Wes Montgomery - Biography
By Stuart Kremsky
In his short career, Wes Montgomery became one of the most broadly influential electric guitarists in the history of jazz. His praises have been sung by modern fusion stars like Pat Metheny (“an eternal presence”) and Mike Stern (“the most swinging guitar player that ever lived”), rock musicians like Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Derek Trucks, and traditional jazzmen like Jim Hall (“he had everything”) and Pat Martino (“my favorite”). Guitar World editor Andy Aledort wrote, “[Montgomery] pushed the limits of the established jazz guitar vocabulary while offering a purely beautiful and organic guitar sound by using only his thumb to strike the strings,” often in his trademark octave voicings. That he was able to produce a fluid and virtuosic level of execution with this limited technique is one of the marvels of his musical legacy.
John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born into a musical family in Indianapolis, Indiana, on March 6, 1923. Both his older brother Monk, renowned as the first significant electric bassist in jazz, and younger brother Buddy, a pianist and vibraphonist, became professional musicians. The three would go on to play together both as The Montgomery Brothers and The Mastersounds. Although Wes fooled around with a tenor guitar at the age of eleven or twelve, he was a late bloomer, not growing serious about the instrument until he was twenty. While he’d previously heard and enjoyed recordings by Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, it was Charlie Christian who really held his awed attention. Inspired by records like “Solo Flight,” Montgomery started an intense period of practice, learning all of Christian’s solos. As he told Ralph Gleason in 1963, "About six or eight months after I started playing I had taken all the solos off the record and got a job in a club just playing them. I'd play Charlie Christian's solos, then lay out.” He also developed his unique thumb technique. When his neighbors complained about the sound of his practicing, he abandoned the guitar pick and took to plucking the strings with his thumb, which gave a pleasingly mellow sound.
Soon Montgomery had developed sufficiently to go out on the road with various local bands. “He was real good, but he didn't read [music] at all,” remembered bassist Ray Brown, who played with Montgomery in a band led by Snookum Russell in the mid forties. "We'd start a chart, Snookum would point to him, and he'd just eat it alive - he had those kinds of ears...Wes was with us for two or three months, and then he got homesick and went back to Indianapolis.” Indianapolis was a musical hub of the Midwest where traveling big bands could pick up musicians to fill in the ranks, and when the Lionel Hampton organization came through in 1948, Montgomery joined up for what would turn out to be a two year stint.
Montgomery, who had a fear of flying, found himself driving around the country constantly, and when the strain got to be too much, retreating once again to Indianapolis. There, his stress level increased. In order to make ends meet and support his growing family, Montgomery worked in a factory on the day shift, played a regular gig at a bar from 9 P.M. until closing, then moved over to the after-hours Guided Missile Room to play until the early morning before beginning the cycle once again. His health was clearly affected and he suffered a number of blackouts during this period.
The Montgomery Brothers, plus trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (making his recording debut), taped an album in Indianapolis for the Pacific Jazz label in December 1957. The following spring, Montgomery was in Los Angeles to make a pair of albums with his brothers' new group, The Mastersounds.
Montgomery’s rise to national prominence began on September 7, 1959, when saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and cornetist Nat Adderley were in Indianapolis for a concert with pianist George Shearing. Hipped to the local after-hours club, the pair visited the Guided Missile Room after their show. Jazz photographer Duncan Schiedt described the scene, "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."
The Adderley band was signed to Riverside Records and when the co-leaders returned to New York, they wasted no time in telling producer Orrin Keepnews about their discovery – lack of a pay phone in the club had prevented them from calling immediately. A few days later, Keepnews was in the air to Indiana to check out Montgomery in his natural setting. He listened at the Turf Bar until closing and, after introducing himself to Montgomery, followed along to the Missile Room. At six in the morning, Keepnews, in his own words, “…somewhat melodramatically whipped out an already filled-out document and signed the most remarkable jazz guitarist I have ever heard” to a recording contract. Within a month of the Adderleys’ initial encounter, Montgomery was in New York to record his debut as a leader, The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959 Riverside), with Indianapolis bandmates organist Melvin Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker.
In a flurry of recording activity at the end of January, 1960, Montgomery appeared as a featured sideman on Nat Adderley’s Work Song (Riverside) and made his second album for the label, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. This successful outing, which established Montgomery as the foremost guitar stylist of the era, placed him in a quartet setting with pianist Tommy Flanagan and another musical pair of brothers, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Flanagan later noted that Montgomery had some good songs in “'West Coast Blues,' a waltz that was different for the time, and 'Four on Six,' based on 'Summertime.'” He also recalled that Montgomery “was very humble at the date, acting in awe of us as players. He was a little nervous because he didn't read or couldn't see a note as big as his head, but his knowledge went far beyond anything that we knew. We were stunned by his incredible musicianship. It was unusual to hear a guitarist play in that style with just his thumb.”
