Jack Montrose, 1953-1955

The first half of the 1950s was the golden era of west coast jazz, with artists and bands including the ground-breaking piano-less quartet of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, The Dave Brubeck quartet with Paul Desmond, Shelly Manne and his Men and many others. The 1940s bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton produced many musicians who would become leaders in the jazz scene – Shorty Rogers, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Jimmy Giuffre. The area was also home to record labels such as Pacific Jazz, Contemporary Records and Fantasy Records, who left behind rich catalogs of recordings by all the great local musicians in the area. One of the characteristics of jazz that came from the west coast was an aptitude for well-written arrangements, sparked by the type of work that many of these musicians did as their day jobs in the thriving film industry and the relatively new TV studios. Composition was also a key aspect of jazz music coming from the west coast, with a focus on through-composed pieces rather than simple song structures and catchy melody meant as a spring board for soloists and improvisers. One of the most important figures in that local scene was sax player, composer and arranger Jack Montrose, who between 1953 and 1955 was part of some of the most enduring recorded jazz music in Los Angeles. Regretfully Montrose is a forgotten name to many jazz fans due to unfortunate turns in his career and the fact that his role was often behind the scenes. This article is an attempt to do the man justice by highlighting his work on some of these great recordings.

Jack Montrose - William Claxton 001
Jack Montrose, 1954 by William Claxton

Montrose’s first major recording session took place on December 14, 1953 at Hollywood Studios for the Chet Bake Ensemble, for which he composed and arranged all the material. The liner notes for the resulting 10″ LP introduced the newcomer: “Jack, at 25, is a graduate of Los Angeles City and State colleges with a degree in music. He considers these recorded efforts as his first conscious, deliberate effort to reach a goal in jazz composition. Although Jack is an excellent musician (he has played with the orchestras of Shorty Rogers and Jerry Gray) his basic interest lies in composition. While at State College he wrote a string trio, a string quartet, a song cycle using a group of Kenneth Patchen’s poems as lyrics, and a trio for woodwinds in three movements.” The musician credits on this date read like the cream of the crop of the LA scene at the time. Other than Jack Montrose on tenor sax, we find Chet Baker on trumpet, Herb Geller on alto and tenor sax, Russ Freeman on piano, Joe Mondragon on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. One more musician on that session was baritone sax player Bob Gordon, whom Montrose met in 1948 when Gordon was in Alvino Rey’s band with Paul Desmond. The two were good friends on and off the stage and Gordon played an important part in Montrose’s musical career in the next two years. The session was setup by Richard Bock, founder and producer of the newly formed Pacific Jazz label, who was looking for new musical directions for his young trumpet star after he left the now legendary piano-less quartet with Gerry Mulligan. Montrose was influenced by the writing for Birth of the Cool and Gerry Mulligan’s charts for Miles Davis’ nonet.

The Trumpet Artistry of Chet Baker

One tune from that December 1953 session showcases Montrose’s composing and arranging skills. Bockhanal, a tune Montrose dedicated to Richard Bock, gets a deserving praise by Michael Cuscuna in the liner notes for the re-release of the Chet Baker Ensemble album from 2004: “On the master take of Bockhanal Montrose uses an unusual device. Piano and bass lay out for the opening ensemble and the drums play only melodic responses to the music, with the rhythm section kicking in for the solos. It’s very effective and brings greater clarity and impact to the arranger’s voicings and counterpoint.”

A week later the same ensemble gathered again to record more tunes, this time focusing on standards, all arranged by Montrose. One of the songs they attempted was the sad and soulful Goodbye, written by Gordon Jenkins and used as a show closer by the Benny Goodman orchestra for many years. Again a great arrangement for the horn players, with the saxes creating an interesting harmony behind the trumpet solo.

A few days later, during the last two days of 1953, Chet Baker went one more time into the studio, this time for a higher profile recording for Columbia that would be released as Check Baker & Strings. For this session of lush set of tunes Montrose contributed one composition, A Little Duet (for Zoot and Chet), a nice showcase tune for Chet Baker and Zoot Sims.

The arrangement Montrose wrote for You Better Go Now could have easily been a feature song on a classic Hollywood romantic movie of the time. No doubt Columbia had been pushing for music that would capture the ears of a wider audience, but the arrangement is still powerful.

Working with Chet Baker was a pivotal moment in Jack Montrose’s career, from which in the next few years he would keep a busy schedule of sessions for Pacific Jazz and later with the bigger Atlantic Records label. He later said of the trumpet player: “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.” Two months later Chet Baker would record his milestone album Chet Baker Sings and take his career commercially to the peak of jazz music.

Chet Baker and Strings
Chet Baker and Jack Montrose on the cover of Chet Baker & Strings

1954 found Montrose working on sessions with west coast’s finest jazz musicians. On March 17, 1954 Shelly Manne’s band recorded a number of tunes produced by Lester Koenig for Contemporary Records. Montrose contributed a very interesting composition titled Etude De Concert, in which the jazz ensemble moves back and forth between classical and jazz arrangements.

A couple of months later Montrose participated in two sessions for Bob Gordon, an amazing Baritone sax player in my book, who due to his choice of instrument and locale, was forever in the shadow of Gerry Mulligan. The resulting album, Meet Mr. Gordon on Pacific Records, ended up being the only album Gordon would release as a leader. Montrose composed a few tunes for these sessions including For Sue, a song untitled at the time of recording that Montrose dedicated to Gordon’s wife Sue.

