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Montez Coleman, whose beat buoyed Roy Hargrove and many others, is dead at 48

Montez Coleman
Antonio Porcar Cano
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aporcar.com

Montez Coleman, a sharp and ebullient drummer best known for his close association with Roy Hargrove, died on Jan. 14 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO.

He was 48. The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife, Carlynda Coleman, tells WBGO.

An exemplar and proud exponent of the jazz community in St. Louis, Coleman radiated crisp authority as a drummer, exerting lift and momentum in any setting. “He had a natural swing that made you feel good right away,” bassist Vicente Archer, a regular partner, tells WBGO. “On a personal level and musically, you knew when he was in the room. He was a loving person, and he always had your back, too.”

Among Coleman’s steady affiliations was a group with Archer and pianist Bruce Barth, which recorded a forthcoming album last summer, one day after a gig at Mezzrow in New York. “I took an immediate liking to Montez,” says Barth, whose first encounter with Coleman was at Jazz St. Louis 20 years ago. “He had such a deep groove and this exuberant, positive energy that was infectious.”

Strasbourg / St. Denis

That exuberance can be heard to great effect on two of the final albums by Hargrove, who died in 2018. Earfood is a definitive statement by the Roy Hargrove Quintet; it introduced a backbeat anthem, “Strasbourg/St. Denis,” that has since entered the standard repertory. And Emergence is a heraldic effort by the Roy Hargrove Big Band, which played a live session at WBGO in 2009.

Two years later, Hargrove’s quintet performed a live broadcast from The Village Vanguard. Produced and hosted by Josh Jackson for WBGO and NPR, the set showcases the crackling fire of Coleman’s beat, which owed some of its driving propulsion to a sworn influence, Art Blakey. As he told the St. Louis Dispatch in 2016, Coleman revered Blakey for “his groove, his creativity and his leadership. He was always able to put together the most important bands in jazz.”

Montez Elliot Coleman was born in St. Louis on July 23, 1973. He grew up in the church — specifically, El Bethel Temple Church, where his father, Bishop Elliot Coleman, still presides. His mother, Betty Coleman, was a postal worker.

Both parents survive him, along with a younger sister, Carolyn; his wife, Carlynda; their daughter, Cameron, and son, Myles Elliot; two grandchildren; and a maternal grandfather, Jimmy Gulley.

Coleman took up the drums at an early age — he was playing in church by age 5 — and encountered supportive mentors in the East St. Louis public schools. Among them was Ronald Carter, director of the Lincoln High School Jazz Band, which earned national recognition. Coleman graduated in 1991 and received a scholarship to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

Shortly after Coleman moved to New York in 2000, he became a trusted anchor on the scene. In addition to Hargrove, he recorded with alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Russell Gunn, and bassists Rufus Reid and Gerald Cannon. His work with Malone included the album Triple Play, from 2010.

Coleman released just one album under his own name, New Beginnings. He maintained a fond tradition of returning to St. Louis to lead his own bands in a birthday celebration; here is a recent edition, recorded in 2020 with guitarist Eric Slaughter, saxophonist Jason Swagler and others.

Season of Stream Vol 2, Ep 4 | Montez Coleman Group

In the days since his passing, Coleman has been remembered in glowing terms by friends and colleagues. Jazz St. Louis shared a tribute on Facebook: “There are no words to express the crushing sadness we feel having lost one of the pillars of our community. Someone who shared their amazing talent and joyous spirit with us from the very beginning of this organization.”

Pianist Peter Martin memorialized Coleman in a post on Instagram: “The best way I can reflect on Montez is that he was a giver, not a taker, both on the bandstand and off. When he played, he was always ready to support others, to complement with his groove, to provide the right energy whenever needed. He was there for you. Always. And off the bandstand, it was the same. To hang with Montez was something to look forward to, and to cherish.”

Additional reporting by Greg Bryant.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.