parts manufacturer. However, as Rich Kienzle pointed out in Great Guitarists, “His desire to play music…was strong. His shift was from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M.; he’d rest for a while, then play at the Turf Bar from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M., moving to a second gig at another club, the Missile Room, from 2:30 A.M. to 5 A.M.” Montgomery continued this pace for six years, joining the group Mastersounds, composed of his brothers Monk (on bass) and Buddy (on piano and vibraphone), in 1957. A few recordings were made by the group on the West
Full name, John Leslie Montgomery; born March 6, 1929, in Indianapolis, Ind.; died June 15, 1968, in Indianapolis, Ind.; married Serene Montgomery, 1943; children: seven.
Free-lance guitarist with various groups, including the Four Kings and a Jack, the Brownskin Models, and Snookum Russell, 1943–48; toured and recorded as sideman with vibist Lionel Hampton’s big band, 1948–50; played various clubs around Indianapolis while working full-time as a welder, 1950–56; played as a guest with the Mastersounds, 1957–59; formed own trio and began recording career as front man, 1959; performed and recorded with the Mastersounds, 1960–61; appeared with John Coltrane, 1961–62. Returned to hometown to tour with his trio, and record and perform with others, including the artist’s brothers and the Wynton Kelly trio; also made several European tours.
Awards: Nominated for two Grammy Awards for Bumpiri, 1965; received Grammy Award for Goiri Out of My Head as Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by Large Group or Soloist with Large Group, 1966; nominated for Grammy Awards for “Eleanor Rigby” and Down Here on the Ground, 1968; nominated for Grammy Award for Willow, WeepforMe, 1969.
Coast, but they failed to attract much attention, and Montgomery returned home to play in clubs.
In 1959, Montgomery received his big break. While performing at the Missile Room, he impressed saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who subsequently contacted Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records. Montgomery was immediately signed and traveled to New York to record his first album, The Wes Montgomery Trio. “From the beginning of his belated ‘discovery,’ the critical reception ranged from euphoria to hyperbole,” Giddins explained. “No one had ever heard a guitar sound like Wes Montgomery’s.” This critical euphoria reached a fevered pitch with the release of Montgomery’s follow-up album, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960). It was not just the sound that Montgomery produced, but, asSallissays, ”the intensity of his music one responded to, the power and personality of it. When Wes hit a string you felt it, and it wasn’t just a note, a C sharp or a B flat, it was part of a story he was telling you.” This recording won Montgomery the down beat critics’ New Star Award for 1960, and he topped the guitar category in both down beat readers’ and critics’ polls in 1961 and 1962.
For the next couple of years, Montgomery performed and toured with various groups, including his brothers, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly’s trio, and his own trio. Kienzle remarked that “by this time Wes had gained the eminence due him in the jazz world, producing a steady, high-quality level of music regardless of the context. His flow of ideas, soulful articulation, and effortless technique confronted other influences.”
But in 1964, Riverside Records went bankrupt (following the death of president Bill Grauer), and Montgomery signed with Verve Records, headed by Creed Taylor. This move precipitated Montgomery’s fall from grace with the jazz world and concurrent rise in the popular music world. Giddins explains: “Creed Taylor realized something about Montgomery’s talent: it was octave technique and lyric sound, not his audaciously legato eighth-note improvisations with their dramatic architectural designs, that appealed to middle-of-the-road ears. So he set Montgomery on a course of decreasing improvisation and increasingly busy over-dubbed arrangements, while the octaves, once used so judiciously, became the focus of his new ‘style.’” Montgomery’s 1965 release, Goin’ Out of My Head, was a huge popular success, went gold, and earned him a Grammy award as the best instrumental jazz performance of the year.
Commercial success continued to escalate with subsequent albums on the Verve label, and in 1967, after having moved with Taylor to A&M Records, Montgomery recorded A Day in the Life.The title track not only became a popular hit, but the album became the best-selling jazz album of 1967 and one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Remaking pop hits with a jazz feel increased his audience, but decreased his acclaim in jazz circles. Adrian Ingram, in an article for Jazz Journal International, noted that “hard core jazz fans began to desert him, complaining bitterly of over-orchestrated arrangements, sub-standard material (pop tunes) and constricted solo space.” Sallis offered an explanation for his decline: “He was a victim of his own popularity, or of the trivialization of his talent, depending on how you perceive it, and as a result that talent went largely unheard for the last years of his life.”
