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11 places to remember Wes Montgomery in Indianapolis

Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery performed his music to packed houses all over the world. But he spent most of his time in Indianapolis. He was born here. He died here. He developed his unique style here.

He did so out of necessity: Wes and Serene Montgomery had seven children and a small house. As a young man, Wes worked days in a factory, which meant the only time he could practice guitar was at night. His work-around was to use his thumb instead of a pick “to keep the noise down,” for the neighbors, Serene told the Indianapolis News in 1973.

He performed like he practiced, and that soft, thumb-produced sound became a hit with audiences in New York and in Los Angeles, and in London, England and Paris, France, and in Germany and Belgium, and the Netherlands–Montgomery’s sound was a hit all over.

But first it was a hit in Indianapolis. Wes Montgomery performed often in his hometown, mostly in small nightclubs. Many of the old haunts were bulldozed long ago by developers and planners that failed to see their historic significance.

As Indianapolis celebrates what would have been Montgomery’s 100th birthday on March 6, 2023, we take a look at 11 sites where you can remember the jazz legend. Plus: Check out all the "Wes at 100" events happening throughout the city. 

Wes Montgomery, 1923 - 1968

Birthplace, 1007 N. Pershing St.

Born March 6, 1923, John Leslie Montgomery lived in this two-bedroom house as a baby–he and his parents and two brothers. The brothers, both toddlers, had trouble saying “Leslie.” It came out “Wes.”

The Montgomery’s were a musically talented family: brother Charles, known as Buddy, played piano and vibraphone; William, known as Monk, played bass–Monk Montgomery may have been jazz’s first electric bass player.

The family home, 1217 N. Cornell Ave.

Nineteen-year-old Wes Montgomery married 19-year-old Serene Miles in 1943. The couple had seven children, and the family lived here for more than two decades. The house was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new highway system. It stood near where I-65 meets I-70, a junction known as the “north split."

P.R. Mallory and Co., 3029 E. Washington St.

Wes Montgomery needed a day job. In the 1950s, he got one in a factory operated by a manufacturer of batteries. He was a welder. Music was his side hustle, though he worked at it tirelessly.

Home of Lomax Mahone, 515 W. 24th St.

Montgomery came to this address often in the 1950s to have his music equipment repaired. Lomax Mahone was an electrical engineer at Naval Avionics whose side gig was repairman. He worked out of his basement and fixed Montgomery’s Gibson electric guitar and his tube-powered Fender amp. Mahone and Montgomery became friends and would sit on the porch and talk.

(The Mahone house on 24th Street is gone now. It caught fire in 1982, long after the Mahones moved away, and quickly was engulfed in flames. Four members of the Black Angels–a motorcycle club across the street–charged into the house and carried two children to safety.) 

Central State Hospital, 2800 W. Washington St.

After welding all day, Wes Montgomery would play guitar all night. All over Indianapolis he performed, mostly in nightclubs for jazz lovers, but once, in July 1952, for patients at what was then known as the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane (“More and more, we’re finding that these people enjoy the same things other people do,” the hospital superintendent, C.L. Williams, told the Indianapolis News.).

Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Mayfair Tavern, 2032 E. 10th St.

In 1956, Montgomery performed at the Mayfair Tavern, but he was not the star. Buddy Baker was. The Dec. 2 Indianapolis News ad said: “Buddy Baker Combo featuring Wes Montgomery.”

The Mayfair Tavern was open from 1935-1985. The building was fully remodeled and opened as the Mayfair Taproom in 2018. 

LaBee’s, 2250 N. Meridian St.

Here, in October 1958, Wes Montgomery shared a bill with “Wally & Joe Mexican Guitar and Bongo Drums.”

Throughout the 1950s Wes Montgomery performed a lot, but he was playing small clubs in Indianapolis and splitting the money with Wally and Joe and Buddy Baker and whoever else. Serene Montgomery described the 1950s as “cornmeal time.”

The Missle Room, 518 N. West St.

There is nothing here to see anymore, only a patch of grass and a parking lot. The Missile Room was a small “after-hours” joint that wasn’t supposed to sell alcohol but did anyway. Wes Montgomery performed there the night of Sept. 7, 1959, and into the morning of Sept. 8 with two other local players, organist Melvin Rhyne and on drums either Paul Parker or Sonny Johnson (reports vary).

Montgomery was by then a seasoned musician but still a side man. Around midnight, into the Missile Room strode the renowned saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. Adderly was in Indianapolis for a show at the big, grand Indiana Theater, appearing with Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, among other jazz stars.

He and some of the other musicians decided to check out the local talent. (Adderly himself had been “discovered” by Miles Davis only a few years earlier.)

Duncan Schiedt, an Indianapolis jazz lover, was there and watched as Adderly took in Wes Montgomery’s unusual guitar playing–using his thumb–and parked himself in front of the stage.

“When Wes went through one of his patented octave passages,” Schiedt recalled in a 1971 interview with the Indianapolis Star, “I still have the image of Cannonball flopping back in his chair, rolling his head back in a knocked-out attitude, and then jerking his thumb up toward the amazing guitarist for the benefit of his friends back in the darkness.”

Adderly told the people at his record label, Riverside Records, to sign Montgomery. They did, and Montgomery went to New York and recorded “A Dynamic New Sound, the Wes Montgomery Trio,” and that was that: He was off and running.

(Montgomery never forgot Lomax Mahone. Mahone had moved to New Jersey in the mid-1950s, but years later when Montgomery headlined in Newark, he got tickets for Mahone and his wife, Henrietta, and sent a limo to pick them up.)

Butler-Tarkington residence, 641 W. 44th St.

This two-story Colonial, built in 1941, was purchased by Wes Montgomery in the early 1960s. The Montgomerys–Wes, Serene and their seven children–were among the first Black families to move into the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. 

Puritan Baptist Church, 872 W. 27th St.

On June 18, 1968, some 2,000 people filed past the casket of Wes Montgomery. Cannonball Adderly was one of them. Montgomery died three days earlier, in Methodist Hospital, having suffered a heart attack. He was 45. 

New Crown Cemetery, 2101 Churchman Ave.

Mourners followed the funeral procession to New Crown Cemetery and watched Montgomery's casket being lowered into the ground (section 20, row 99). On his headstone was etched a guitar, a Gibson L5.

– Story by Will Higgins

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