As we arrive at part seven in this occasional series, there is one Great Guitarist left to feature, one who is up there with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt as one of the most influential jazz guitar players of all time. Since I’ve focused this short run of articles on jazz guitar players, it is essential to include the man who has left an indelible influence on how jazz guitar is played…
He played impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible
– Ronnie Scott
Like the origins of jazz itself, nothing about Montgomery’s career was orthodox. Born John Leslie Montgomery in Indianapolis, 1923, ‘Wes’ only dabbled in music until hearing a Benny Goodman record, aged nineteen. The record in question featured the guitar playing of Charlie Christian, and inspired Montgomery to buy a guitar the very next day. He spent almost a year learning Christian’s solos, particularly those from the record Solo Flight.
Working as a welder during the day, Montgomery’s guitar practice sessions took place at night, leading to complaints from his neighbours and his wife. His solution was to ditch the pick and pick the guitar’s strings with the dude if his thumb, as this was much quieter. His use of octave playing also comes from this period, as it enabled Montgomery to better hear what he was playing as he practiced. This technique, which Montgomery has said gave him real “headaches” when learning, was relatively rare in guitar playing; following the influence Montgomery left behind, it is now one of the most definitively recognisable characteristics of jazz guitar.
Success didn’t come easy or quick for Montgomery. Although he had started to build his reputation as a guitarist while playing in ensembles with his two brothers, Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano & vibraphone). These early recordings did not garner much commercial success. In his mid-thirties, Montgomery had returned to working factory shifts during the day, to support his wife and six children, then gigging in jazz clubs until the wee small hours.
This lifestyle ultimately took a toll on his health, but the sheer amount of graft Montgomery was devoting to his playing was paying off. Without being able to read a note of music, Montgomery used his ears and his heart to make his playing swing. His prolific use of octaves, as well as his chord-based soloing (usually on the highest four strings), all without fully understanding the theory of what he played, revolutionised the way in which jazz guitar could be approached and performed.
A chance discovery by saxophonist Cannonball Alderley led to Montgomery being signed to Riverside Records in 1959. Montgomery was soon a rising star, although his more pop-friendly crossover records in the mid-sixties (covers of pop songs, often featuring additional orchestration) led to him being considered a ‘sell out’ by some jazz musicians. He died of a heart attack while on tour in June 1968,aged just forty-five.
Montgomery’s legacy survives through the countless guitar players he influenced. These include his friend (and another guitarist to experience crossover success) George Benson, Pat Matheny and Earl Klugh, to name only a handful.
Despite Montgomery’s short recording career, he recorded sixteen LPs as band leader in his lifetime, as well earlier recordings with his brothers as The Mastersounds and a handful of posthumous releases. Smokin’ At The Half Note (1965) is a fantastic live album that I wholeheartedly recommended you give some time to.
For studio cuts, you won’t go wrong with his first few albums with Riverside. A personal favourite is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), which includes some of his more well-known pieces such as ‘Four On Six’ and ‘West Coast Blues’.
For the guitar players amongst us keen to emulate Montgomery’s playing style, there exists a wealth of articles and tutorials on how to get started. However, as is often the case, the best thing would be to listen, play, listen, play, listen, then play some more!
Good luck and see you with the next installment soon!