Monday, February 12, 2018

Jack Montrose: “Over Before It Began”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 “During the fifties, when the jazz media spotlight shone brightly on Los Ange­les, Jack Montrose's writing and playing were very important ingredients in what became known as West Coast Jazz.”
- Gordon Jack

“For a time in the mid-fifties, Jack Montrose's reputation as an arranger threatened to eclipse even that of his former instructor Shorty Rogers. As 'staff arranger' for Pacific Jazz in 1953 and 1954, he had gained favored attention for his writing on the Chet Baker and Clifford Brown ensemble albums, as well as the initial ten-inch LP of his favorite playing companion, baritonist Bob Gordon. In 1955 Montrose was offered his own album by Dick Bock, and the resulting LP was entitled The Jack Montrose Sextet. Joining the tenor saxophonist were Gordon, Conte Candoli and the rhythm section of pianist Paul Moer, bassist Ralph Pena and Shelly Manne.

Shortly following the Pacific Jazz session, Montrose was again recorded - this time by Atlantic. The line-up for this date was a quintet with Bob Gordon, Paul Moer, Shelly Manne and bassist Red Mitchell. The quintet format must have felt more congenial to Montrose, for this Atlantic session produced his finest work. Again every tune on the album was either composed or arranged by the leader.

With these two albums Jack Montrose seemed about to be recognized as a major jazz writer, but tragedy struck before either album was even released. On the way to an out-of-town concert with Pete Rugolo, Bob Gordon was killed in a car accident. Montrose and Gordon had been close friends offstage as well as in performance, and the loss seems to have hurt Montrose creatively as well as personally. Whatever the reason, Jack Montrose never again produced any recorded work comparable to the Pacific Jazz or especially the Atlantic album.”
- Bob Gordon

« J'aime ecrire dans le style "musique de chambre" a cause de son intimite. Rien n'y est superflu ni ne peut l'etre [...]. En ecrivant en vue de cet album, aucun instrument n'a ete neglige. Mon but est d'utiliser chacun dans son registre propre. » Comme par ailleurs Montrose proclamait hautement que le blues etait la forme musicale la plus fantastique qui puisse etre et qu'un bon interprete du blues ne pouvait etre qu'un bon jazzman, on voit a quel confluent se situe sa musique.

“I enjoy composing in a ‘chamber music’ style because of its intimacy. Nothing is superfluous nor can it be […]. While writing for this album, I tried not to neglect any of the instruments and to blend them with one another. My goal was to use each one in its proper tonal range ” In addition, Montrose proclaimed his high regard for the Blues as a musical form and that it was difficult to be a good Jazzman if one was not a good interpreter of the Blues. One hears such a confluence in Montrose’s music.
- Alain Tercinet

“Born December 30, 1928, in Detroit, Montrose had attended high school in Tennessee before journeying west to study music at Los Angeles State. In addition to being a leading saxophonist on the Southern California scene, Montrose also distinguished himself as a composer and arranger with a flair for the indigenous contrapuntal sound so popular in California jazz in the 19505. His writing credits grace record dates for, among others, Clif­ford Brown, Chet Baker, and Bob Gordon. For a brief period Montrose seemed on the verge of establishing himself as a major force in West Coast jazz, but instead his career went into a tailspin after the mid-1950s. Rele­gated to playing the LA strip club circuit and odd studio gigs, Montrose decided to resettle in Nevada. There he has kept himself busy in the finan­cially secure surroundings of the casino entertainment world.”
- Ted Gioia

Prior to his passing in 2006, I had a brief conversation with Jack Montrose at one of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s semi-annual, four-day events.

We had met years before in Las Vegas when both of us worked a gig for singer-dance Juliet Prowse. Jack played tenor saxophone in the pit band and also took over the nominal leadership of the group when her regular arranger couldn’t make it out of Hollywood.

After the usual, conversational asides and hair loss references, I asked Jack, whom I had lost track of when I moved to another career, how he had managed to stay involved with music “all these years.”

Jack said: “Well, as far as my work in Jazz was concerned, it was over before it began, wasn’t it?”

He then went on to essentially provide me with the highlights of his career as detailed in the following interview with Gordon Jack which can be found in Fifities Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2004].

“One thing is for certain,” he said: “It may have been short, but I had a ball while it lasted.”

I always considered Jack one of the most talented cats I’d ever met and his loss to the Jazz world as a tragedy. But then, the loss of Jazz itself from its halcyon days was no less so.

