Wes Montgomery – The Full Monty

Monday, February 22, 2016

More than four decades after his death, the music of Wes Montgomery continues to illuminate the jazz guitar world like a beacon.

Jack Massarik reappraises the Indiana superstar’s life and work 

He never used a pick, only the fleshy part of his right thumb. He never stood up but sat back, holding his guitar at a semi-horizontal angle, 45 degrees from his lap. His solos would swell into octaves and block chords, driven more swiftly and cleanly than most players can articulate single-string notes. There never was another guitarist quite like Wes Montgomery, and the appearance of a newly-discovered masterpiece by him just proves it.

His basic stats were simple. John Leslie ‘Wes’ Montgomery was a devoted family man born in Indianapolis on March 6 1925, which astrologically makes him a Piscean Ox, the sign of the contented family man with a hearty mealtime appetite. He raised seven children there and took up guitar relatively late. After an early taste of the road with the Lionel Hampton band he returned home to feed his growing family. On a typical day this would involve an eight-hour shift in a radio-parts factory, from 7am until 3pm. Then he would dash home for a late lunch, some practice and a nap before gigging at the Turf Bar between 9pm and 2am, followed by an all-night session at the Missile Room from 2.30 to 5am. This just left time for breakfast and a shower before returning to the electronics factory. Wes maintained this gruelling schedule for several years, during which the following remarkable album was recorded.

Echoes of Indiana Avenue, released on Resonance Records, reveals the blossoming of a jazz maestro. Originally taped as studio demos and private recordings from live gigs at Indianapolis bars and nightclubs, it comes down to us in nine heavyweight tracks. Witnesses with long memories date them back to 1957-58, some time before Wes was plucked from midwestern obscurity and whisked to international stardom. Digitally remastered by Fran Gala and produced in Los Angeles by Zev Feldman, a keen jazz archeologist currently processing some equally rare Bill Evans tapes, the sound quality is remarkably good. Better still are the performances by Wes and his brothers, pianist Buddy and bassist Monk, alongside other Indianapolis musicians, some of them uncredited.

The opening track, ‘Diablo’s Dance’, is not the kind of theme associated with the Montgomeries. It’s a precise original by Los Angeles trumpeter Shorty Rogers, whom they met during a California sojourn. Wes’ classic waltz, ‘West Coast Blues’, though not included here, also dates from that visit. Other tracks, like ‘’Round Midnight’, ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Nica’s Dream’, reflect close study of cutting-edge New York albums of this period by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and the first Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Clearly the Indianapolis jazz scene, where the 17-year-old Freddie Hubbard was also taking his first steps, was strong enough to handle this music with real conviction, and closer investigation is due. Every major city has its forgotten venues and unsung local heroes, and Indianapolis probably had as many as Chicago (Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan), Detroit (Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef), Washington (Shirley Horn, Buck Hlll), San Francisco (Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson) or Los Angeles (Hampton Hawes, Buddy Collette and many more). These cities deserve their own Bill Birch, the intrepid archivist who gave Manchester its wonderful jazz history, Keeper of the Flame. For historians this Indianapolis recording is an important document, and the first fact it establishes is that even at this stage Wes’ work was the technical and creative equal of anything he would perform in later years.

His ideas are as mature, as personal and distinctive as ever, owing no debt to any other guitarist. Something of Milt Jackson’s funky phrasing and Clifford Brown’s joyful attack are the only discernible influences. And his sumptuous tone, so lustrous on ‘‘Round Midnight’, is fully developed, as is his mellow yet commanding presence and amazing all-round facility. There’s less octave and chordal work than listeners would later come to expect, but it’s all there when he needs it. Contemporary snapshots show that he was already the proud owner of a top-of-the-range Gibson L5 deep-bodied semi-acoustic guitar. His amplifier, too, sounds as good as anything he would use later, though Wes was famous not only for rejecting a plectrum but also for achieving his warm tone without help from the guitar’s tone dial, which he kept on zero. 

