Happy Birthday to William Howard “Monk” Montgomery born – October 10, 1921 – May 20, 1982
William Howard “Monk” Montgomery was an American jazz bassist. He was a pioneer of the electric bass; possibly the first to record on the instrument in a 1953 session led by trumpeter Art Farmer. He was the brother of noted guitarist Wes Montgomery and vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, into a musical family, Monk had three brothers and a sister. His older brother Thomas played drums, and died at 16. Monk gave his younger brother Wes (born 1923) a tenor guitar when Wes was 11 or 12. Wes took up the electric guitar at age 19 and went on to major success. The youngest brother, Buddy (born 1930) played piano and later took up the vibraphone. Their younger sister, Ervena (Lena), also played piano. Monk himself did not take up the double bass until he was 30, after hearing one of Wes’ groups perform.
The three brothers released a number of albums together as the Montgomery Brothers, also playing together on some albums credited to Wes. Also Buddy and Monk recorded many albums together in their group The Mastersounds.
He is perhaps the first electric bassist of significance to jazz, taking up the Fender Precision Bass in 1952 or ’53 after replacing Roy Johnson in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. He said his biggest influences as a bassist were Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, and Charles Mingus. Monk played electric bass with his thumb (brother Wes, played electric guitar with his thumb, also) and adapted his jazz playing from double bass to electric. In the 1960s he took up Fender Jazz Bass, playing with a felt pick.
His professional career did not start until he was 30, and after his younger brother Wes. Monk worked in a foundry and played gigs on upright bass at night in Indianapolis. Wes worked for vibraphonist Lionel Hampton from 1948-1950, Monk then worked for Hampton around 1952-1953, with Hampton insisting he play the Fender bass, and not an upright. Monk’s recordings with The Art Farmer Septet on 2 July 1953 are possibly the earliest recordings of the electric bass, and display his facility with walking bass lines, bebop melodies, and Latin-style ostinato. Chuck Rainey said that Monk was the first electric bassist to record, in any genre.
Guys in other kinds of music may have beat me to the studio, though I’m not aware of any…As far as I know, I was the first in jazz to record electric bass.— Monk Mongomery, Guitar Player, September 1977, reprinted in The Guitar Player Book, 1979
Monk toured and recorded in Europe with Hampton in late 1953. After that he worked briefly with the Anthony Ortega Quartet in Los Angeles, and then with his brothers in the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet in Indianapolis (with Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson, sax, and Robert “Sonny” Johnson, drums). In 1955 he moved to Seattle to form The Mastersounds from 1957 to 1960.
In 1964-65 Montgomery played on two albums by The Jazz Crusaders, and members of that band would go on to produce and play on his first two solo albums. Later, from 1966 to 1970, he freelanced with vibraphonist Cal Tjader and continued to play where he settled in Las Vegas, Nevada, with The Red Norvo Trio until 1972.
Between 1969 and 1974 he released four solo albums.
In 1970 he recorded in Los Angeles with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. In 1974 Monk toured South Africa with a group including singer Lovelace Watkins, and Monk recorded his final solo album Monk Montgomery in Africa…Live! in Soweto. In 1976 he served on the Jazz Advisory Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts with Benny Carter, George Russell, Muhal Richard Abrams, and others. In 1977 he helped organise the inaugural Maseru Music Festival in Lesotho which included Dizzy Gillespie, students and staff from Rutgers University and local musicians. In his final years he was active in the Las Vegas Jazz Society, which he founded, he also presented a local radio show. He had also been planning a world jazz festival. In 1981 he became the founding president of the Western Federation for Jazz.
Montgomery died of cancer in Las Vegas on May 20, 1982. He had a wife, Amelia, three sons, and four stepchildren.
In 2003, on his self-titled album, Detroit musician Andrés sampled Montgomery’s track “Reality”.