© -Gordon Jack, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with the author's permission.

“I was born in Detroit on December 30, 1928, which of course was during the Depression, and although we were very poor, I was never unhappy. I thought that everybody was like us and all kids had one pair of pants per se­mester. To escape the poverty, we moved to Chattanooga when I was about five years old, where we lived in a black ghetto called Onion Bottom. Thanks to a relative who financed my Dad in a grocery store which had a jukebox, I heard my first records by people like Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, and I was thrilled by it all.

Nobody in my family was musical, but I acquired a metal clarinet when I was about twelve, and a couple of years later, I worked a whole summer in a pawnshop to buy a C melody sax for $20.1 was completely self-taught be­cause we couldn't afford a teacher, and by the time I was fourteen, I had joined the union and played my first professional job on alto. Although I didn't really know what I was doing, I had also begun writing arrangements by ear—and right away discovered the bottom line: whatever sounds right is the truth. I switched to tenor when I heard Don Byas and Joe Thomas, and for the next couple of years I played with bands down South. By 1946 I moved with my family to Los Angeles and started doing one-nighters around town with people like Lennie Niehaus, Jack Sheldon, and Russ Freeman. Russ always knew more tunes than anyone else and was very generous with his harmonic knowledge. He helped us all and influenced my progress to a great degree, and I have always loved him for that. He lives in Las Vegas now, and it never ends, because he still knows tunes that I don't.1 The only other person who may know as many tunes as Russ is Herb Geller.

It was around 1948 that I first met Bob Gordon. He was with Alvino Rey's band, and we used to play together whenever he was in town. I never knew him to play anything except the baritone, which was the perfect instrument for him because he played it so well, with an absolutely beautiful sound. I have heard some guys play very effectively, but nobody sounded like Bob; he was unique. He and Gerry Mulligan both played Conn’s, because they made the best bari­tones, and although Gerry had a great sound, Bob's was even better. He had a natural mind-to-hand coordination that gave him fast fingers, which was un­usual on the baritone at that time.

Incidentally, Paul Desmond was also in Rey's band, and I enjoyed his playing very much, even though it was a little one-dimensional. He was very poetic and melodic, but his intensity never seemed to change. He actually sounded better on recordings than in person, because he didn't have a big sound, so he was hard to hear in clubs. The only time I ever worked with him was when we played with Jack Fina for about a month. Jack had been Freddy Martin's pianist, and he had a band at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel with three tenors: me, Paul, and Herb Geller.

For a lot of us growing up in the late forties in Los Angeles, Herbie Harper's jam sessions at the Showtime on West Ventura Boulevard were an important part of our musical education. They were like a postgraduate study in jazz for guys like Bill Perkins, Shorty Rogers, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and myself. Art of course was always one of my heroes, and I was unashamedly influenced by him and Chet Baker. One of the first things I notice about a player is his sound, and I think that Art had the loveliest sound on alto, out­side of Johnny Hodges. He admired Zoot Sims very much, and he even sounded like Zoot to me. I adored his playing, and still do, but I think he lost it for a while when he became too influenced by John Coltrane towards the end of his life. He lost what was valuable, because a great artist should search within himself without copying, and Art fell into that hole. As Lennie Niehaus told you, Art lost his honesty and played in a style that didn't suit him; he was just not playing "Art" anymore.

Chet was always an outstanding player. He immediately grabbed your at­tention, and just like a comet blazing through the sky, he wouldn't be denied. Gerry Mulligan in his wisdom really nailed it when he said that Chet knew everything about chords except their names, because he had the best ears of anyone I have ever encountered. The other myth about Chet not reading mu­sic is quite untrue. He played my charts, which were far from easy, as well as anyone.

In 1949 I played in Tom Talbert's Jazz Orchestra, which included Art Pep­per and Claude Williamson. I loved that band and, funnily enough, four or five years ago Sea Breeze reissued one of our albums and Tom sent me a check for $41.25, which was scale for a record session at that time. There were a lot of very talented players in the band who were never heard of again, like Steve White, who was a marvelous tenor player. He was one of the great­est white Prez-influenced players I have ever heard and could have been one of the "Four Brothers" without any trouble. His ears were so good that he could play anything, and he had all the makings of becoming a legend.2

