Wes Montgomery

Biography

Nearly thirty years after his death from a heart attack at age forty-five, John Leslie "Wes" Montgomery remains the standard for modern jazz guitarists. He is to his idiom what Segovia is to the classical form, B.B. King to electric blues, and Jimi Hendrix to rock. Although Wes’s original model, Charlie Christian (1916–1942), essentially wrote the Old Testament of jazz and blues guitar, the disciples of Montgomery’s New Testament are a fervent congregation. Says drummer Jimmy Cobb: "I’ve played all over the world, from Hong Kong to Italy to Australia, and everywhere I’ve met guitar players who ask me about Wes, how he played and what he was like."

How he played made for one of the most distinctive and intoxicating sounds in improvisational music. Casting aside the customary plectrum, in favor of his golden right thumb (as a youngster learning the instrument in Indianapolis he found that playing with a pick disturbed his neighbors), gave his sound a special warmth. And Montgomery spun long, rounded, single-note lines into passages of incredible block chords which, in turn, responded to his signature earth-tonal octaves.

Wes was signed to Riverside in 1959 on the recommendation of an overwhelmed Cannonball Adderley; the late alto saxophonist had caught the guitarist in Indianapolis with his brothers, the pianist Buddy and the late electric bassist Monk. Montgomery landed at Verve in 1964 when the small, independent Riverside declared bankruptcy. Verve, or more specifically the producer Creed Taylor, pointed Wes in a less jazzy direction, encouraging him to play in a more popular style — with, it should be noted, the artist’s full cooperation.

Always a gifted composer, though he didn’t read music, Montgomery wrote catchy soft-rock or Latin-flavored themes such as "Bumpin’ on Sunset" and "Road Song" and slinky blues. He utilized such mid-Sixties chart-toppers as "People" and "It Was a Very Good Year" to a stirring effect. With seductive strings, horns, and congas providing a sleek setting for Wes’s jewel-like octaves, Taylor’s productions for both Verve and A&M broadened the guitarist’s appeal and would insure financial security for his widow and seven children.

James Isaacs

Excerpted from Wes Montgomery Jazz ‘Round Midnight

Wes was signed to Riverside in 1959 on the recommendation of an overwhelmed Cannonball Adderley; the late alto saxophonist had caught the guitarist in Indianapolis with his brothers, the pianist Buddy and the late electric bassist Monk. Montgomery landed at Verve in 1964 when the small, independent Riverside declared bankruptcy. Verve, or more specifically the producer Creed Taylor, pointed Wes in a less jazzy direction, encouraging him to play in a more popular style — with, it should be noted, the artist’s full cooperation.

Always a gifted composer, though he didn’t read music, Montgomery wrote catchy soft-rock or Latin-flavored themes such as "Bumpin’ on Sunset" and "Road Song" and slinky blues. He utilized such mid-Sixties chart-toppers as "People" and "It Was a Very Good Year" to a stirring effect. With seductive strings, horns, and congas providing a sleek setting for Wes’s jewel-like octaves, Taylor’s productions for both Verve and A&M broadened the guitarist’s appeal and would insure financial security for his widow and seven children.

James Isaacs

Excerpted from Wes Montgomery Jazz ‘Round Midnight