Thursday, 23 October 2014

JAZZ ICONS #11: Wes Montgomery


Of all the many and varied excitements of jazz, surely none is more dramatic and stimulating than one of those rare occasions when a new star of major importance suddenly bursts through from nowhere, to full-scale recognition.  In the even rarer instances when such a newcomer also offers a startlingly different and revitalizing approach to his instrument, the impact is of course all the greater.  Such is the case with the lightning-swift emergence of Wes Montgomery.

from the liner notes for
Movin' Along (1960)

The sound is unmistakable.  It's warm but powerful, quiet and at the same time inviting and supremely, almost magically supple.  Note follows note with a kind of graceful fluidity born of the combination of astounding virtuosity and the ability to capture the emotional essence of a tune in a way that remains a benchmark in jazz improvisation to this very day.  It's a sound that's influenced literally dozens of guitarists –– including Grant Green, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lee Ritenour and Emily Remler to name just a few –– and will continue to do so for as long as anybody continues to play and seriously study the instrument.  The fact that it was created by a musician who was almost entirely self-taught, who developed and honed his technique in obscure mid-western nightclubs while holding down a physically demanding day job as a machine operator, only makes what he managed to accomplish in just eight, immensely productive years that much more remarkable.

John Leslie 'Wes' Montgomery was born in Indianapolis, the capital of the US state of Indiana, on 6 March 1923.  Little is known about his early life except that he grew up in Indianapolis, attended school and married his wife Serene there in 1942, and that he was one of four siblings –– Thomas (who died at sixteen), Monk (born 1921), Buddy (born 1930) and a younger sister named Ervena.  All four Montgomery children were blessed with musical ability –– Thomas had been a drummer prior to his death, and Ervena would eventually go on to perform as a singer under the name 'Lena Montgomery' – and it was with his brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (vibraphone and piano) that the future guitar virtuoso would make his earliest recordings, including Fingerpickin', his hastily assembled debut LP, released by Pacific Jazz in 1957.

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1961)
FULL ALBUM - 6 Tracks

Montgomery first began to 'mess around with music' at the age of twelve, teaching himself to play a four-stringed instrument known as the 'tenor guitar' before falling under the spell of Charlie Christian –– at that time the most famous and most widely imitated guitarist in the country thanks to the many, soon-to-be legendary recordings he was making as a member of the Benny Goodman Orchestra and as a member of the various small groups the white clarinettist and bandleader often liked to record with on the side.  Despite having received no formal training as a guitarist and allegedly never having played the six-stringed version of the instrument before (a claim which has yet to be verified), the newly-married Montgomery bought himself a secondhand guitar and amplifier (paying for them with money borrowed from his brother Buddy) and dedicated himself to learning all of Christian's solos note for note, developing an unorthodox fingering technique along the way which, according to jazz critic Scott Yanow, allowed him to play what he was hearing by 'plucking the strings with the fleshy part of his thumb, using downstrokes for single notes and a combination of upstrokes and downstrokes for chords and octaves.'  Playing in this 'quieter' fashion also made him more popular with his neighbors, some of whom had objected to the all-night practice sessions he regularly conducted after working his eight hour factory shift each day.  Within a year he was proficient enough to begin playing professionally, gaining a reputation as a kind of human jukebox for his ability to reproduce Christian's solos with such unerring accuracy.

It was this encyclopedic knowledge of Christian's music that earned the guitarist his first full-time professional job as a member of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, which he joined in 1948 and would tour and occasionally record with until 1950, when the stress of being away from his young and growing family saw him return more or less permanently to Indianapolis.  The father of eight children, Montgomery found another full-time job as a welder for a company that manufactured radio parts, sleeping for six hours after his shift ended at 3pm before going off to his 'other' job as a musician, routinely playing in the city's jazz clubs until the early hours of the following morning.  While this punishing schedule did not make him famous, it did provide him with the space and time he required to further refine and develop his unique, thumb-dominated 'strum and pluck' technique –– a technique which had become that of a genuine virtuoso by the time he was heard by visiting tenor saxophonist Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley at an Indianapolis venue called The Missile Club in 1958.  Adderley immediately recommended him to Orrin Keepnews, A&R Director of the New York label Riverside Records, who signed him in 1959 and would go on to produce many of the albums –– including The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959), The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), Movin' Along (1960) and So Much Guitar! (1961) –– that would establish his as the most exciting name to emerge in jazz guitar since the untimely death of Charlie Christian at the age of twenty-five. 

