Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Montgomery, Wes (John Leslie)

Wes Montgomery picked up the jazz guitar where Charlie Christian left off and became one of its most influential and imitated stylists. Self-taught, he played with his thumb to produce a soft, deep tone. His signatures include a relaxed sense of swing at any tempo, and exciting solos that feature his innovative use of octaves and chords.

John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born on March 6th, 1925 in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he died of a heart attack on June 15th, 1968. As a youth, his parents separated, and he lived in Columbus, Ohio with his father until age 17. While his brothers were jazz musicians - Monk played the bass and Buddy played the piano and vibes - Wes didn’t pick up the guitar until age nineteen, only to become a master seemingly overnight.

In 1943, Wes heard records featuring Charlie Christian and became captivated with what he heard. He went out and bought a guitar and amplifier, and taught himself the Charlie Christian solos note for note by ear, using his thumb instead of a pick.

At first relying on the Christian licks he had learned, Wes embarked on playing in the active club and after-hours music scene of 1940s Indianapolis. Newly married to his wife Serene, he was only a musician by night, as he worked full time during the day to provide for his family.

Montgomery’s playing led him to be recruited to go on the road with bands such as The Brownskin Models, The Four Jacks And A King, and pianist and arranger Snookum Russell. He returned to Indianapolis between trips to work and see his family. He then toured with Lionel Hampton from 1948 to1950, and can be heard on a number of Hampton’s recordings.

Wes left Hampton’s band and returned to Indianapolis. Over time his family with Serene grew to 7 children. He resumed his rigorous work schedule; working in a radio parts factory during the day, often playing at one club in the evening and another after-hours. Many suggest this high strain on Montgomery is what led to his heart attack in 1968, when he was only 43 years old.

Wes often played with Buddy and Monk in this period, as a group called the Mastersounds. The group included Richie Crabtree on piano and Benny Barth on drums, and after 1960 was called The Montgomery Brothers Band. Monk and Buddy played on the guitarist’s first recordings as a leader, including the sessions for Far Wes in 1957.

Wes then landed a recording contract with Riverside after saxophonist Cannonball Adderley heard and recommended him to the label in 1959. Most of these albums captured Wes in the company of the era’s top players in a small group setting.

Wes’s sessions for Riverside produced a memorable string of albums that include The Wes Montgomery Trio, Full House, and So Much Guitar!” which includes his rendition of ”One More For My Baby.” Another standout album from this period is Boss Guitar, which includes his version of the classic bolero”Bésame Mucho.”

Wes really burst out on to the Jazz scene upon the release of The Incredible Jazz Guitar. The album featured one of Montgomery’s landmark contributions to standard jazz repertoire ”Four on Six,” based on the form of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”.

Wes lived with his brothers in San Francisco between 1960 and 1961, when he briefly played with the John Coltrane Sextet. Unfortunately there are no known recordings that capture Wes and Trane together.

He then took his work to Norman Granz’s Verve Records. For 2 years, Granz put Wes in a variety of big band and orchestral settings. This period marked the beginning of his transition to pop music, working with arranger Don Sebesky and producer Creed Taylor to record albums such as Bumpin’ and Goin’ Out of My Head, for which he won a Grammy award, as well as “Tequila” and ”California Dreaming.”

He also recorded at this time with organ trios led by Jimmy Smith and Wynton Kelly. Standouts from these sessions include “Unit 7” and “No Blues.”

Guitarist Pat Metheny has called “Smokin’ at the Half Note” by Wes and the Wynton Kelly Trio, which includes a live version of “Four On Six,” “the greatest jazz guitar album ever made. ”

Wes then followed Taylor when the producer left Verve to join Herb Alpert’s recently launched A&M label. He released 3 albums that brought him great commercial success, and airplay on top-40 radio stations. In all, Wes had five number one jazz albums on the Billboard charts. 1967’s A Day in the Life even reached number thirteen on the pop charts.

The albums feature Wes playing the melodies of well-known pop tunes of the day on guitar, with orchestral arrangements behind him. Many critics and jazz purists were turned off to the softer pop sounds of his A&M recordings, seeing them as him compromising his music to gain a popular audience. Although not considered his best work, the commercial success of these releases brought Montgomery wider recognition and helped bring the sound of the jazz guitar into the mainstream.

Live performances by Wes in his the last few years had the same excitement and intensity of his earlier work. Its impossible to know what Wes could have done if his career hadn’t ended so abruptly, but his legacy will be felt for years to come.

Wes’s brilliant but brief career was cut short when he was only 43 years old in 1968, when he died of a heart attack. Many suggest that Montgomery’s tireless work ethic and the high strains he suffered in his early career as he sought to provide for his family contributed to this untimely death.

Wes’s Stylistic Innovations

Above all else, Wes Montgomery had fantastic ears. He was able to orchestrate lines; rhythms, harmonies and textures that always sound relaxed, regardless of tempo.

Wes began playing with the fleshy side of his thumb shortly after picking up the guitar, initially to keep the noise down and avoid upsetting his neighbors. The smooth, soft and deep tone this gave him is now widely associated with the jazz guitar. His signature style of playing melodies with two notes an octave apart was allegedly something he discovered while practicing a scale.

He had his own formula to construct and develop his solos. He would begin with single notes drawing on the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary he got from musicians like Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker.

But Wes didn’t stop at the lines and phrasing of bebop, he would then introduce a new texture by playing his lines in octaves. One of his most notable techniques, he took it much further than his predecessor Django Reinhardt and the thicker fatter sound turned many heads in Montgomery’s direction.

At the climax of his best solos, Wes would turn up the heat by introducing chords, at first as punctuation among his lines and escalating to fully harmonized passages. His chordal phrases still retain his great sense of melody, and are as powerful and effective as the work of the best big band arrangers.

Select Discography

Far Wes (1958); The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959); The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960); Movin’ Along (1960); So Much Guitar! (1961); Full House (1962); Boss Guitar (1963); Portrait of Wes (1963); Fusion! Wes Montgomery with Strings (1963); Movin’ Wes (1964); Bumpin’ (1965); Smokin’ at the Half Note (w/ the Wynton Kelley Trio 1965); Goin’ Out of My Head (1965); Tequila (1966); Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo (w/ Jimmy Smith 1966); California Dreamin’ (1966); Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (w/ Jimmy Smith 1966); A Day in the Life (1967)

Contributor: John DeCarlo