This story was originally published by St. Louis Public Radio.
One of the first things that often struck people watching Montez Coleman perform was his smile. It was just part of who the East St. Louis native was — a “beautiful human being and a great musician,” in the words of fellow jazz artist Gene Dobbs Bradford.
“His timing was impeccable,” Bradford said. “He always found great grooves. But he was also really supportive of the other people. Whenever you had Montez playing behind you, he was always very sensitive to what you were doing and could always help you find that thing that will take it just a little bit more over the top.”
Coleman died Jan. 14 of congestive heart failure at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 48 years old.
An in-demand jazz drummer, Coleman traveled the world over the course of his career, playing with some of the biggest names in jazz.
“Especially in that decade of the 2000s when he was with Roy Hargrove, I mean, that was the band to be in,” pianist Adam Maness recalled to St. Louis on the Air. “And he was a huge piece of that.”
But despite his world-class bona fides, Coleman remained deeply rooted in the St. Louis scene, frequently playing with both visiting luminaries and locals. Maness described him as having a palpable presence wherever he went.
“He was just the kind of person that literally lit up every room he was in,” Maness said. “You know those people where you can tell they’re there [even] if you can’t see them? … And then also he had this amazing deep baritone voice, beautiful big voice.”
Coleman was also known for keeping it real.
“If you got off the stage, he wasn’t going to be like ‘sounds great’ and not mean it,” Maness recalled. “He would say that, but only if he meant it.”
And if you didn’t sound great, well, Coleman would let you know that too.
“He couldn’t lie about it, especially the music. … If something wasn’t right, he would give you a little side eye, like, ‘No, that’s not right.’ And if it was brilliant, if things were popping in a way that can only really happen, I think, with live Black American music, he would just light up. And the whole room — not just the stage, but everybody in the audience — would light up too.”
In recent years, Maness and bassist Bob DeBoo regularly played with Coleman as the Adam Maness Trio. DeBoo said he’s struggling with the loss of a close musical partner and friend.
“So it’s tough,” DeBoo said. “But there is such a big community of people that loved Montez, that just loved Tez. … It’s really been helpful, just talking and [also] musical healing.”
Maness recalled first meeting Coleman at a north St. Louis club called Spruill’s. Maness was 16; Coleman was 21.
“I was too scared to talk to him, because he was the best drummer I’d ever seen,” Maness said. “And he was just a kid still. … I was so nervous.”
At the time, Coleman was in Willie Aikens’ band, which Maness went on to join a couple of years later. Maness’ first gig with Aikens was Coleman’s last before the drummer headed for New York.
But after Coleman moved back to St. Louis in 2013, the two became close, along with DeBoo.
“From really 2016 on, we were inseparable,” Maness said. “I mean, we were like a real unit together and did a lot of supporting of other artists together. We made our own music together, all on our own different names, but it was just the three of us a lot of the times. And it was just a real brotherhood in that regard.”
The special connection Maness and DeBoo felt with Coleman wasn’t unusual, even among more casual associates.
“I’ve met, now, acquaintances that say, ‘Oh, yeah, I spent probably eight hours with him, and he changed my life.’ … And I think that’s what our city is gonna miss so much,” Maness said.
Maness noted that it’s especially hard to lose Coleman at such a young age.
“I thought that we would be playing together till we were very, very old men,” Maness said. “And I think a lot of people feel that way, too, that you just take for granted. We’re not all guaranteed to live until our 80s, and we lose these artists here that are so brilliant. It’s a real shame.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.