I also did a lot of playing with Shorty Rogers, and around 1952 Bob Gor­don and I worked in John Kirby's last group at the 5-4 Ballroom, on 54th and Broadway. It was a sextet that played for dancers, and that is where I first met Gerry Mulligan. His girlfriend, Gail Madden, was a photographer at the ball­room, and he used to sit in with us every night when he came to pick her up. I had already become aware of him from the "Birth of the Cool" sessions, which was the only jazz writing that influenced me at that time. Those charts were wonderful, and the arrangers seemed to be affected by something that was quite unearthly. Gerry was a genius, and when he and Chet were at the Haig, I used to visit two or three nights a week. It was an unbelievably stim­ulating experience, hearing them play together, and the rest is history, because that is one of the best jazz groups ever. This was around the time I had a seven-piece rehearsal band, which included at different times Bob Gordon, Bill Perkins, Stu Williamson, and Dave Madden, and for a while we worked the off-nights opposite Gerry's group. Dave isn't too well known, but he was a very talented tenor player and one of my best friends.3  When Chet left Gerry, Dick Bock wanted to do something different with him, so he recorded him with my band on an album called The Chet Baker Ensemble in Decem­ber 1953.4 "

By this time I was studying for my degree in music and composition at L.A. State College, and one day between classes, I went down to CBS on Sunset Boulevard to audition for Jerry Gray's band. I got the gig, which was the jazz tenor chair, and I stayed with Jerry off and on for about five years. We were resident on the Bob Crosby radio show, and we played at the Am­bassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. Bob Gordon also had a steady gig, working around town with George Redman, who was the drummer with the Harry Zimmerman orchestra on the Dinah Shore T.V. show. George had a great following, and it was a very hip little group, usually one horn and rhythm, so there was a lot of jazz. Whenever I was free, I used to sit in with them at places like the Bombay club, and later on, Bud Shank and Maynard Ferguson were with the band. One way to keep busy when things were slow in the music business was to work in one of the many strip joints around L.A., so I started playing at the Body Shop on Sunset Boulevard. Herb Geller was the first real jazz player I knew to work those clubs, and it kept his head above water when times were hard. I used to sub for him there if he had other work.

In May 19541 arranged and played on Bob Gordon's only date as a leader, and we used his friend Billy Schneider from St. Louis on drums.5 We had been working in clubs like the Purple Onion, Peacock Lane, and Peacock Al­ley, and at the time of the recording, one of my original ballads was untitled. Bob asked if I would dedicate it to his wife, which I was happy to do, and I think "For Sue" came out very nicely. Another title, "Onion Bottom," was a reference to the area that my family had lived in when we first moved to Chat­tanooga.

I was also playing a lot with Art Pepper at the Angel Room on South Crenshaw Boulevard and Esther's on Hermosa Beach, and that summer our quin­tet appeared opposite Max Roach and Clifford Brown at the Tiffany club. Dick Bock wanted to record them with some West Coast musicians, and I was booked to write the arrangements, but I didn't play, despite what Ira Gitler has written, although I would have loved to.6 Dick decided the instrumentation and personnel, and it was his choice to do "Blueberry Hill" and "Gone with the Wind," not Brownie's. Clifford had an old studio upright at his motel in the West Adams district, and I used to visit him every day to work on the mu­sic, which was written with Max in mind, because he was supposed to be on the session. Unfortunately he got into a money hassle with Dick and bowed out at the last minute, so Shelly Manne was called, and he played just beau­tifully, bless his heart. I spent about two months writing the charts, and we re­hearsed the band three or four times over at my place. As you can hear on the record, everyone jelled immediately and it was a very friendly date.7

I have already said that Chet Baker was an unsurpassed "ear" player with no theoretical knowledge. Clifford Brown on the other hand had Chet's ears, but he was also a thoroughly schooled musician who would have practiced all day if he could. He was an absolute giant, very advanced in theory and totally immersed in music. He was also a sweet person, without a drink or drug prob­lem, living a perfectly clean lifestyle. Along with Stu Williamson and Bob Gordon, Zoot Sims was the other horn on the Brownie date, and for a while he caused me the same problem that Pepper had with Coltrane. I loved his playing so much that I couldn't imagine it any other way, and I had a rough time until I discovered myself again. Zoot was a marvel, and still is. He may no longer be with us, but as John O'Hara said about Gershwin's death, "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

While I was working with Clifford, Art Pepper and I recorded an album with our own group which we used to refer to as Art's "Spice Suite."8 This was because it featured a number of his originals like "Nutmeg," "Cinnamon," "Thyme Time," and "Art's Oregano." I don't know the significance of the other titles, but nutmeg was something inmates in confinement used to get high on. After the record release we planned to go East with our quintet, but as so often happened, Art got busted and disappeared off the scene. Being a junky, he was not the most reliable person in the world, but he loved playing so much that I can only remember him missing a couple of nights at the Tiffany club. When it came time to play, nothing else existed for him. He was one of my very best friends, easy to get along with, and marvelous to make music with.

