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Wes Montgomery made jazz magic strumming the strings with his thumb


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When many people think about the guitar, one of the most popular and most played 20th century instruments, they don’t jump instantly to its place in jazz, instead thinking first of its role in blues, folk and rock music. Similarly, there are hundreds of names consistently mentioned in ubiquitous “all-time greatest guitarists” lists. Wes Montgomery—who was inspired by an earlier jazz great, Charlie Christian—was a master of the guitar in jazz, yet rarely does he top any of the aforementioned lists.

So we will dive into this #BlackMusicSunday with Montgomery and jazz guitar, and follow up in the weeks ahead in May with guitarists from other genres.

Those of you who are not familiar with Montgomery or are not guitarists may not understand the significance of his thumb. Woll Higgins, writing for The Indianapolis Star in 2016, explained how Montgomery “adapted himself.”

The revolutionary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery (born Indianapolis, 1923) was self-taught, and it showed. He played differently. He used his thumb. Most jazz guitarists used picks.

Montgomery's thumb gave his music a soft sound "with less definition between the notes," said Ralph Adams, a longtime jazz deejay and aficionado. "It wasn't in-your-face like hard jazz."

Montgomery's innovation could be traced to how considerate he was. He started thumbing, according to his obituary in The Indianapolis Star, when he was learning to play and practicing at home nightly. Trying to keep the noise down for his neighbors, he found that thumbing was quieter than picking. He got comfortable playing that way, and his thumb became his signature.

You can both see this technique and hear its melodic sound in this performance of the Thelonious Monk classic, “‘Round Midnight.”

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If you have never listened to NPR’s Jazz Profilesa documentary series which ran for seven years, hosted by jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson—you’re in for a treat. A 2007 episode featured Montgomery.

The jazz guitar of Wes Montgomery, deemed "the biggest, warmest, fattest sound on record," still reverberates today, nearly forty years after his death. The most influential, widely admired jazz guitarist since Charlie Christian's heyday, Wes re-invented the instrument with his thumb-plucking technique, his innovative approach to playing octaves, and his inventive, masterful execution of complex lines. In the short span of a 9 year recording career as a leader, his name became synonymous with the jazz guitar.

Despite the sophistication of his technique, Wes had no formal musical education.

The video below, with links to the other three parts, uses the NPR audio with visuals added by YouTuber Bomberomusician.

YouTube Video

(Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)

Montgomery’s official website has far more background on his life and career.

Born John Leslie Montgomery on March 6, 1925 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Montgomery picked up guitar at the relatively late age of 19 and began teaching himself how to play by imitating recordings of his idol, Charlie Christian (particularly his ground-breaking single note choruses on “Solo Flight” with the Benny Goodman Orchestra). He played locally at the Club 440 with his brothers Monk on bass and Buddy on piano before touring the Midwest and South with his own group. In 1948, he began a two-year stint with Lionel Hampton’s big band, a band that included Charles Mingus on bass. Returning to his hometown, for a time, Wes had to make music a secondary part of his life, succumbing to the pressures of supporting a large family, which grew to encompass his wife and seven children. While settling down to a grueling factory job by day, he continued playing guitar by night at the Missile Club and often after-hours sessions at local clubs and other venues.

In 1955, Wes and his brothers began playing regularly around Indianapolis with Sonny Johnson and Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson in the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet (documented on the 2015 Resonance Records release In the Beginning). At the end of 1957, the Montgomery brothers, along with a fledgling trumpeter from Indianapolis, Freddie Hubbard, recorded several tunes that were issued on the Pacific Jazz label. A few months later, Wes recorded in Los Angeles with his brothers’ new group, The Mastersounds, although the guitarist continued to be based in his hometown. In September of 1959, Montgomery was discovered by alto sax great and talent scout Cannonball Adderley, who caught the guitarist at the Missile Room and immediately brought word of the phenomenal new talent to Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews, who signed him to the label. Wes’s debut for Riverside, 1959’s A Dynamic New Sound, was an organ trio outing with fellow Indianapolis native Melvin Rhyne on Hammond B-3 and Paul Parker on drums. But it was 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, featuring pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, that established Montgomery as the new six-string king and heir to Charlie Christian’s throne.