The only exception to this rule is the final track on the album, a raunchy slow blues which has the feel of a request number ordered at the end of a very long night. Here Wes ramps up the amp to produce a T-Bone Walker-meets-Muddy Waters kind of edge. And why not? Indianapolis, after all, is less than 300 miles south of Chicago. “You can see where he’s goin’!” shouts a happy ringsider at one point. “He sounds like Steve Green!” (No, I don’t know who he is either. Answers on a postcard please.)


‘You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play’ – Wes Montgomery


In later life one of Wes’ most intriguing quotes was: “You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play.” Fans took this with a pinch of salt, yet his remarkable self-deprecation was probably genuine and rooted in the fact that he was an ear player, entirely self-taught and unable to sight-read music. Many great musicians have found it necessary to conceal this fact, because learning by ear instead of learning by eye remains the last taboo.

When asked if he could read, the great pianist Erroll Garner once replied: “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Django Reinhardt (in his way every bit as distinctive a guitarist as Wes) did not read music either. All are or were not only wonderful ear players but also magnificent individualists whose recorded work, unlike that of so many conservatory graduates, can be recognised instantly. Guitarist Martin Taylor, who learned to read only after learning to play, once defined jazz as a process of elimination, involving the acceptance of attractive ideas and the rejection of unattractive ones. “In that sense all jazz musicians are self-taught,” he concluded. “Particularly the best ones.”

So while the Montgomery brothers may not have written down their arrangements, the lines were always performed in perfect unison and based on agreed harmonies which were hip, accurate and often complex. Make no mistake, theirs was one of the finest family groups in jazz, ranking right up there with the Jones brothers Hank, Thad and Elvin, and the Heaths, Jimmy, Tootie and Percy, not to mention the trumpet-playing Candolis, Pete and Conte. And Wes’ repertoire reflected a particularly sophisticated grasp of chord theory. Consider his material. Many of his themes were cleverly disguised standards. ‘Four on Six’, for example, is ‘Summertime’, ‘Doujie’ is ‘Confirmation’ and one of his best lines, ‘Twisted Blues’, features an unusual turnaround reminiscent of ‘Limehouse Blues’.

Furthermore some of his original compositions contain passing cadences, such as the bridge on ‘Jingles’, that occur only in Montgomeryland. When soloing on a blues or modular theme such as ‘Impressions’, Wes also used a distinctive minor-to-relative-major transposition, analysed in detail in guitarist-educator Adrian Ingram’s tuition books and videos. Wes’ superb solos on ‘Darn that Dream’ and ‘Body and Soul’ on this newfound album offer further conclusive evidence that he could negotiate the most complex chord progressions with ease. ‘Con Alma’ and ‘Born to be Blue’ on later recordings are other examples of fiendish progressions resolved by a beautiful mind.

Wes liked to tease journalists, however. He told some that playing octaves always gave him headaches, and claimed that he never practised at all, adding: “Occasionally I throw a piece of meat into my guitar case.” In a later interview he explained that this merely meant working on actual tunes and new material rather than practising scales and other dreary drills. Of course a technique as awesome as his had to be earned somehow, and no doubt it was gained during those crazy wood-shedding years when he was holding down three jobs a day and practising with his thumb to avoid waking his children or annoying the neighbours. Certainly all the hard work had been done before Cannonball Adderley’s quintet blew into Indianapolis one night in 1960 and changed Wes’ life.

Wes Montgomery

The great altoist was so taken with the bearlike guitar-man of Indiana Avenue that he called Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews in New York and implored him to check Wes out in person without delay. The rest, as they say, was hysteria. Wes’ first albums for Riverside, which bore unbridled titles like So Much Guitar! and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, hit the jazz public like a guided missile. Fellow stars immediately accepted Wes as the finished article and embraced him like a long-lost brother.

Soon he was gigging and recording everywhere from New York to San Francisco, where he had earlier remained for a year, this time playing the Monterey festival as part of John Coltrane’s group. He also recorded with Cannonball and others [The Poll Winners] in Los Angeles, with Johnny Griffin [Full House] and Miles Davis’ rhythm section, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb [Smokin’ at the Half Note] and rejoining his faithful brothers, who had been travelling as The Mastersounds, for Grooveyard and other fine sessions.