In 1954 I spent six months with Stan Kenton, but truthfully I didn't like the band, although I adored the man. We were on different musical paths; that is not to say he was wrong, but his muse was not my muse. He actually hired me to write for him, and I was going to submit some of my originals like "Credo," "Pretty," "Speakeasy," and "Listen, Hear." I sketched them out on the long Kenton bus rides, but I changed my mind because the band was just too loud for my material. "Credo" was very ephemeral and delicate, but they would have destroyed it, totally losing the inner voices. "Listen, Hear" was a double fugue, and I couldn't imagine Stan playing it the way I wanted. Until you play in one, you have no idea how damned loud a big band can be, and Stan's could be pretty overwhelming.9

I rearranged all those numbers for my 1955 sextet album with Conte Candoli and Bob Gordon.10 Paul Moer was the pianist, and Bob and I liked his playing so much that he did three albums with us. I have never found anyone else who could play those sextet charts as well as he could. He came from Florida, and I first met him at the Cottage Italia, where they used to have mar­velous jam sessions.

Shelly Manne was on the date, and he was a prince of drummers, but Bob Gordon didn't like his playing at all. Bob preferred the New York school, like Philly Joe Jones and Art Mardigan, because he was an aggressive player and he liked aggressive drummers. We had both played with Philly Joe when he had come out to the Coast, and Bob especially liked the way he used his hi-hat on two and four, something Shelly didn't always do, which occasionally led to arguments on record dates. It's strange how some people don't get along. Bob and Art Pepper didn't like each other, and as far as I know, they never worked together. As Herb Geller told you, Joe Maini and Art actually hated each other, and I was there the night they nearly came to blows.

A few weeks after we recorded the last titles for the sextet album, Bob was killed in a car accident. I met his parents at the funeral, which is when I dis­covered that his real name was Bob Resnick, and I don't know why he changed it. His wife, Sue, wanted some of us to play at the service, so Jack Sheldon, Bob Enevoldsen, Joe Maini, and I played my arrangement of "Goodbye," which under the circumstances was very difficult to perform. If he hadn't died, things would have been a lot different in my life, because we were only just beginning. We had great plans for the future and would have certainly carried on playing together; I actually had another album already written for us. We were a partnership, and I have never missed anyone as much as I missed Bob Gordon.11 Sue eventually went to live on Staten Island, and she died a few years ago.

In 1956 Art Pepper and I were supposed to make an L.P. called "Blues and Vanilla."12 We rehearsed it, but I think he got busted again, so I called Joe Maini, and he was bebop incarnate, doing it so well and so naturally. I played a lot with Joe, and he was great fun and a wonderful player who didn't get recorded enough. We did studio sessions together when Marty Paich hired us for some Mel Torme recordings, but Joe was on lead alto, so he didn't get any solos. Mel Torme of course had the best phrasing, the best ears, and the best breath control; he was just superb, and I think Marty's writing for him and that little band was excellent. Marty had a way of understanding singers very well, and although it was not my kind of writing (I would have done it dif­ferently), those records still sound very good. I know that Corky Hale told you that Mel was hard to get along with, but I never saw it. I was on many dates with him and found him to be pleasant, and everything was as efficient and musical as could be.

All through the fifties I did a lot of writing for Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz, and he had a considerable input regarding players and repertoire, but he could not have been easier to get along with. He was a marvelous man in the right place at the right time to be part of the regeneration of jazz on the West Coast. However by 1960 something happened, because suddenly all the recording stopped and jazz seemed to be out of favor. I was still working in jazz clubs and strip joints where the girls were all jazz fans, so it was great practice. I also did some rock 'n' roll dates, but I don't want to talk about them at all—they were painful. That music started edging us out, although some of the jazz guys had a lot to do with turning off their audiences with their terrible arrogance. They started turning their backs on the customers, for instance, and I don't just mean Miles; a lot of lesser players were doing it. Also the avant-garde move­ment was too inaccessible and tough to take, and probably still is. Tastes were changing, but not being a social scientist, I could do nothing except suffer the results. I tried the Hollywood scene, but I couldn't make the deadlines; they just debilitated me. An agent would call and want three arrangements for the next day, and that isn't how I like to work. I'm not suited to turning out mate­rial without regard to its quality, so I was ready to quit by that time.

