What's Hot With Jazz Guitar: Wes Montgomery

This week we feature jazz legend Wes Montgomery, one of the most influential guitar players in Jazz.

Bio of Wes Montgomery by Mike Sorrenti:

Wes Montgomery is widely regarded as one of the finest jazz guitarists ever. He got his first national exposure in 1948, but didn't appear prominently on a recording until 1957. However, in his tragically short career, he had a huge impact on the world of guitar and jazz in general. His unique style (often described as impossible) set a new standard in playing. The most prominent modern jazz guitarists still consistently list Montgomery as one of their major influences.

Wes was born in Indianapolis on March 6, 1923. Originally named John Leslie Montgomery, he adopted the name Wes later in life. Since the Montgomery family was not very wealthy, Wes was never able to receive any formal training in music. In fact, for the rest of his life, he couldn't read notation or chord symbols. Despite these setbacks, Wes maintained a strong interest in music, and was first able to apply this when his brother bought him a tenor guitar in 1935. A tenor guitar has only four strings, and Wes never really considered it as a positive step in his career.

In 1943, at the age of 19, Wes heard a recording of guitarist Charlie Christian playing "Solo Flight." He was so impressed, the next day he went out and bought an electric guitar and amplifier. He commented in an interview with Guitar Player magazine, "'Solo Flight.' Boy, that was too much! I still hear it. He was it for me. I didn't hear nobody else after that for about a year." In order to justify the $350 he had just spent, Wes practiced constantly on the new guitar. He mainly tried to duplicate the Charlie Christian solos that he heard on records, and by the next year he was hired by the 440 Club in Indianapolis to play those solos.

In 1948, Lionel Hampton offered Wes a job in his big band. This was the first national exposure that Wes would get, although it did not further his career or his fame much. Hampton, however, did think a lot of Wes' playing. He was the only guitarist who Hamp would allow to keep his amp on when he wasn't soloing. Wes soon got tired of this job, though. He had a fear of flying, so he would constantly drive between gigs. Sometimes the trips were from Detroit to Miami, or New York to San Francisco. The strain was too much, and Wes didn't like being away from his family, so he returned to Indianapolis.

Wes landed a few consistent gigs in Indianapolis to earn some money. Unfortunately, remaining in one location did not do much to ease his previous stress. In order to support his family of eight, he would work at a factory from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., then gig at a bar from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M., and then played at an after-hours club called the Missile Room from 2:30 A.M. until 5 A.M. This horrendously grueling schedule left a mark on his health, and he suffered a number of blackouts during this period. To supplant this meager income, Wes also occasionally recorded with his brothers (Monk played bass and Buddy played Vibes), who had formed a group on the west coast called the Mastersounds.

On September 7, 1959, Wes' vault to national recognition began. Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley was in town for a concert. After his show, Wes invited him to the Missile Room. An organizer of the Indianapolis Jazz Club named Duncan Schiedt was at the show and recalls the incident: "The set began, and before the first number was halfway through, Cannonball moved to a table directly in front of Montgomery, who was already showing his marvelous, unique technique. The next memory I have is that Cannonball leaned way back in his chair, kind of slumped, and rolled his eyes to the ceiling as if 'knocked out'--which he evidently was. He stayed rooted to his table all the time I was there." Cannonball had a contract with Riverside Records, and his ebullient praise of Wes persuaded them to sign the guitarist.

Wes headed to New York to cut his first album as a leader, entitled "A Dynamic New Sound, The Wes Montgomery Trio." It received mixed reviews, but paved the way for his next album: "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery." The album earned him immense praise and widespread fame. It has since become a classic and is generally considered his best album. One of Wes' own tunes on the record, West Coast Blues, became very popular and was played by prominent artists such as Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins.

Wes enjoyed the benefits this album brought him for a few years. He appeared on numerous recordings with the likes of George Shearing, Ron Carter, Philly Joe Jones, Wynton Kelly, and also his own brothers. In 1961, John Coltrane asked Wes to play with his group at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Wes agreed, and was considered the best soloist in the group, at least according to a review in Downbeat magazine. Coltrane asked Wes to join the group on a more permanent basis, but Wes turned him down. He felt that Coltrane was one of the greatest musicians in the world, regardless of genre, and did not feel himself good enough to play consistently with him.

In 1961, Wes returned to Indianapolis and playing small clubs and bars. He didn't record for almost a year. In 1962, the record company decided to record Wes live at the Tsubo Coffee House in Berkeley to capture his live sound. The Miles Davis group was in town, and Wes invited their rhythm section to join him on the recording. Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums) all accepted, and saxophonist Johnny Griffin rounded out the group. The resulting album was called "Full House" and was another landmark in Wes' career. This album typically ranks next to "Incredible Jazz Guitar" as Wes' other masterpiece. The quality of these two albums (as well as pure talent and ability) garnered Wes the Downbeat Critic's Poll award for best jazz guitarist in 1960, '61, '62, and '63.

Wes' next album marked a significant change in his career. "Fusion" featured Wes playing with a string section, an arrangement which most jazz purists typically shun. Most critics regarded the album as mere background music. Although Wes would go on to release a few more straight ahead albums, he would not turn out anything like "Incredible Jazz Guitar" or "Full House" again.

In 1965, Wes signed a contract with Verve Records that completely transformed his style. Despite his critical success, he at this time had seven children and a wife to support. Unfortunately, a jazz musician would not receive commercial success comparable to their critical acclaim or ability. Verve got Wes to follow a path that would ensure him wider fame and profit. Like the "Fusion" sessions, he recorded with large groups and strings. By the end of his career, Wes often only got to play though the tune once or twice in octaves (one of his trademark techniques) while an orchestra filled in the rest. Nevertheless, Wes was finally able to live comfortably. He achieved popularity outside the jazz community, and found it much easier to land gigs and concert venues. He still managed to win the Downbeat Critic's and Reader's Poll in '66 and '67. He received a Grammy in 1966 for best instrumental jazz performance on "Going Out of my Head," even though most hard-core jazz fans considered it rubbish. Wes was ambivalent about this new direction in his career. He defended the music because its popularity meant that it clearly had meaning and a message. However, he regretted that he no longer had much freedom when performing to his new fan base. Despite these conflicting emotions, Wes was finally enjoying the financial stability which he deserved. He had always put family before his music, and this order remained intact throughout his life.

On June 15, 1968, Wes died in his home from a heart attack. Certainly his early years of stress contributed to his heart condition. Those close to him realized he was ill, but there wasn't much that could be done about it. His early departure left a noticeable gap in the jazz guitar community and a significant loss the jazz world. Despite his recordings, he continued to play straight jazz in various live performances, and his death ended countless possibilities. He was a perfectionist, and was still trying to improve his technique and style, even after 25 years. Wes left in his wake a huge following of jazz guitarists just trying to accomplish half of what he did in his brief lifetime.

Special thanks to Mike Sorrenti for the bio. Mike Sorrenti's site on Wes Montogomery is very well done. Besides this bio, he has reviews, discography, pics & sounds, quotes, techniques and influences.

Official Wes Montgomery site: http://www.wesmontgomery.com/.

Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com, where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot in Jazz Guitar' columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc plays Heritage guitars and endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps -- great for jazz (and anything else!)

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