Between 1960 and 1962, Montgomery settled in San Francisco. His wife, Serene, later recalled that "When he lived in San Francisco, I stayed in Indianapolis to take care of our kids.” In 1960, he recorded as a sideman with saxophonist Harold Land on West Coast Blues (Jazzland) and as part of Cannonball Adderley & the Poll Winners (Riverside). Movin’ Along, Montgomery’s third Riverside album, was recorded in Los Angeles late in 1960 with saxophonist James Clay, pianist Victor Feldman, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. By now, what Keepnews has termed Montgomery’s “overly perfectionist attitude” in the studio was clearly manifest. The resulting multiple takes have become the basis for a wealth of alternate takes that came to light over the years.
Early in 1961, Montgomery teamed up with his brothers again for a studio album, Groove Yard (Riverside), and a live date, The Montgomery Brothers in Canada (Fantasy). After making his next Riverside album, So Much Guitar!, for Riverside in August, Montgomery worked briefly with the John Coltrane group that also featured multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. In addition to an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, the band played a two-week engagement at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. No recordings have yet come to light. Coltrane reportedly asked Montgomery to join his group on a regular basis but the guitarist declined. Montgomery rounded out the year with Bags Meets Wes! (Riverside), a session with vibraphone star Milt Jackson plus the state-of-the-art rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on guitar.
Although Montgomery was the winner of the “new star” award for guitarists in the 1960 Down Beat poll and
won the Down Beat Critic's Poll award for best Jazz guitarist in 1960, '61 and '62, the accolades hadn’t led to very much work. Montgomery was at his best on stage, so Keepnews was determined to record him in performance. The resulting masterwork, Full House (Riverside), recorded at a small Berkeley club in 1962, teamed the guitarist with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin and the rhythm section of the Miles Davis quintet of the time, Kelly, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Montgomery’s next Riverside project was Fusion! Wes Montgomery with Strings (1963), a radical departure for the label that proved to be a harbinger of the guitarist’s large-scale projects to come. Montgomery returned to the comfort of the organ trio for his final Riverside albums, 1963's Portrait of Wes and Guitar on the Go. A12-CD box set, The Complete Riverside Recordings, (including many alternate takes) appeared in 1992. When the label was forced into bankruptcy early in 1964, Montgomery signed with Verve. Producer Creed Taylor told Montgomery biographer Adrian Ingram, “I decided that if people were going to hear Wes Montgomery, I would have to record him in a culturally acceptable context. I wasn't particularly enamored with surrounding him with strings, but if that was a way of getting him known to more people, then that was the way it had to be.” On stage, Montgomery was still the undisputed champ of jazz guitarists and 1965's Smokin’ at the Half Note (Verve), which teamed him again with Kelly, Chambers and Cobb, is often cited as one of the pinnacles of his recording career. The guitarist overcame his fear of flying to travel to Europe for a tour in the spring of 1965. Three television appearances have been preserved. Issued as part of the Jazz Icons DVD series, the videos provide a rare and invaluable look at Montgomery in performance.
Beginning with Movin’ Wes (Verve 1964) and continuing with albums like Bumpin’ (Verve-1965) and Tequila (Verve-1966), the emphasis was on big productions and familiar songs, including many of the pop hits of the day. Goin’ Out of My Head (1965), which won a Grammy award for Best Jazz Instrumental, was a large seller, and marked a financial milestone for Montgomery. In 1967, he and producer Taylor moved to A&M, which released the best-selling A Day in the Life (1967), Down Here on the Ground (1968) and Road Song (1968). The later Montgomery albums, with little solo space provided in what Pat Metheny describes as Montgomery’s “more produced and arranged sonic environment,” are often dismissed by jazz purists. The music does have its supporters, though. Metheny notes that Montgomery “wound up showcasing some of his most lyrical and focused improvisations” and Pete Welding, reviewing Road Song for Down Beat, wrote that Montgomery “couldn't play uninterestingly if he wanted to. Time and time again throughout this collection his supple sense of rhythm, his choice and placement of notes, his touch and tone raise what might have been in lesser hands merely mundane to the plane of something special, distinctive, masterful."
Although Montgomery had spent a lot of time on the road over the years, his home was still Indianapolis. In the summer of 1968, he returned to see a doctor. "For a while he had been taking nitroglycerine for his heart," Serene told writer Jim Ferguson, who has written extensively about Montgomery, "but he wouldn't tell me and the children that he wasn't feeling well. He had a heart attack and died in my arms on June 15th. He was scheduled to go overseas the next week."
Wes Montgomery was just 43 years old when he died, and while of course no one knows where his guitar would have taken him, it’s fair to say that his profound spirit and the innovative playing he committed to tape will be studied by generations of guitarists to come.