Indianapolis music fans owe Resonance Records a hearty thanks. Before the Los Angeles-based label stepped onto the scene there'd been only one posthumous recording of unreleased Wes Montgomery music issued since the legendary jazz guitarist passed away in his Indianapolis home on June 15, 1968 at age 45. Resonance's 2012 release Echoes of Indiana Avenue collected previously unheard material dating from 1957-1958, providing a rare early snapshot of Wes Montgomery performing as a bandleader. The label's next release, an expansive 2CD/3LP package titled Wes Montgomery In The Beginning pulls out all the stops featuring previously unheard and impossibly rare Wes Montgomery recordings dating back to 1949.
This extraordinary collection debuts on May 12. The release party is happening right here in Indy on that same date at the Jazz Kitchen, and features a range of activities from a panel discussion to performances from local guitar maestros Bill Lancton, Steve Weakley and Frank Steans.
I spoke to Resonance Records' Executive Vice President and General Manager Zev Feldman about the upcoming release via phone from Paris, France.
Along with the interview, we're premiering a brand new track from this collection. Recorded for Spire Records in Fresno, California, "Smooth Evening" features Wes Montgomery (guitar), Roy Johnson (bass), Douglas Duke (piano), Gene Morris (tenor) Earl “Fox” Walker (drums) and Sonny Parker (vocals). Listen while you read about this amazing new release.
NUVO: Resonance Records' Echoes of Indiana Avenue was the first album of new music from Wes Montgomery since Verve Records' issued Willow Weep For Me in 1969. Now you have this incredible 26-track package culled from a variety of different sources spanning a period of nearly 10 years in Montgomery's career. How long have you been working on this project and how did you unearth this wealth of unreleased material?
Zev Feldman: We've been working on this project for the last three years and the music has come to us in a variety of different ways. A lot of it through due diligence and research. I've gotten a nickname as the "Jazz Detective." I travel the world researching this stuff. I'm in Paris right now looking for archival tapes. This is what I do.
This project started right before Echoes of Indiana Avenue came out. Robert Montgomery who is Wes' youngest son and the head of the estate introduced me to Buddy Montgomery's widow Ann. She approached me because she had tapes of Wes and his brothers playing in clubs from the late 1950s. I want to point out that this was not the Montgomery Brothers, that came later. At this point they were called the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet. It's really important to differentiate.
Anyway, Ann had copies of these tapes made by a 22-year-old college student from Butler University named Philip Kahl. Kahl followed the Montgomery brothers around Indianapolis. We have Kahl's tapes of Wes and his brothers playing at the Turf Club and Missile Lounge, which is the very famous club where Cannonball Adderley first saw the brothers perform and according to folklore he was so moved he immediately contacted his label president Orrin Keepnews, who within days made the trip to Indianapolis.
So we had all this material that would've made up a full CD of music. But some other interesting things started happening. Sometime around December 2012 I was in New York at a concert and I had a chance to chat with Kenny Washington the great jazz drummer and historian. He and I were joking around and he wanted to test me on how much I knew about Wes Montgomery. He said, "Have you ever heard of Wes Montgomery on Columbia Records?" I was like a deer in the headlights and I said no, because Wes never recorded for Columbia. He told me about this rarities compilation record called Almost Forgotten that Columbia put out around 1983. One of the tracks on this release was billed as the Montgomery Brothers, but it was actually the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet featuring Wes, Buddy, Monk, "Pookie" Johnson and Sonny Johnson.
I tracked down the record after talking to Kenny. After listening to that record my question was why was there only one track from a session like this? I'm good friends with Richard Seidel who was one of the former heads of A&R at Verve Records. I asked him who could get me into the vaults at Sony Music. Before I know it, we're in the vaults and we find the original Epic Records recording session of the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet recorded in 1955, and it also happened to be one of the earliest recording sessions Quincy Jones produced. We got permission to go in and pull out the reels and low and behold there's another four tracks. Oh my god, we listened to it and it was great!
After that revelation, a couple other things happened. I came across a gentleman — and at his request I promised to never reveal his name — somebody who had a tape of a performance of Wes and "Pookie" Johnson playing at the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago in 1957. That tape is 12 minutes. I heard it and we bought it from the source.
At this point in addition to all the recordings I just mentioned we also had a tape of a jam session recorded at the house of Wes' sister Ervana. So the project started evolving into this anthology of early material that's mostly undocumented. I started thinking we've already gone back this far, we really need to look at what might be out there from the earliest period of Wes' career. It's no surprise that Wes made recordings while he was with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in the late '40s. But he doesn't solo on most of that stuff. There's a Hampton compilation out that you can track down, but you'll never hear Wes on those recordings because he doesn't solo.
