Remembering Mike Montgomery, local pianist and expert on piano rolls

Jun 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm
Jazz scholar Jim Gallert dropped me a note asking that we note the passing of the pianist, piano roll collector, fellow jazz researcher and more Mike Montgomery, who passed away the other day at age 77. Montgomery's passing is, by all means, worthy of note. Chris Handyside (if memory serves me) was responsible for the part of a group project some years ago that dealt with Montgomery. It was a look at the lives of serious collectors, and there along with the opera disc collector, the communist paraphernalia collector, the perfume bottle collector, etc., was a piece on Mike, giving sense of what it was like to spend time with him at the library or archive rooms he called his "laboratory":

Occasionally he hoots like a thrilled kid at a stride piano passage, plays "air piano" and glances over to gauge the reaction of his audience of two. Montgomery is both an intense fan of the music and an internationally known expert in this specialized field. He's given talks at the Smithsonian, published papers and offered up parts of his piano roll collection to respected labels like Biograph and Nonesuch to use in the creation of archival recordings and transcriptions of such well-known artists as Fats Waller, George Gershwin and numerous artists otherwise lost to time.

You'll have to scroll down when you follow this link, but it gives a feeling of knowing the man if you didn't, spending more time with him if you did.

But Jim's note, asking that Mike's passing be noted, likewise, speaks volumes:

Mike was a real gem in the rough.  God knows how many folks he helped with his materials and, more significantly, his knowledge of all things related to piano rolls, obscure blues pianists, and early Detroit music.  He was a good pianist who worked solo jobs around town for many years, played with blues singers, and was a founding member of the Boll Weevil Jass Band.  Mike, Jim Dapogny and Ron Harwood spent many hours interviewing vocalist Sippie Wallace, who graced the Detroit music scene for many years.  That research is an underpinning for a soon-to-be-published biography of Sippie.

Mike was a longtime member of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors and its Michigan branch.

He could be grumpy and sometimes cantankerous, but he had a great sense of humor and loved to discuss ragtime and jazz.  He was selfless and shared what he had without hesitation; I can't count the number of times he shared with me a piece of research, or a rare book or recording.  And he knew what he had, and where it was kept.  He had a nearly complete collection of Lee Sims 78s which he kindly copied for me and which I shared with the Institute of Jazz Studies as well as a few researchers.  I took some road trips with Mike, and seldom has time passed so quickly; he was a wonderful conversationalist and genuinely interested in people, and he had a lot of stories to tell.

Mike wouldn't go near a computer (only slightly ironic as he spent decades in the employ of Michigan Bell (now AT&T), but I think he secretly liked CDs.  Mike's presentations on piano rolls, Sippie Wallace, obscure blues pianists, early blues records, and many other topics were interesting and informative.  I doubt if a serious book about piano rolls or ragtime (save the earliest) was published without some contribution from Mike.  The man always had creative suggestions and lots of materials.

He respected musicians, always. He helped the Societe of the Culturally Concerned with their Harry P. Guy celebration several years ago.

I recall him telling me that he'd tracked down the grave of an obscure pianist -- may have been Clarence Johnson -- only to discover that the plot was heavily overgrown with weeds etc.  So Mike finds a hardware store, buys a pair of hedge trimmers, and clears the area.  Most guys would have just pulled the weeds up, or walked away, but not Mike.