While perhaps not as perilous as Odysseus' journey, we nevertheless take a look at two figures—one a musician and one a designer—that undertook their own odysseys through the jazz world.
The name we are perhaps more familiar with in jazz is Wes Montgomery, and both Monk and Wes were part of a trio of musician brothers that also included Buddy, who played the vibraphone. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1921, it seemed all the siblings in Monk's house were playing one instrument or another. A third brother, Thomas (who died young at 16) played drums and a sister, Ervena played piano. It is ironic, then, that Monk himself did not start seriously playing music until he was already 30 years old.
Despite being a relative newcomer Monk Montgomery made an important contribution to the music scene when he introduced the use of electric bass to live jazz sessions in 1953. Leading a somewhat itinerant lifestyle that is not uncommon in the realm of professional musicians, Monk vacillated between working with his two brothers in the Montgomery Brothers, with his brother Buddy in The Mastersounds, or as a sideman with such artists as Cal Tjader, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, Eddie Harris, and many others. He also recorded four albums as a leader, and was able to use those occasions to push his music forward sonically and conceptually.
Fuselage Parts 1 and 2 from the Bass Odyssey album is an example of that paradigm. During the eight plus minutes of this track, Monk takes us on an odyssey of sorts, with an initial two and a half minutes of funky, bass-led blues rock, before he completely breaks down into a solo of fuzzy bass; just when he's stretched your eardrums as far as they can go for a minute and fifteen seconds, the band comes back in with a beat that's even more up-tempo than the first half of the song.
Monk Montgomery was devoted to the culture of jazz music, serving on the Jazz Advisory Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and founding the Las Vegas Jazz Society in 1975, which is still in existence today. He passed away in 1982.
While listening to Fuselage Parts 1 and 2, one can't help but look at the cover of Bass Odyssey and think of it as almost otherworldly. Monk Montgomery seems as if he has set up his instrument just outside of his space craft on a craggy planet that Captain Kirk just left. If nothing else, it presents a daring artist alone in the vast landscape where he must chart his own path. The man responsible for the image is designer Tom Wilkes, who worked on so many iconic album designs.
Wilkes cemented his place in modern music history when he became the art director for the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967. The posters and other promotional materials for the now legendary event (think Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar ablaze) drew praise to Wilkes' design capabilities, and from there he, like Monk Montgomery, led a somewhat itinerant professional career. After the festival he was hired as art director for two major labels, A&M Records as well as ABC Records, and in between these posts he was a designer with Camouflage Productions, Wilkes and Braun Inc. and Hot M Productions. He would eventually go on to start his own firm, Tom Wilkes productions.
If you are a classic rock fan in addition to being a jazz lover, it may well be worth your time to dig into your vinyl collection at home and look for Tom's name on the album design credits. He is responsible for some of the most iconic music images in rock and pop history. Mr. Wilkes died in 2009.
You can dig further into the careers of Monk Montgomery and Tom Wilkes with these handy links:
Last year, The Jazz Record posted a great story specifically about the Bass Odyssey album.
A nice obituary about Tom Wilkes appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
KSNV in Las Vegas reported on the life of Monk Montgomery a few years ago.