He began formal clarinet studies at thirteen, but was largely self taught as a tenor saxophonist, which he took up at fifteen after hearing Glenn Miller band soloist Tex Beneke. His earliest stylistic influences were Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry, but, as he told critic Leonard Feather, he also found harmonic inspiration in pianists, citing particularly the example of Bud Powell and the instruction of Utica-based guitarist and pianist Sam Mancuso in helping him learn how to use chord changes. Monterose's first professional experience was playing in upstate New York territory dance bands (1947–49). In 1950 he joined Henry "Hot Lips" Busse's touring orchestra. After a brief return to Utica, he joined the Buddy Rich big band in late 1951.
Though the band had some excellent bop-oriented musicians (Rich, Dave Schildkraut, Allen Eager and Philly Joe Jones) he soon left, citing the lack of soloing opportunities. "After six months I was drugged with my own playing," he declared in a 1956 interview, "and I went back home and spent the next couple of years working in little joints but with good men." In New York City in the mid to late 1950s, Monterose was a featured soloist with Claude Thornhill's orchestra and with vibraphonist Teddy Charles' modernist groups, Charles Mingus's Jazz Workshop and Kenny Dorham's short-lived Jazz Prophets. Dorham, Monterose told critic Mark Gardner in 1975, "was one of the greatest leaders and players I ever played for. .
. . A wonderful musician." He also recorded two sessions as leader, J. R.
Monterose (Blue Note, 1956) produced by Alfred Lion with liner notes by Leonard Feather and The Message (JARO, 1959) produced by Manny Albam with Nat Hentoff providing commentary. The record of Monterose's life thereafter, however, is one of sparsely documented itinerancy, pursuing his ever evolving craft in small time U.S. venues and during extended stays (late 1960s through the mid-1970s) in Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark, with occasional low-profile recordings (In Action, Body and Soul) recorded in such places as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Wageningen, The Netherlands. His preference for small group work in out of the way places would shape much of his subsequent career, contributing to the musical growth upon which he was always so intently focused but ultimately relegating him to an undeserved obscurity. The last decade and a half of Monterose's life was spent gigging mostly at various upstate New York venues, including the Lark Tavern in Albany. Live recordings at the Lark and other upstate New York venues such as Opus 40 have been released by Croscrane Records.
A 1981 duet recording with old friend Tommy Flanagan (A Little Pleasure, Reservoir) presents Monterose at his best and features some rare and very fine work on soprano. His visit to play Copenhagen's Jazzhuz in 1988, recorded by Danish Broadcasting, has been released by Storyville under the title T.T.T. Other live recordings from his final years, when he was in less than robust health, are available on the Croscrane specialty label. While Monterose considered himself an underground artist, his work, both as player and composer, remains esteemed by musicians, critics and aficionados of classic jazz. He never denied having been influenced by Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but steadfastly refused to be pigeonholed in any particular style.
"I've tried all my life to avoid copying. If I can't be myself, there's no point being in jazz." It was precisely this uncompromising insistence on going his own way, both musically and geographically, that moved jazz historian and writer David Brent Johnson to describe Monterose as "The Best Tenor You Never Heard." J.R. Monterose (not to be confused with fellow tenor Jack Montrose) is most famous for a gig that he personally did not enjoy, playing with Charles Mingus in 1956 and recording on Mingus' breakthrough album Pithecanthropus Erectus. He grew up in Utica, NY, played in territory bands in the Midwest, and then moved to New York City in the early '50s.
Monterose played with Buddy Rich (1952) and Claude Thornhill and recorded with (among others) Teddy Charles, Jon Eardley, and Eddie Bert. After leaving Mingus (whom he did not get along with), Monterose played with Kenny Dorham's Jazz Prophets and recorded a strong set for Blue Note as a leader. Although he performed into the 1980s (doubling on soprano in later years), Monterose never really became famous. In addition to his Blue Note date, he led sets for Jaro (a 1959 session later reissued by Xanadu), Studio 4 (which was reissued by V.S.O.P.), a very obscure 1969 outing for the Dutch label Heavy Soul Music (1969), and, during 1979-1981, albums for Progressive, Cadence, and two for Uptown.
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