Judged an overnight success by those who had no idea of how long he'd been playing nor under what circumstances he'd been obliged to work at his art, Montgomery soon became an in-demand studio musician and a headlining live act in his own right, appearing in clubs across the country with his own trio as well as in a trio that featured his brothers Buddy and Monk whose previous band, a quintet called The Mastersounds, he'd occasionally recorded with during the 1950s.  He was also invited to join the band of saxophone giant John Coltrane –– an invitation he turned down – and appeared as a featured sideman with the Wynton Kelly Trio, Kelly himself being another well-known admirer of his inimitable and now immediately recognizable guitar style.  

The early 1960s saw the guitarist appear frequently as a sideman on record dates by, among others, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Nat Adderley (brother of 'Cannonball' Adderley) and soul-jazz organist extraordinaire Jimmy Smith.  In April 1963 he entered the studio to record what would be released as Fusion, his penultimate LP for Riverside and one that, unusually for the time, featured him performing beautifully-rendered ballads with full orchestral accompaniment.  Although no one predicted it at the time, the relative success of this LP established a formula that would be exploited with even greater commercial success by his new record label Verve, with whom he signed in 1964 following the death of Riverside founder Bill Grauer and that label's subsequent filing for bankruptcy.

Here's That Rainy Day (1965)
Tempo, ABC TV
London, 7 May 1965

From 1964 until his death four years later Montgomery would record a series of highly successful 'crossover' LPs for Verve and then for A&M Records which saw him increasingly eschew jazz material in favor of cover versions –– lushly orchestrated by arranger/conductor Don Sebesky – of the sometimes less-than-memorable pop hits of the day.  His fifth Verve LP, Goin' Out of My Head, went gold and would go on to win him a Grammy Award for 'Best Instrumental Jazz Performance' of 1965 –– a nomination thought to be undeserved by some who had followed his career since his Riverside days and saw his new direction as being a cynical betrayal of the 'pure' jazz upon which his reputation as an improviser had originally been based.  The move from Verve to A&M Records, another pop-oriented label co-founded by the guitarist's one-time collaborator Herb Alpert, saw this process confirmed by the 1967 release of A Day in the Life, the title track of which –– a Lennon and McCartney tune which had recently appeared on The Beatles' LP Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band became a hit on AM radio and saw the album itself go on to become one of the biggest-selling 'jazz' LPs of all time.  

Montgomery, a shy and diffident man who had never learned to read music and played everything by ear and instinct, publicly sought to distinguish his later commercial music from his earlier work and the alienating impact his runaway 'pop' success was having on both disappointed jazz fans and on his own artistic integrity.  'There is a jazz concept to what I'm doing,' he explained to journalist Gary Giddins shortly after the release of A Day in the Life, 'but I'm playing popular music [now] and it should be regarded as such.'  The controversy did not harm his record sales in either his native USA or in Britain and Europe, both of which he successfully toured in 1965, performing a largely jazz-based programme to festival audiences who, by all accounts, could not get enough of him.  In time, however, it became obvious that he felt trapped by the conventions of the 'easy listening' format and longed to return to his former, more improvisational style of playing – something he was consistently able to do on stage even if he was not able, or willing, to do so in the studio.

Wes Montgomery died at his home in Indianapolis on 15 June 1968 during what was a rare break from touring and recording.  He told his wife he felt unwell when he woke up that morning and fifteen minutes later he was gone, victim of a massive coronary which killed him almost instantly.  While it's tempting to speculate on the direction his music might have taken had he lived, there's no evidence to suggest that he would have abandoned what had become a highly lucrative commercial formula to return, at least in the short term, to recording so-called 'pure' jazz –– a style of music that was in serious decline by the late 1960s thanks to the worldwide dominance of rock music and one that would soon face a new threat as the emerging fusion movement began to gain momentum.  The point is not what the guitarist would or might have done had he lived, but what he actually achieved during the eight years which saw him rise from obscurity to become one of the world's most genuinely admired and beloved musicians.  Compromises may have made between art and commerce, with jazz being the loser in many respects, but as DownBeat critic Pete Welding once put it:

He couldn't play uninterestingly if he wanted to. Time and time again 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.

And that, as anyone who has ever heard the music of this extraordinary guitarist must certainly agree, counts as no mean feat by anybody's standards.

 How Insensitive (1966)
GEORGE DEVENS [vibraphone]; RAY BARRETTO [congas]
From the 1966 Verve LP Tequila

Click HERE to visit the official website of WES MONTGOMERY sponsored by Resonance Records.  You can also click HERE to listen to more of his music on YouTube.

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere. 

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt
JAZZ ICONS #9: Lee Morgan
JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann

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