Montgomery was aware of the growing dissatisfaction in the jazz community with his supposed commercialization, and he tried to make a distinction between his earlier work and his more popular work. “There is a jazz concept to what I’m doing, but I’m playing popular music and it should be regarded as such,” Montgomery said, as quoted by Giddins. His approach to music had always been one of feeling rather than one of technique. His inability to read music led to his development of a fine ear; he heard music rather than saw it on a page. And this was most important in his relation with his audience. “Wes believed that the music should be communicated, that the audience was part of the band, and the feeling of the music was more important to him than playing every note correctly,” Jimmy Stewart wrote in Guitar Player.Regardless of the style of, or the audience for, the music, Montgomery played with feeling and conviction. Of Road Song, his last recording for A&M before his death, down beat’s Pete Welding said, “He couldn’t play uninterestingly if he wanted to. Time and time again throughout this collection his supple sense of rhythm, his choice and placement of notes, his touch and tone raise what might have been in lesser hands merely mundane to the plane of something special, distinctive, masterful.”
Even with his quoted defense of playing popular music, Montgomery, as Ingram noted, “began to feel trapped by both the music business in general and non-jazz audiences who would tolerate only note perfect renditions of the most popular tunes from his Verve albums.”
Montgomery longed to return to the playing of his earlier style. This was no more evident than when he performed live. A month before Montgomery’s death, Giddins saw him perform and described what he heard: “Surrounded by four rhythm players, his regular group, he immediately shot off a single chorus of ‘Goin’,’ and followed it with the most fiery, exquisite set of guitar music I’ve ever heard….Clearly, he had compromised only on disc and would eventually be recorded more seriously.” Unfortunately, this did not occur. At the peak of his career, Montgomery suffered a fatal heart attack in his hometown on June 15, 1968.
“While Montgomery’s place in jazz history was earned through his early recordings—his jazz recordings— his talent was encompassing enough to enable him to take on the requirements of ‘commercial’ music and execute it with utter elan, unerring taste, musicianship, and true distinction,” Welding wrote. In a review for down beat of a posthumous release, Don DeMicheal offered this statement on Montgomery’s lasting ability: “Montgomery could do no wrong when his muse was hot upon him, and it often led him to try and accomplish things that few others could even conceive.” But it is perhaps this quote from Ingram that succinctly defines the achievements and losses of Montgomery: “Even when he was immersed in blatantly commercial surroundings, Montgomery never lost his ability to create sophisticated, tasteful jazz. He could turn tap water into vintage wine, though it is sad he was forced to do so, so often.”
Finger Pickin’, Pacific Jazz, 1957.
Montgomery land, Pacific Jazz, 1958–59.
The Montgomery Trio, Riverside, 1959.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Riverside, 1960.
Movin’ Along, Riverside, 1960.
So Much Guitar!, Riverside, 1961.
Full House, Riverside, 1962.
Fusion, Riverside, 1963.
Boss Guitar, Riverside, 1963.
Movin’ Wes, Verve, 1964.
Bumpin’, Verve, 1964.
Goin’ Out of My Head, Verve, 1965.
Smokin’ at the Half Note, Verve, 1965.
Tequila, Verve, 1966.
California Dreaming, Verve, 1966.
A Day in the Life, A&M, 1967.
Down Here on the Ground, A&M, 1967.
Road Song, A&M, 1968.
Willow, Weep for Me, Verve, 1969.
Britt, Stan, The Jazz Guitarists, Blandford Press, 1984.
Giddins, Gary, Riding on a Blue Note, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Kienzle, Rich, Great Guitarists, Facts on File, 1985.
Sallis, James, The Guitar Players, Morrow, 1982.
down beat, January 9, 1969; March 6, 1969.
Guitar Player, April, 1977.
Jazz, November, 1966.
Jazz & Pop, August, 1968.
