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Indy jazz legend honored with historical marker

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Wednesday, March 13, 2024   

By Sophie Young for Mirror Indy.
Broadcast version by Joe Ulery for Indiana News Service reporting for the Mirror Indy-Free Press Indiana-Public News Service Collaboration
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Robert Montgomery was only about five years old when his father, legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, died of a heart attack at age 45. He doesn’t remember much from that time.

“His death really shook me,” said Robert, the youngest of seven siblings, and it wasn’t until he got older that he began to listen to his father’s music. 

“I remember going to my mother and saying, ‘Mom, Dad was really good,’” he said. “And she goes, ‘Of course, you blockhead. Of course he was.’”

Now, Robert, 62, is one of his father’s biggest fans. 

“To me, nobody plays as good as he does,” he said. “You know, not just because he’s my dad. Because I’ve listened to guitars, and they’re great. But they’re not Wes.”

Wes Montgomery, who was born in Indianapolis in 1923, was an innovator on the guitar, creating a new sound by playing with his thumb instead of a pick — a style he created so he wouldn’t disturb his family or neighbors while practicing at night after working long days at a factory. He got major record deals, won Grammys and toured. 

Even though his music took him across the world, his home was always in Indianapolis. He was recognized on March 6 with a public dedication of a historical marker on what would’ve been his 101st birthday.

The Indiana Historical Bureau, which runs the marker program, has had Wes on its wishlist of people to recognize for years. Wes left his mark across the city, so it wasn’t easy to decide where the marker should go.

It could have gone on Indiana Avenue, where he played in jazz clubs. Instead, it will be at 10th and Bellefontaine Streets, near the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. The marker is close to where the Montgomery family home stood on Cornell Street before it was razed to build the interstate. 

The decision for the location aligned with Wes’ priorities. He wanted to move to the West Coast to pursue music, but he stayed in Indianapolis for his wife, Serene, and their kids. Wes and Serene were 19 years old when they married in 1943 and were together until Wes’ death in 1968.

“The music was second. We were first – and my mother,” Robert said. “He was really truly a family man. At the very heart of being a family man, the love for us was impeccable.”

It wasn’t easy to capture Wes’ 45 years – his family, his work, his music – on a historical marker. Each side of the metal sign can only hold 372 characters, including spaces. And the text can’t include superlatives like “best” or “first;” everything has to be factual and backed up by primary sources. 

“You had to really think about, ‘Okay, how do we talk about this person and not connect my emotional feelings and inspirational things that he brought to my life and music?” said Rob Dixon, a saxophone player. “That was a challenge, but it was rewarding.” 

Dixon is the artistic director of the Indy Jazz Fest, and he was part of a team that helped with the application process. 

The research was led by Scott and Katie Taylor, who met Robert’s siblings while applying for a marker for John Hope School 26, an initiative led by the Oaks Academy to pay tribute to the history of the school it had purchased. From there, they became interested in Wes’ life and legacy. 

All the research fits in a thick, heavy binder full of newspaper clippings, advertisements for shows and more. The book ends with pages of articles about Wes’ legacy and influence.
 
Wes died on June 15, 1968, and 2,400 people showed up at his funeral, including Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, a renowned saxophone player who “discovered” Wes in 1959 at the Missile Room on North West Street. Adderly and other jazz stars were in town for a show at the Indiana Theater, according to IndyStar reports from the time. 

After the public dedication ceremony for the marker on March 6, the Bottleworks Hotel hosted a private reception where Robert and other family members, and musicians and friends from across the country came out to remember Wes. 

Serene Miles Montgomery-Woods, who later remarried, died in 2020 at age 96. Robert shared a story his wife told about riding in the car with Serene when she was in her 80s.

“This song came on – Freddie Jackson’s ‘My Lady.’ And my wife thought maybe she didn’t want to hear it, so she turned it down,” he said. His mom said, “‘No, turn that up.’ And she said, ‘Wes used to say that about me all the time. I was his lady.’”


Sophie Young wrote this article for Mirror Indy.


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