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Jazz musicians celebrate Wes Montgomery

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Robert Montgomery took the mic Tuesday at the Jazz Kitchen to pay tribute to his father, but he soon paused, seeming to realize that the man in question belonged to everyone in the packed house.

"I'm going to call him 'Wes,'" he said, with a broad smile. "I'll have to apologize later to my mother for that."

On what would have been the legendary guitarist's 88th birthday, fans, friends, family (including his widow, Serene) and even Mayor Greg Ballard turned out to celebrate an unlikely and historic occasion: the release of the first previously unheard Wes Montgomery recordings to hit the public in more than 25 years. The album, Echoes of Indiana Avenue, is now available from California-based Resonance Records, a not-for-profit label that supports rising jazz artists and preserves classic recordings.

The new collection was culled from tapes acquired by a collector in 1990 and later digitized and restored. Though the recordings had no accompanying information, producer and Resonance executive Zev Feldman pieced together a plausible history through research and conversations with contemporaries such as IU jazz studies chair David Baker, who were able to identify some of the musicians simply by listening.

They eventually concluded that the nine songs - most of them standards, including studio recordings and at least two live club sessions - are the earliest known recordings by Wes Montgomery as a bandleader, made within a year or two preceding his national recording debut in 1959.

On Tuesday, guitarist Bill Lancton opened the evening with his trio and closed it with the Indy Guitar Summit, playing a Montgomery-laced set with fellow guitarists Steve Weakley and Frank Steans. In between, NUVO columnist and WICR radio host Chuck Workman acted as emcee, introducing a parade of speakers that included Feldman as well as noted jazz photographer Duncan Scheidt, who provided images for the release, and bassist Mingo Jones and organist Melvin Rhyne, who are among several musicians heard on the recordings.

The old-timers shared anecdotes from Indianapolis' jazz heyday of the 1950s, when Indiana Avenue was a national destination for jazz musicians and fans, and the Missile Room was the preferred after-hours club for local hepcats and touring stars like saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who reportedly discovered Montgomery there and helped him land his first record deal.

A picture emerged of a self-taught musician who spent years juggling family life and his straight job as a welder with nightly club gigs. He rose to international acclaim in the '60s and even achieved a degree of pop success before his untimely death in 1968.

The most touching non-musical moment of the evening could found in the tearful embrace that Feldman and Robert Montgomery shared onstage.

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