When The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery was released in the
early 1960, the jazz world, specifically the jazz guitar, experienced a seizure
that it had been expecting for a long time. Since the tragic disappearance on
March 2, 1942, at only 25 years of age, of the great Charlie Christian, the jazz guitar was orphaned by a similar
leader, someone capable of putting the instrument, always relegated by the
winds, in the front, and to be equal with some of the giants of the time such
as John Coltrane or Miles Davis. Wes Montgomery was that
leader, the man who revolutionized the jazz guitar forever as before only two
figures had done, Christian himself and Django Reinhardt. As Joe Pass said, " there
have been only three real innovators on the [jazz] guitar- Wes, Charlie
Christian and Django Reinhardt."
But before Montgomery came out of nowhere to revolutionize his instrument there was little known about his most interesting past. John Leslie 'Wes' Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis. Despite being part of a family of musicians - his other two brothers also played instruments - the ‘middle’ Montgomery did not seem especially inclined to play. His brother Monk had bought him a four-string tenor guitar at age 12 but Wes had not paid much attention to it. In 1943, when he was 20 years old, he got married and started working as a welder. That same year he went to a dance with his wife and someone put on Charlie Christian's Solo Flight. Something stirred inside him, his life changed suddenly and he knew what he wanted to do with it from that moment. The next day he bought a six-string guitar, an amplifier and a Charlie Christian record, and prepared himself to learn all his solos. Although he liked Django and Les Paul, after listening to Christian he had such a big revelation that for a year he only listened to his music. During the day he continued working but, at night, when his wife went to bed, Montgomery stayed practising until dawn. In order not to wake her, he began to play with his thumb instead of with a pick, and that became one of his trademarks.
He finally got so good at playing like Christian that he got a job at a club playing his solos. Over time he began to gain fame locally and when in 1948 the band of Lionel Hampton played in Indiana, he got a position in it by impressing the vibraphonist. For two years he traveled around the country with Hampton, although his fear of flying made him drive from city to city, no matter how far away he was. During his time with the band he played with musicians such as Charles Mingus or Fats Navarro, which made him a much better musician and not just a ‘copy of Christian’. Even so, life away from his family was tiresome and he returned to Indiana in the early 50s, where he met up once more with his brothers, Buddy and Monk, and played again for clubs in the area. Together they traveled to the West and Buddy and Monk formed the Mastersounds and signed for Pacific Jazz. In 1957 Wes went with them to record an album with the promising trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. But while his brothers stayed in California, Wes returned, once again, to Indiana.
There he continued working during the day and playing at night, spending most nights awake on a diet of cigarettes and alcohol. His style had been completely perfected, his characteristic use of the octaves and his soft and sensual touch with the thumb, instead of with a pick, made him a local attraction. So much so that in 1959, while playing in the area, Cannonball Adderley decided to go and take a look. The saxophonist was at the peak of his popularity, as he was a member of the legendary sextet Miles Davis, with John Coltrane, and led his own quintet. After seeing the guitarist he was impressed and as soon as he had a moment spare he went to see Orrin Keepnews, owner of the Riverside label, to urge him to sign him immediately. Keepnews had heard of Montgomery through Gunther Schuller who also sang his praises. So he took the next plane to Indiana and stood in the Missile club to hear the genius. He was not disappointed; he signed a contract that night and on October 5 Montgomery was already recording his first album for the label. As could not be any different, one of the songs the guitarist wrote was Missile Blues, about the place that had changed his life. On that album Wes used a Gibson L-7 borrowed from Kenny Burrell plugged into a Fender Deluxe.
It was one of the few occasions in his career when he did not play the guitar most associated with his name, the Gibson L-5 CES. So much so that Gibson would end up making three custom guitars of this kind especially for him. The only modifications were that they had a single pickup instead of two, and it was placed inside out. His favorite amplifiers were a Standel Super Custom XV and the Fender Twin Reverb. Of course, Montgomery was not one to pay too close attention to the equipment, which he thought was nothing more than a tool to do the job; he considered the magic to be in his fingers.
It was that magic that appeared in abundance when a few months later came The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, recorded with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Percy Heath on double bass and his brother Albert, on drums. The record turned him into the most famous guitarist in the world of jazz and earned him the recognition of both critics and the public. The album was accompanied by a few words from the critic of Down Beat, Ralph J. Gleason: "Make no mistake, Wes Montgomery is the best thing that has happened to the guitar since Charlie Christian". Everyone who listened to wonders like Four On Six or West Coast Blues, his particular Solo Flight, seemed to agree.
But the tremendous impact of the album did not change Montgomery’s personality much, the fact of becoming ‘the new star of the guitar’ did not seem like a big change for the practical musician - before he was unknown and did not have a penny, now he was a star ... and still did not have one. So he got down to work and took advantage of his popularity to record frequently, either as a leader or as a collaborator. Thus came two great projects with Nat Adderley, the brother of Cannonball, in the remarkable Work Song and with Milt Jackson in Bags Meets Wes. But, undoubtedly, what he most excited about was the call from his idol, John Coltrane, whom he came to describe as "something similar to a God for me". In a certain way, Wes was taking to the guitar many of the stylistic advances that saxophonists like Coltrane or Sonny Rollins had implemented in their instrument. So having Coltrane's recognition was something memorable for him. They played together at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1961 and at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco that same year. Despite having a top lineup with them two plus Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones there is no recording of these historic concerts.
His time in the Coltrane group was his last experience as a collaborator, as he was the band leader for the rest of his career, winning all possible prizes as best guitarist of the year in specialized publications. In 1962 came the fundamental Full House, recorded live, in which the title song is a highlight, and a composition of his; and the Blue 'n' Boogie Dizzy Gillespie cover, containing one of the best solos of his career.
But, in 1964, Riverside went bankrupt and Wes signed up for Verve where they surrounded him with orchestral and string arrangements by Don Sebesky and producer Creed Taylor. His credibility among the most purist jazz world was affected but his finances improved considerably, with his albums regularly entering the Billboard charts. His distinctive tone, octaves and taste for melody were still there, despite the change of accompaniment. He also continued to alternate orchestral records with other more jazz oriented like the excellent Smokin 'at the Half Note, which Pat Metheny said was the best jazz guitar album in history, or The Dynamic Duo, along with organist Jimmy Smith. But his approach to pop on albums like California Dreaming or A Day In The Life, with things close to ‘elevator music’, made many say he had sold out. Wes himself never saw it like that, he gave people what they wanted and he continued to demonstrate in his concerts that he was unmatched when it came to playing jazz. But at the moment his career hit peak popularity, on June 15, 1968, a heart attack ended his life.
Just as he learned to play by copying Charlie Christian, a whole new generation of new jazz guitarists grew up copying him. Among his disciples were George Benson, Pat Martino or Pat Metheny, who came to recognize that when he began to play there was a moment in which he played exactly like Wes, with thumb and octaves included. But his influence was not limited to the world of jazz, the decade of the 60s turned the guitar, specifically the electric, into the most popular of all instruments and so we could say that Wes Montgomery was the main figure in jazz, as BB King and Jimi Hendrix were for blues and rock respectively. Certainly, Wes Montgomery had the appreciation of these other two giants and if their feelings and words are not known just listen to Hendrix's Villanova Junction in Woodstock, or listen to the words that B.B. King said before a concert in Indianapolis: "There was never a better guitarist than Wes Montgomery."