Backtrack: Jazz Musician Wes Montgomery’s Indiana Avenue Origins

Wes Montgomery, one of the world’s preeminent jazz musicians, got his start on Indiana Avenue.

March 2017Add a comment

“Through these portals Pass the World’s Best Musicians.” Thus proudly proclaimed a sign over the door of Henri’s Cafe Lounge, in its day a hotspot on Indiana Avenue. The musicians pictured above are among the legendary ones who took the stage there: Wes Montgomery on guitar, Willis Kirk on drums, Monk Montgomery on bass, and Buddy Montgomery on piano. They were snapped at Henri’s, a 100-seat club, sometime between 1950 and 1953, playing a tune we can only guess at. At the time, Henri’s was quite the gathering spot—in 1951, for instance, the local African-American community packed inside to watch an important Crispus Attucks High School basketball game.

By the time this photo was taken, Indy native John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was already on his way to becoming a jazz legend. He and his brothers had grown up playing music together, and had been holding jam sessions at their mother’s house every Sunday for five years. Montgomery had toured with Lionel Hampton’s band from 1948 to 1950, but then returned to Indianapolis. He worked as a welder at P.R. Mallory & Co. by day, but his nights were filled with clubs and music. By late 1959, the guitarist got signed to the Riverside record label, catapulting his star into the stratosphere.

Montgomery went on to virtually define modern jazz guitar for the next decade. This was a period when jazz, long a staple of black culture, was finally breaking through to the mainstream music scene, and Montgomery was there to capitalize on it. John Coltrane asked him to join his band, but the guitarist stuck to leading his own group. Sometimes he recorded with the Wes Montgomery Trio, other times as a solo act. He signed with the renowned Verve label in 1964, and his 1965 album Goin’ Out Of My Head earned him a Grammy as the best instrumental-jazz performance of the year.

The man who had been born into a humble home just west of the White River in Haughville in 1923 moved his family to a tonier neighborhood in the early 1960s—on 44th Street, near Butler University. He would live there until his untimely death, of a heart attack, in June 1968 at the age of 45. He’s honored today by Wes Montgomery Park, a spray park near Emerson Avenue and 35th Street—designed in the shape of a guitar.

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