The Montgomery family name is well established in jazz history due to the musical accomplishments of Wes, perhaps the most influential jazz guitarist of his era. Yet the legacy of the Montgomery name stretches further. Buddy Montgomery, one of Wes’ brothers, was an accomplished pianist and vibraphonist who recorded with Johnny Griffin, George Shearing and Charlie Rouse.
The name of Monk Montgomery may be unfamiliar to many jazz fans, yet his story is fascinating though largely untold. Monk was the first to hand his younger brother Wes a guitar when he was approximately 11 years old. Monk himself did not take up the double bass until he was in his mid-twenties, almost unheard of for such a proficient jazz musician. After practising for a couple of years, Monk found himself in the orchestra of Lionel Hampton.
It was Hampton who first encouraged Monk to switch to the new electric bass which was made popular by instrument maker Leo Fender. Monk told Guitar Player Magazine “Hamp handed me the Fender and told me he wanted the electric instrument sound in the band. The electric bass was considered a bastard Instrument. Conventional bass players despised it. It was new and a threat to what they new…At first I freaked out, because I was in love with my upright bass…(but) I made up my mind to do it and did it well”
Monk Montgomery was not only one of the first to tour with the new Fender Precision bass, but he is believed by many to be the first to record with the instrument. The record date took place on July 2nd 1953 and was released as Work Of Art by The Art Farmer Septet. All of the musicians on the date (aside from drummer Sonny Johnson) were members of Hampton’s orchestra. On this recording, Montgomery successfully eased the new instrument into jazz by emulating the sound of the double bass. Playing the instrument with his thumb, Monk produced a warm round tone which suited the cool swing and latin groove based compositions on the album.
Being one of the first musicians to adopt the Fender bass, Monk had no influences on the instrument. This allowed him to adapt his style throughout his career. Although the use of the thumb produces an appealing sound, it can be technically limiting. Monk dealt with this problem by creating his own plectrums made of felt. This allowed a greater playing speed while maintaining the soft attack.
Monk Montgomery would continue to have an extensive career as a sideman and bandleader, recording with his brothers, Hampton Hawes, Hugh Masekela and Kenny Burrell amongst others. Yet he continued to break new ground on a series of albums released under his own name. His first solo album entitled It’s Never Too Late was released in 1969 and features members of The Crusaders. On the album, Monk plays a style of lead bass guitar which wouldn’t achieve widespread acceptance until Jaco Pastorius burst on to the scene some 6 years later.
Monk Montgomery came into his own as a leader on his 1971 release Bass Odyssey. Not only does he continue his vision of a lead bass sound, but he develops it even further, introducing fuzz effects and tremolo picking. The album also features double bassists Andy Simpkins & Kent Brinkley, allowing Monk to focus on his role at the forefront of the music. The music is infectious soul jazz with a notable contribution from keyboard player Joe Sample. The record, like most of Monk’s solo output, remains out of print.
Monk Montgomery’s influence in jazz should not be underestimated. Not only did he introduce the Fender Bass to the genre, but he gave it a unique and credible voice through his sensitive accompaniments and memorable solo albums. He was also an early pioneer of playing the instrument with a plectrum, a style of playing which is still rare amongst jazz bassists (Steve Swallow and Carol Kaye being two other notable plectrum users).
Despite this, Monk Montgomery remains largely unknown and unmentioned not just in jazz circles but also in the world of bass guitar. Many of his albums are out of print, as is his in-depth and extensive 1978 bass tuition book. In the internet age, Monk Montgomery’s playing may not contain enough fireworks to be featured on bass guitar websites but his legacy deserves acknowledgement and his music deserves to be re-examined in the modern age.