But I did find some stuff that he does solo on and those were made for a label called Spire Records in 1949. These were done in Fresno, California with a band called Gene Morris and His Hamptones, which I presume was a spin-off from the Lionel Hampton Big Band. We found these 78s and included them. They were really hard to come by, not even the Library of Congress had copies. These are very important recordings as they contain Wes' earliest known published solos.
This collection really shows Wes and his brothers honing their craft in a period a lot of people haven't heard before. It really speaks volumes in terms of what these guys were doing and their talent. It's extraordinary and when we were putting this together I felt we really had to go above and beyond in the packaging. We wanted to build one of the greatest packages ever for Wes.
NUVO: That "above and beyond" spirit is certainly reflected in the 55-page booklet of liner notes included with the CD. Tell us about some of the contributing writers.
Feldman: First of all we got Ashley Kahn, who won a Grammy last year writing the liner notes for our release of Coltrane's Offering. I got Bill Milkowksi, one of the leading guitar scholars in the world. And god bless him, I miss Duncan Schiedt a lot. He was a good friend of mine. When we started this project I thought I should interview him, and we did our last interview via phone just before he passed. I had him recount his story of being at the Missile Lounge the night Cannonball was there. Duncan was there and witnessed the whole thing, but famously the flash didn't work on his camera.
Also, before Buddy Montgomery passed away he'd been working on an autobiography that never came out. His widow Ann went back and carved out certain chapters and passages that really related to this period of the brother's lives. There's a lot that's shared in there. We also have an interview Monk Montgomery did in 1980 with Maggie Hawthorne. We carved some really interesting stuff out of that. I learned something I didn't know from that. The Turf Club in Indianapolis was a segregated club. There's one passage where he describes a night when the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet was playing the Turf and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan showed up at the door and they were almost turned away from the club. The guys in the band stopped playing and said, "Let them in or we're not going to play." So they set up a table for them. This whole story is recounted in the liner notes.
We have all sorts of photographs that have never been published. In addition to recording the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, Philip Kahl also had a camera. There are some very candid shots of these guys. Listen, Wes passed away in 1968. If you look at guys like Miles, Mingus, Monk and these guys who recorded for so many years, there's been tons of unreleased materiel that's come out over the years. But that hasn't been the case for Wes. This is a really special document and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Working on this project has been one of the greatest experiences I've ever had and I'm so glad I'm getting to speak to NUVO about this because it's an Indiana-centric project. My old friend Chuck Workman used to work for you guys. He was a big conduit for all the work I was doing. He's terribly missed. I can't tell you enough how much I love that guy.
NUVO: In addition to the contributors you just mentioned, The Who's Pete Townshend also provided liner notes. How did you get Pete connected to this project?
Feldman: On the last record we did Echoes From Indiana Avenue, we got Pat Martino to contribute. And he's so great, and he knew Wes! But on this project I wanted to do something a little different. I thought, "Why not get someone outside of the typical jazz circles, but who has something to say?" I knew for a long time that Pete Townshend was a jazz fan. I thought Pete would be a remarkable music ambassador for us and have great things to say, and that indeed turned out to be the case. Pete is one of the greatest guitar players of all-time, and you better believe a guy like that has something to say. I'm really grateful to him.
NUVO: Finally, you've mentioned your friendship with a couple local Indianapolis legends who have both sadly have passed away, Duncan Schiedt and NUVO's Chuck Workman. I'm curious what your connection to Indiana is. Did it come solely through your research into jazz history?
Feldman: When the Echoes of Indiana Avenue project came about we didn't know where this music was recorded or who was playing on it. So I had to come to Indianapolis and try to piece everything together. Chuck Workman was a guy who was so supportive right from the beginning. I really miss this guy. It chokes me up. If I ever had any trouble finding an answer this guy jumped in and helped me with the research. To an extent, Duncan Schiedt was the same. I had a chance to go to Duncan's home three or four times while we were doing research. Duncan was one of the greatest photo-journalists of all-time. They were my friends and this project is dedicated to their memory in addition to Wes. I gotta tell you Chuck would go out of his way to help, I loved the guy.
I hope everybody in Indianapolis comes out to celebrate with our dear friends at the Jazz Kitchen on May 12. We're going to be throwing down and celebrating Wes and the Montgomery family. We gotta celebrate Wes. This guy he was a master and he's Indiana's native son. He was a family man. He and his brothers were like the Three Musketeers. There's something really special about that. His legacy is very important and there's a lot to learn from this man.