Jazz Journal International, July, 1986.
Trombonist, band leader
Trombonist Phil Ranelin launched his career playing with guitarist Wes Montgomery, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and others in his hometown of Indianapolis. He moved to Detroit in 1968 and, with clarinetist Wendell Harrison, began to pioneer his own projects as a founder of the Tribe, a multi-functional collective of artists who produced a magazine and ran a record label in addition to performing together. Since 1977 Ranelin has been a mainstay of the Los Angeles jazz scene, performing regularly with Hubbard and leading his own outfits, the Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble and Phil Ranelin & Tribe Renaissance. The latter group was formed to celebrate the style of Ranelin and Harrison's collective, whose music has enjoyed a resurgence due to several reissues and compilations on the Hefty and Soul Jazz labels.
Ranelin was born on May 25, 1939, to Kenneth and Velaer Ranelin in Indianapolis, Indiana, and graduated from Arsenal Technical High School. He supported a variety of musicians, including former schoolmates Montgomery and Hubbard, at Indianapolis clubs like Hub Bub, while holding down a day job. "In Indianapolis, there was very little work for me, being a trombone player, and then there were racial issues, because the other people had all the work. So there weren't many opportunities for me to play," Ranelin recalled in a Michigan Chronicle article by Dee Dee McNeil. Working with Montgomery was a highlight, Ranelin told McNeil: "I had the good fortune at a very early age of meeting and being accepted by Wes Montgomery. So that still sticks out in my mind as one of the greatest experiences ever, sitting in with Wes. He was just a wonderful human being."
Ranelin met Detroiter Sam Sanders at the Hub Bub in 1968, and the saxophonist convinced him to relocate to Detroit, assuring him he would find work. Ranelin moved in short order, and in addition to joining pianist Harold McKinney's The Creative Profile and performing with local musicians like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and drummer Roy Brooks, he found work supporting Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and other artists associated with the city's famous Motown record label. Ranelin also hooked up again with Harrison, a native Detroiter who had returned to his hometown from New York City. In 1971 the pair formed the Tribe, a musicians' collective in the same vein as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music in Chicago, the Black Artists Group in St. Louis and the Underground Musicians' Association in Los Angeles. In addition to Ranelin and Harrison, the group included McKinney and Belgrave, pianist Kenny Cox, drummer Doug Hammond and trumpeter Charles Moore. The members of the collective performed together, released their work on their own record label, and produced a quarterly magazine, all with an eye toward promoting progressive sounds as well as a growing black political consciousness. "Tribe stamped 'Made in Detroit' deeply into every bar of music it made," noted Jim Dulzo in Jazz Times. "There were bebop lines up top, perched on a big funk bottom. In between were all sorts of freewheeling jazz with enough edge to grind the chrome off a Cadillac…. Tribe's sound was miles away from the increasingly slick sounds dominating the national jazzscape. These Detroiters eschewed tons of technique in favor of in-your-face expressions of deep feelings, ranging from peace and love to unabashed political rage."
Harrison and Ranelin released the first Tribe recording, Message from the Tribe, in 1971. Ranelin recorded two solo LPs for the label as well, The Time Is Now in 1974 and Vibes from the Tribe, the label's final release, in 1976. All three albums challenged mainstream musical and political ideas. Raw, loosely structured compositions bear such titles as "The Time Is Now for Change" and "Black Destiny," and Ranelin's occasional lyrics as well as his liner notes contain explicit political messages. "The time is now, for unity among the people! The time is now, for all men to be able to control their own destinies! The time is now, for oppression, racism, greed, hate and poverty to end! The time is now, for revolution!" Ranelin wrote in the liner notes to The Time Is Now. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young awarded the collective a key to the city in 1974, and in 1976 Tribe was selected to represent the United States at the World Music Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. Ranelin told Jazz Times that he did not recognize the significance of Tribe until later in his career. "At the time it was natural, it was a movement, but we didn't fully realize it," he said. "But all around the country things like that were taking place, maybe not to the degree of guys establishing magazines or record companies, but there were collectives where people were getting together and putting on concerts. Those organizations were like survival kits, really."