The title track Meet Mr. Gordon, also written by Montrose, showcases the two sax players in a lovely interplay.

Montrose’s biggest achievement in 1954 was his work in July and August of that year on the recordings that Clifford Brown made for Pacific Jazz. The brilliant trumpeter had an engagement at the Tiffany club in LA with his legendary quintet with Max Roach and got together with the best of west coast musicians under a Richard Bock production and arrangements courtesy of Jack Montrose. It is interesting to hear Montrose’s arrangement of Brown’s tune Daahoud, made famous by his quintet with Max Roach. The horn section made of Stu Williamson on valve trombone, Bob Gordon on baritone sax and Zoot Sims on tenor sax gives Montrose new possibilities compared to Clifford Brown’s quintet.

Montrose recollection of the session: “Dick (Bock) 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.”

The Clifford Brown Ensemble Featuring Zoot Sims

July and August of 1954 were very busy months for Jack Montrose. In addition to his work with Clifford Brown he also participated in a number of recording sessions as a tenor player. In early July he played on a couple of dates with Lennie Niehaus for the album Lennie Niehaus Vol. 1 – The Quintets on Contemporary Records. Whose Blues demonstrates the interplay between Montrose, Bob Gordon and Niehaus on Alto sax.

In August of that year Montrose was part of a recording session for Discovery Records with the Art Pepper quintet, with which he performed opposite Clifford Brown and Max Roach at the Tiffany club. Montrose Remembers: “Art Pepper and I recorded an album with our own group which we used to refer to as Art’s Spice Suite. 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.” Thyme Time is a great tune from that album.

Art Pepper and Jack Montrose 1954
Art Pepper and Jack Montrose, 1954

Jack Montrose’s most important year was still ahead of him, as in 1955 within a span of two months he recorded two albums under his own name. On May 11 and 12, 1955 he ran two sessions for Atlantic Records with producer Nesuhi Ertegun for an album called ‘arranged/played/composed by Jack Montrose with Bob Gordon’. The sessions included Jack Montrose on tenor sax, Bob Gordon on baritone sax, Paul Moer on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. The News And The Weather is a nice original piece from that album that opens with an arranged part for Montrose and Gordon before both sax players play solo improvisations on the melody.

Montrose’s compositions and arrangements are an expression of subtlety. His focus is on nuance, not big statements. His liner notes for the album capture his thoughts on this topic: “Although I’ve been given the opportunity on several occasions, I have neither arranged nor composed anything for big bands. Several big band leaders asked me, and I always felt I had to refuse. I don’t agree with what they are trying to do. Most dance bands sound terrible to me. But Basie’s band thrills me. I don’t know if I could ever write anything for that band. I think I could, and I’d love to try. I’d like to write in the Basie tradition, with my ideas in harmony and counterpoint. But generally, I don’t like big bands. I don’t like brass for the sake of brass or loudness for the sake of loudness. Massive walls of sound, as such, fail to impress me.” A good example of a brilliant horn arrangement on the album that could have become a vehicle for a big band is another Montrose original, Paradox.

The following month Jack Montrose recorded one more album as a leader, this time for Pacific Jazz Records. Simply titled Jack Montrose Sextet, in my opinion this is Montrose’s most interesting album and one of the best in Pacific Jazz Records’ rich catalog of west coast jazz. The ensemble is very similar to the one on the previous album, with Ralph Pena on bass and the addition of Conte Candoli on trumpet. Montrose later shed some light on the origin of the material for the album: “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.” Here is the wonderful Listen, Hear:

On the album’s back cover liner notes, New Yorker writer Whithney Balliett wrote: “In place of the water-off-the-duck’s-back unison ensembles one hears in so many modern jazz, Montrose, more often than not, makes every front line voice an individual one, pitching them against each other rhythmically, harmonically, and for color contrasts.” Even the watered-down reviews of Billboard Magazine did not remain unfazed when the album was covered on January 28, 1956: “Montrose’s writing again clearly shines forth as one of the major lights of modern jazz. Montrose has achieved a real ‘chamber music’ feel in these tightly written, neatly balanced creations. Bewitched is one of the best items to demonstrate blowing by Candoli and Bob Gordon, and the outstanding drumming of Shelly Manne.” Indeed the ensemble plays a great rendition of the ballad Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered:

Jack Montrose Sextet cover

Two months after the recording of the sextet album, Bob Gordon died in a car accident when he was on his way to a gig. He was only 27, and the two 1955 albums he made with Montrose were released after his tragic death. At his funeral Montrose played Goodbye, the tune that Montrose arranged for Chet Baker and now sadly relevant. He later wrote of his friend on the back cover of the sextet album: “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. When he put his big horn to his lips he 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.” Gordon’s death was a big blow to Montrose, similar to the one Max Roach would suffer the following year when 26-year old Clifford Brown died, also in a car accident on his way to a gig. In Gordon’s death Montrose lost not only a friend, but his career plans as well: “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”. Montrose’s career never saw the peak of 1955 again, and after a few more years of recordings and side performances, he drifted away from the main jazz scene and ended up playing shows in Las Vegas. But the recordings he made as composer, arranger and tenor sax player represent some of the best in jazz that came from the west coast in the early 1950s.

bob gordon and jack montrose
Bob Gordon and Jack Montrose]

A number of sources were used during the writing of this article:

Pacific Jazz Records Discography

West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia

Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective, By Gordon Jack

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