Jack Montrose

Jazz saxophonist and composer


Jack Montrose, tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger: born Detroit 30 December 1928; married; died Las Vegas 7 February 2006.

Apart from being a good tenor sax soloist, Jack Montrose was a good jazz composer. One of the pitfalls of leading a band is that there is no one to tell you if your own original compositions are no good. Quite often they are not. A list of "originals" on a CD may look impressive, but it should be feared as a vampire fears wooden stakes. Montrose was an exception and the dozen or so albums that he made, most of them in the Fifties at the height of the popularity of West Coast jazz, are remarkable for the quality of his music.

His impoverished parents, having moved there from Detroit, found survival in Chicago during the Depression unendurable, so the family moved again to be near to relatives in Chattanooga:

We moved into a slum called Onion Bottom, which was all black, so it was great. My family is Jewish and I grew up in the redneck South in a black ghetto. So even the Jews wouldn't have anything to do with us.

Montrose taught himself to play the saxophone and became financially self-sufficient playing in white dance bands when he was 14. Two years later he began touring the South with the bands and whilst still a teenager he was able to move to Los Angeles. In 1947 he was good enough to join the John Kirby Sextet a few months before the leader's death. Here he met Bob Gordon, a baritone sax player who was to be his musical partner until Gordon's death in a car accident in 1955. Gerry Mulligan also sat in regularly with the Kirby band, and so Montrose was flanked by men who were perhaps the greatest baritone players of their time.

He enrolled at the Los Angeles State College where he achieved his BA in 1953. By now he had developed his unusual tenor sax style which was a combination of his terse phrasing with the prevalent cool sound. His accomplishments were welcomed by the West Coast stars - Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Mel Tormé - all of whom gave him work and welcomed him to their society. For six months in 1954 he toured with Stan Kenton's band.

But, as with many of the West Coast musicians, the jazz cliques led him to a drug habit that was to spoil the rest of his life:

I was playing with my heroes and they were all doing it. But what worked against me mostly was later on, because all the early inspiration that comes with anything as powerful as heroin vanished and it became a matter of just staying alive and trying to keep from being sick. Then it became impossible to keep commitments. You can only miss so many record dates or show up late for so many before you get on everyone's black list.

By 1961 Montrose had broken his habit but it was too late and his opportunity for deserved jazz recognition had been lost. The popularity of West Coast jazz subsided rapidly and he had to leave the music to work in Los Angeles strip clubs or as a studio musician on rock recordings.

A move to Nevada brought him work accompanying performers in the casinos of Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe, but it insulated him from the jazz movement. He had a resurgence in the late Eighties when he made three albums with the pianist Pete Jolly and two for the obscure Holt label in 1990 and 1991. In recent years he had been brought back to Los Angeles to take part in West Coast revivals.

During the Fifties he had written outstanding arrangements for recording sessions by the trumpeters Chet Baker and Clifford Brown.

Despite his travails he was a coherent thinker and a liner note that he wrote for one of his sextet albums of 1955 remains a potent textbook of jazz philosophy.

Steve Voce

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