By the late 1970s, various members of the Tribe began pursuing individual projects and the collective disbanded. Ranelin moved to Los Angeles in 1977, where he reconnected with Hubbard and became a regular member of his ensemble. He did not release another solo LP until 1986, when he recorded Love Dream for Harrison's Rebirth label. Another decade passed until the 1996 release of his next solo album, A Close Encounter of the Very Best Kind, on Lifeforce. Throughout this time, Ranelin continued to perform live with a number of artists, including Hubbard, vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, and saxophonist Art Pepper. He also led his own Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble.
Ranelin has enjoyed a renewed public interest in his early recordings since Chicago's Hefty Records reissued The Time Is Now and Vibes from the Tribe in 2001, remixed and remastered by John McEntire of the experimental rock outfit Tortoise. The resurgence was further spurred by Tribe anthologies issued by the British label Soul Jazz and the Japanese label P-Vine. In an artist's statement included in Vibes from the Tribe, Ranelin contended that his 30-year-old sounds would appeal to a new generation. "I strongly feel that the young people on the planet will really groove on these 1970s tracks," he wrote. In the same essay, he reflected on the impact of his former collective. "Tribe was more than a Band, a Record Company and a Magazine Publication," he wrote. "It was a Movement of Black Pride and Self-determination. People who had given up on their childhood dreams were rediscovering them."
To promote the releases, Ranelin formed the nine-piece outfit Phil Ranelin and Tribe Renaissance. The reissues, he told Jazz Times in 2001, have inspired him to continue promoting Tribe's philosophies. "I'm 62, but I feel like I am 42," he said. "I'm ready to go out on the road and present this music to the people and continue the concepts that were developed through Tribe. Traveling the world playing some music is really what I thrive on."
Ranelin also plays with several L.A.-based outfits, including the Horace Tapscott Sextet, the Pan Afrikan Peoples' Arkestra, the Michael Session Sextet, and The Tambau International Ensemble. In 2004 he released Inspiration on the San Francisco-based hip-hop label Wide Hive. The album features original compositions dedicated to McKinney, pianist Tapscott, saxophonist John Coltrane, reed player Eric Dolphy, and trombonist J.J. Johnson, among others. In an interview discussing the album on the All About Jazz website, Ranelin said he believes his instrument, long relegated to a supporting status, is starting to garner more respect. "We're still overlooked, but I think we're making progress in terms of being acknowledged as an instrument that doesn't just have to play whole notes and backup to the rest of the section," he remarked. "It is a melodic instrument and has great beauty. It is an instrument that can give you some of everything and is still being explored."
For the Record …
Born on May 25, 1939, in Indianapolis, IN. Education: Graduated from Arsenal Technical High School.
Began playing with Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and others in Indianapolis; relocated to Detroit and became studio musician for Motown, 1968; established Tribe collective with clarinetist Wendell Harrison, 1971; relocated to Los Angeles and joined Hubbard's ensemble, 1978; as frontman, released Love Dream on Rebirth, 1986, A Close Encounter of the Very Best Kind on Lifeforce, 1996, and Inspiration on Wide Hive, 2004; continues to lead and perform with Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble and Phil Ranelin & Tribe Renaissance.
Addresses: Record company—Wide Hive Records, P.O. Box 460067, San Francisco, CA 94146, website: http://www.widehive.com. Website—Phil Ranelin Official Website: http://www.ranelin.com. E-mail—[email protected]
Message from the Tribe, Tribe, 1971.
The Time Is Now, Tribe, 1974; reissued, Hefty, 2001.
Vibes from the Tribe, Tribe, 1976; resissued, Hefty, 2001.
Love Dream, Rebirth, 1986.
A Close Encounter of the Very Best Kind, Lifeforce, 1996.
Inspiration, Wide Hive, 2004.
Jazz Times, September 2001.
Michigan Chronicle, February 20, 2002.
Recorder (Indianapolis, IN), December 21, 2001.
"An Interview with Phil Ranelin," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (May 16, 2005).
"Phil Ranelin," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 8, 2005).
Phil Ranelin Official Website, http://www.ranelin.com (May 16, 2005).