Charles “Buddy” Montgomery, a jazz pianist and vibraharpist with long ties to the Bay Area, succumbed to heart failure on May 14 at his home in Palmdale, California. He was 79. Two older brothers preceded him in death: electric bass pioneer Monk in 1982 and guitar phenomenon Wes in 1968.
Buddy probably had the best ears I’ve ever encountered,” said record producer Orrin Keepnews, noting that Montgomery was an “intuitive musician” who couldn’t read music or chord changes but would learn new tunes after just one or two hearings.
Keepnews recorded him on vibes with his brothers and pianist George Shearing for Riverside Records in New York in 1961 and produced albums under Buddy’s own name in the 1980s for the Landmark label in Berkeley.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Montgomery didn’t begin playing piano until he was 18, but soon found himself on the road with blues shouter Joe Turner, performing at dance halls and dives in the deep South. “I really didn’t know blues that well,” Montgomery stated in 1987. “I was a bebop player. It kinda taught me how to play and appreciate blues. Joe would say, ‘Just play less notes.’ It took me a few years to understand that that was really important.”
“I’ve never worked with anybody would could change around the blues the way Buddy could,” said vocalist Marlena Shaw, on whose 1987 album “It Is Love” Montgomery played piano.
“Buddy was the most phenomenal arranger. Songs that I may have been singing for a couple of years just turned into something else under his fingers and his brain. Because of what he played, it made me sound like I was brilliant. I’ve worked with some wonderful people who do things instantaneously on the spot, with Ray Brown and all of them, but Buddy was number one in that.”
Shaw, singer Mary Stallings, saxophonist John Handy, and many others will participate in a tribute to Montgomery at Yoshi’s in San Francisco on Wednesday, July 22, beginning at 8 p.m.
Buddy and Monk Montgomery moved to the Bay Area in 1956 when they were with the Mastersounds, a jazz quartet in which Buddy played vibraharp. The group had a best-selling series of albums of songs from the musicals “The King and I,” “Kismet” and “Flower Drum Song” and helped establish the Jazz Workshop on Broadway in San Francisco as a popular club.
Buddy and Monk bought their then-little-known brother Wes west in 1957 to join the Mastersounds, but after living in East Oakland for a month, the guitarist moved back to Indianapolis due to homesickness.
Buddy himself left Oakland following Wes’ 1968 death, but returned in 1982 and remained for 11 years. During his second Bay Area residency, he organized the Oakland Jazz Alliance and produced a series of concerts at the Calvin Simmons Theater and other venues.
Montgomery’s survivors include his wife Ann Montgomery and first wife Lois Ann Moore, children David and Charla Montgomery, and grandchildren Mykah and Anthony Montgomery.