I decided to move to Las Vegas in 1971 because, if I had to do commercial work, Vegas provided a more relaxed atmosphere. I started playing in the shows, which were first class at the time, and acts like Sinatra, Steve and Eydie, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and Tony Bennett were certainly as good as the music could get in show business. I didn't rail against it, and I didn't mind going to work every night. This is when I met my wife, Zena, who was a vi­olinist in house bands, and we still work together sometimes. Although I was embroiled in making a living in show business, I didn't stop playing jazz. The union had a rehearsal hall with a bar that stayed open all night, and after the second show, everyone would go down there to play. That carried on until about 1985, when we lost the musicians' building during a strike. There is not much work left in the casinos now, because most of the acts we used to ac­company are no longer there.

Don Byas was the man who made me want to play the tenor, but Charlie Parker has to be my all-time favorite instrumentalist. He was absolute per­fection as a creator, and any player who grew up during that time would have to admit there was no denying Bird. His solos were actually compositions on a level far advanced from anyone else, and some guys became so taken with him that they became cripples; they couldn't play anymore. They missed the message, which is to be yourself and not be a copy. Funnily enough, the first time I heard him, I wasn't really impressed with his sound, but I soon real­ized that his ideas required that particular sound. When I understood that, Bird became a fixture in my consciousness, as did John Coltrane later on. John had a sound without historical evolution—totally unique, and it went with what he played. The ideas couldn't have been produced with any other sound, which is true of every great player.

There are some marvelous writers in jazz, but nobody has influenced me as much as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. I would also have given any­thing to have played in Duke's band, and if it exists in another lifetime, I want to be in it!

1.  Russ Freeman died two years after this interview took place, on June 27, 2002.
2.  Steve White's album on Nocturne OJCCD-1889-2, where he is accompanied by the incomparable Jimmy Rowles, confirms Jack's enthusiasm.
3.  In 1945 Dave Madden recorded with Stan Kenton's band, where he sat next to the eighteen-year-old Stan Getz. He also worked with Tom Talbert, Woody Herman, Jerry Gray, Si Zentner, Dave Pell, Frank Capp, and Harry James. He and Gail Madden were what the gossip columnists refer to as an "item," although they never married. Gail later had a similar relationship with both Bob Graettinger and Gerry Mulligan.
4.  Chet Baker Ensemble. Fresh Sound FSR CD 0175.
5.  Bob Gordon, Memorial. Fresh Sound FSRCD180.
6.  Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, eds. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (Oxford University Press).
7.  Clifford Brown, Jazz Immortal. Pacific Jazz CDP 7468502.
8.  Art Pepper, The Complete Discovery-Savoy Master Takes. Definitive Records DRCD 11218.
9.  Jack left the Kenton band in October 1954. He was replaced by the obscure Varty Haritounian, whose only commercial recording was with Serge Chaloff and Dick Twardzik in Boston a month previously, titled "The Fable of Mabel" (The Com­plete Serge Chaloff Sessions. Mosaic MD4-147).
10.  Jack Montrose Sextet. Pacific Jazz 7243 4 93161 2 6.
11.  In Gerard J. Hoogeveen's discography of the great Bob Gordon, Jack Montrose had this to say about his friend and colleague: "Bob Gordon was an inspiration to every jazz musician or aspirant who ever heard him play, or was perhaps fortunate enough to share the bandstand with him. Fortunate enough to partake of the fire that roared, the sparks that flew and the proclamations of the Gods that sounded, when he put his big horn to his lips and made the world abound with life, zest, and unbounded love. For the world was a better place to live in when he played and perhaps this sin­gular ability to make it so, was in itself his greatest gift. . . . His feeling was conta­gious, his sound indomitable, his time impeccable, the beauty and logic of his thought inexplicable. I learned to write through playing and it was largely through Bob's in­fluence that I learned how to play." Jack Montrose did not exaggerate, for Bob Gor­don was, indeed, a giant.
12.  Jack Montrose, Blues and Vanilla. Fresh Sound NL45844.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles with the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and StudioCerra Productions developed the following video tribute to Jack on which he performs his original composition "Some Good Fun Blues" with Conte Candoli [trumpet], Bob Gordon [baritone saxophone], Paul Moer [piano], Ralph Pena [bass] and drummer Shelly Manne.

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