Between 1959 and 1963, Keepnews produced a dozen Riverside albums with Montgomery as leader and three others on which he participated as a sideman. Those four years represented Montgomery at his peak. His stints with Verve (1964-1966) and A&M (1967-1968) — both under the direction of producer Creed Taylor — were commercially successful (he won a Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Grammy in 1967 for Goin’ Out of My Head), although these efforts were less highly regarded by jazz critics and guitar aficionados than by the general public or by the popular music press.

Since I am neither “a jazz critic, nor a guitar aficionado,” I am actually elated when jazz musicians get popular acclaim; from my perspective, such success opens the ears of folks who may not normally listen to jazz. With that in mind, let’s check out some of Montgomery’s hits. First up is Grammy award-winning cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head.”

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Next, his cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”

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For those of you who want to take a deeper dive into his life and extensive discography, I suggest you get a copy of Wes Montgomery: His Life and his Music, by Oliver Dunskus.

After Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery was the third major innovator in jazz guitar. Although he passed away over 50 years ago, his outstanding musicality and his style of playing have been influential to most of the younger jazz guitarists. Wes Montgomery broadened the vocabulary of jazz guitar like no other and it seems that even decades after his passing, his importance is increasing. This is the first biography on Wes Montgomery in over 30 years, covering the details of his early days, reviews of over 50 albums and a full chronological discography.

Though Montgomery died of a heart attack at the very young age of 43 in 1968, his work continues to be released. This mini-doc tells the story of the release of In The Beginning, by Resonance Records.

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Back in December, I was excited to read this news about an upcoming Montgomery documentary.

Wes Montgomery documentary will include the guitarist's unearthed home movies https://t.co/0wC2luHjpC pic.twitter.com/HpIJpw8z8l

— IndyStar (@indystar) December 3, 2020

It’s a hometown and family affair.

The first film documentary based on the life of Indianapolis music icon Wes Montgomery is scheduled to premiere in March 2023 and coincide with the 100th anniversary of the jazz guitarist’s birth.

Kevin Finch, a former TV news executive who worked at WTHR-13, WISH-8 and WRTV-6, is making the film with significant contributions from Robert Montgomery, the guitarist’s youngest son.

Robert, who was 6 years old when Wes died after suffering a heart attack in 1968, is sharing 14 reels of 8mm home movies for the film, which has a working title of “Wes Bound.” Finch’s company, Jukeboxer Productions, recently announced the documentary will premiere on Bloomington-based public television station WTIU.

Please join me in watching the concert series Montgomery did in Europe in 1965, which Jim Santella reviewed for All About Jazz.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many pages equate to the feeling that you get from a video? As the saying goes, "It's the next best thing to being there. These three sessions, produced for Reelin' In The Years Productions in Europe, feature guitarist Wes Montgomery with three different piano trios. Filmed in black and white for television, the images are clear and crisp, sonically re-mastered for DVD, and provide an excellent window into the persona and musicianship of the legendary guitarist. As Pat Metheny mentions in his extensive liner notes, Montgomery is captured on film while setting up "The End of a Love Affair in rehearsal with his Dutch quartet, demonstrating his fluency in the "traditional nomenclature of harmony and relating his thoughts to the other musicians eloquently.

Close-ups of Montgomery reveal many of the secrets to his beautiful sound. The thumb, the harmonic adventure, the natural sense of swing, and the ease with which he gets along with the other players, several of whom he had not worked with before, show why he was such an influential guitarist and a memorable musical voice and jazz soloist.

The video and sound quality are as wonderful as Santella promises.

YouTube Video

With that, I’ll close out today’s story, though there will be lots more music in the comments. See you down below for way more Wes!