The Second Oldest Profession? (Part 3)

The Second Oldest Profession? (Part 3)

I was thrilled to see and hear the recent release of never previously issued recordings by the seminal guitarist John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery. Until now, there was no audio record of his work available from the six years of his life he spent playing music on a half-mile long stretch of night clubs in Indianapolis that catered to jazz musicians and aficionados known as “The Avenue.”

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

I usually stay with my mother while I’m in San Francisco. Her place is conveniently located near the Haight-Ashbury district, a very short walk to Amoeba Music, and has a great internet connection. The laptop I’m using now presents a new obstacle to overcome as its keyboard, which includes a separate number pad, is shifted towards the left of its screen’s center line and makes me crane my neck ever-so-slightly towards its right-leaning content (not at all dissimilar to my philosophical view of the world); an arrangement that, for the time being, gives me neck and shoulder pains. (Fortunately, I have a good supply of industrial-strength ibuprofen on hand to enable my “better living through chemistry” philosophy.) I’m also learning how to negotiate a unique keyboard layout that keeps me finding the cursor moved to places I don’t want it to be (which resembles a different and unwanted “better living through chemistry” paradigm that is particularly annoying). But learning is good. It’s what we’re here to do, hopefully, for our entire lives, which is in keeping with the theme of this series of posts (which is coming to its conclusion). After all, considering that we are born with severely underdeveloped brains, education must be the first and oldest of our social commutations. At least that’s how I see it.

To totally change the subject: I’m glad to see that the link that was supposed to play a clip of the late Pete “La Roca” Sims at Drummer World no longer points to the Ken Werner Trio (with Tom Rainey on drums and myself on bass) playing “Have You Met Miss Jones.” As much as I love to listen to the cut (on Guru, TCB, 1994) and get the publicity, I’d rather the opportunity wasn’t a result of misattribution. I hope that a clip that includes La Roca’s work is included at the website soon. I also hope that the opening sentence of its eulogy, “Pete La Roca’s decision to leave music in 1968 and become an attorney…cut short a productive career,” is modified to reflect something a little more like reality. I included a link to his interview with José Francisco “Pachi” Tapiz to help rectify this matter.

I’m of the belief that it is vital to our survival that, once an artist dies, the details of his or her life should be chronicled as accurately as possible in a process that engages as much of the public as possible. It’s a good practice for us to look back on how our colleagues are manipulated by (or manipulate) the Great American Culture Machine during their lifetimes and debunk any myths we discover. My master’s thesis was a debunking of several myths about saxophonist Jim Pepper that had worked their way into the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. That particular entry was only incorrect about his name, date and place of birth, the instruments he played, his discography, and ten years of his biography. (The remaining two thirds of his career mentioned cursorily in the volume are, more or less, represented accurately.) These are easily researched by looking at records that are available to the public. But when the issue is an artist’s intent, as is the case of Pete Sims taking up the study of law, the research gets mired in a “he said-she said” quagmire. Fortunately, there is an extant interview in which Sims contradicts those who would speak for him. This isn’t always the case, though. We’ll probably never really know why Freddie Keppard turned down the offer to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, just as we may never know why Rossini’s creative juices slowed to an almost imperceptible ooze before his 40th birthday.

It’s a great thing then when forces from within the Great American Culture Machine are moved to fill in the gaps left in an artist’s life story, so I was thrilled to see and hear the recent release of never previously issued recordings by the seminal guitarist John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery. The title of the CD, Echoes of Indiana Avenue (Resonance HCD 2011, 2012) refers to a half-mile long stretch of night clubs in Indianapolis known as “The Avenue” that catered to jazz musicians and aficionados. When I first met bassist Ray Brown (in 1976 at the Concord Jazz Festival) and told him I was from Indianapolis, he responded by waxing poetic about The Avenue, where he would “go when a tour ended because there was always work there.” My father would tell me stories about hearing the Montgomery Brothers (Wes, Monk, and Buddy) playing “their best” there. He felt that the recordings released under Wes Montgomery’s name after his being signed to Verve Records fell far short of representing the artistry he displayed while playing on Indiana Avenue. In the CD’s liner notes, jazz historian Dan Morgenstern describes how Montgomery spent six years of his life supporting his wife and seven children by working “in a radio parts factory, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., … a gig at the Turf Bar from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. … [and] after hours [at] The Missile Room, from 2:30 to 5 in the morning.” But, until now, no audio record of his work from this period of his life was available.

According to the liner notes, producer Michael Cuscuna was made aware of a “cache of unissued Wes Montgomery tapes” that had been unsuccessfully put up for auction on eBay in 2008. The owner of the tapes contacted Cuscuna and a deal was struck to get the tapes to him. He ascertained that these were demo tapes, made to shop to record companies, and were most likely recorded just before his signing to Pacific Jazz in 1958. The tapes contain nine selections: Shorty Rogers’s “Diablo’s Dance,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser,” Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train,” Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” and an improvised blues that contains a brief reference to Pee Wee Crayton’s “Blues After Hours” and is titled, appropriately, “After Hours Blues.” While the quality of the sometimes incomplete takes is primitive, even with digital remastering, the music is anything but. After hearing how flawlessly Montgomery plays, no matter the tempo or device (including long rapid-fire block chords and parallel octave passages), I have to agree with my dad that there is something about the performance of the hungry Wes Montgomery that is missing from his recordings after he had “arrived.”

All that’s left of “The Avenue” is the Madame Walker Theater and, possibly, The Missile Room. I played at both when I relocated to Indianapolis (1990-93) and had a little taste of the tough-love and determined ferocity of “Naptown” after-hours music making that drummer Benny Barth (who, along with pianist Richie Crabtree, played with bassist Monk and vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery in The Mastersounds) referred to as the “school of hard knocks” and the “university of the streets.” I was hosting a radio show in 1991 I called Jazz Focus and interviewed a visiting scholar from the University of Paris at Sorbonne. He was working on a project about the Montgomery family that was based on the thesis that a fourth and oldest brother, Michael, was responsible for the musical education the younger Montgomerys (Wes is usually described as self-taught) and that if it weren’t for him, Wes would never have played guitar. In the liner notes to Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Monk Montgomery mentions an older brother, June, who played drums. He died young, but supposedly won a drumming contest against the legendary Chick Webb, who was touring in Indiana. If it’s true that June Montgomery supplied the vision for the Montgomery brothers, it’s clear that he helped to shape the face of American music because electric guitarists born in America since 1960 have had to “do time” with the legacy of Wes Montgomery.

Echoes of Indiana Avenue is a CD that anyone who is interested in improvised music in America should put on their short list of “required listening.”