Europe was also clamouring for him, but Wes had an oxlike fear of flying and refused all offers until a 1965 tour was put together involving two-way travel by ocean liner. In London he played a week at Ronnie Scott’s old club in Gerrard Street, whose small room was tightly packed nightly, mainly by guitarists for whom seeing was not quite believing. Wes also hopped a cross-Channel ferry for a live date in Paris with Harold Mabern, Arthur Harper and Jimmy Lovelace, with Johnny Griffin sitting in. Other after-hours bootlegs from this trip are still occasionally surfacing.

Having known real economic hardship, Wes turned no decent offer down after returning to the States. When not touring and recording with a straight ahead trio featuring two hometown buddies, organist Mel Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker, he was developing a lucrative sideline in seductive guitar for lovers. “Make me sound like Frank Sinatra,” he told record producers, who responded by hiring the likes of Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky to craft sexy settings for Wes’ mellow octave sound and rich chord voicings.

Well-packaged albums of ballads and latin standards aimed at the sophisticated adult market, they sold very well, irritating certain critics but charming others. Even at his most mellow, as in Tequila, Bumpin’, Goin’ Out of My Head, and California Dreaming, there was always a strand of soulful righteousness to savour. US critic Ralph Gleason nailed it when he wrote of “beautifully melodic solos that border on schmaltz but are so deeply rooted in jazz and blues that they are valid.”

Many more studio and in-person masterpieces were envisaged from Wes when a massive heart attack struck him down in the summer of 1968. He was then only 43, but those hard times back in Indiana would have taken chunks off anybody’s life. A great pity, though, because Wes was otherwise a clean-living, sensible and easygoing individual who had never messed with booze, hard drugs, fast women or slow racehorses. His solitary vice was cigarettes, which were then of course marketed without health warnings. But thankfully his music will never die. New generations of music lovers out there will have so much to enjoy, particularly those who play guitar.

Thumb-driven operators remain extremely rare, but another who has always worked without a pick is the wondrous Jim Mullen, who had never heard of Wes until the age of 17. “I was only eight when I got started and I had no technique at all,” he explains. “When I tried to play, the pick kept flying around the room so I stopped using it. Somehow I also taught myself to play right-handed even though I’m left-handed. I wouldn’t change back now, it’s fine, but unlike Wes I only play downstrokes, whereas it’s clear from his records that he played downstrokes and up-strokes. I read somewhere that he could do this because he had a doublejointed thumb. Apparently he could bend it forwards and backwards.”

Another prominent player proud to admit his debt to Wes is Nigel Price. “If swing, tone, melodic ideas and full involvement in the music matter to you then Wes should matter to you too,” he declares. “Listening to Wes in full flight you always get a sense of good feeling among all the players. He swept them along with those melodic cascades, plus octaves and chunky chordal passages that rhythm sections could really get their teeth into.” No doubt many players will get their teeth into Wes Montgomery’s last-known album, particularly those who never saw or heard him live. For older musicians and fans already familiar with his work, it will just make us miss him a little bit more.

Five must-have Montgomery discs

The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes MontgomeryThe Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery

Riverside, 1960

The shot heard around the guitar world. Wes meets Tommy Flanagan and the Heath brothers, Percy and Albert, with all the panache of someone who has all his stuff together and knows it.


So Much Guitar!So Much Guitar!

Riverside, 1961

Different rhythm section, same amazing chordal, octavian brilliance. By now ashen- faced fellow guitarists like Kenny Burrell are fantasising about catching his right thumb in a taxi door.




Full House MontgomeryFull House

Riverside, 1962

Wes cooking live in a smart Californian club with impish tenorman Johnny Griffin and MIles Davis’ then-current rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.




Movin' WesMovin’ Wes

Verve, 1964

First of his “make me sound sexy” albums and one of the funkiest. This and Bumpin’ (1965) are acceptable examples of jazz meeting pop, or the gentle art of swinging over silken strings. Nobody did it better.



Smokin' At the Half NoteSmokin’ At The Half Note

Verve, 1966

All that studio smooching was fine, but straight-ahead neo-bop grooving was always Wes’ game, and never more so that live in New York with Kelly, Chambers and Cobb.



This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Jazzwise. To subscribe to Jazzwise, visit: Subscribe to JazzwiseSubscribe to Jazzwise


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