Wes Montgomery – The Great Jazz Improviser!

Wes Montgomery – Jazz Guitarist

Wes was one of the most compositional players of all time. He was a beast at improvising music and at times taking it to other worldly places (ok, maybe just in the studio, club, or a concert hall). But that’s what made his playing and performances so unique and breath-taking! Also, his secret weapon of choice when it came to playing his guitar?

His unusual way of plucking the strings with the side of his thumbs. Along with his extensive use of octaves, giving him his standout sound. Plus, he’s one of the first jazz guitarists to incorporate the legato approach of the horn players. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, just by listening to these performances, the music invades your psyche and takes you to a place called happy. 

I wasn’t a fan of jazz at first but with family members who were, I got sucked in. I got into Wes Montgomery because his music was moody and with a bit of funky groove at the same time. But not too over the top! Also, he was virtually unknown to the jazz world for quite a while.

Even more, he couldn’t read music, didn’t know theory, and didn’t understand all the electronics of the guitar. But he could play stuff that even professional guitarists to this day still have issues trying to play. He was a naturally gifted guitarist and a master of his guitar.

The Early Years 

Growing up and coming from a musical family with two of his brothers being jazz musicians performing as the Montgomery brothers. Wes learned to appreciate music by listening to them. Learning the melodies and riffs by ear. Montgomery starts learning the six-string guitar at the relatively late age of twenty by listening to and learning the recordings of his idol, guitarist Charlie Christian.

However, he had played a four-string tenor guitar since age twelve as well as eventually teaching himself how to read music. After performing locally, he joins Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in 1948 and did some touring and recording with his band. In 1950, he quits Hampton’s band heading back to Indianapolis and takes a break. Working in a factory by day and performing at clubs at night to support his family. 

Taking a Break & The Comeback

Montgomery put music on the side burner from 1950 to 1955. Then a recording he did for Columbia records surfaced. Shortly after the Montgomery Brothers do a recording for World Pacific Jazz and Wes, in particular, begins to build a reputation as a gifted guitarist helping to define the path of modern history during the 1950s and 60s.

At the end of 1957, the Montgomery brothers, along with trumpet player Freddie Hubbard, recorded several tunes that were issued on the Pacific Jazz label. Shortly after, the Montgomery Brothers form a new group called the Masterminds. In 1959, he’s discovered by Cannonball Adderley who happens to see Montgomery perform at the local club the Missile Room. This is where he receives another big break by being signed to Riverside Records. 

Days at Riverside Records

This period of time for Montgomery was the start of his peak years of recording. Where he releases several highly acclaimed albums in the traditional jazz-bebop style. They were also small group recordings that truly allowed each artist to have their moment to shine in the spotlight.

Besides, “West Coast Blues”, another album that caught my ear was “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery”. And apparently, I’m not the only one because it’s considered by many fans and critics to be the pinnacle of Montgomery’s recorded studio work. 

The Later Years

During this time, Montgomery was a hot commodity and records with Verve records during 1964-1966. Then goes on to record with A&M during 1967-1968 where he was the most successful, winning a Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Grammy in 1967 for “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Shortly after returning from a tour, sadly in 1968, Montgomery dies of a heart attack at age 43.

Furthermore, this amazing guitarist left us the gift of his rich musical legacy of music for future generations to explore.

While jazz may not be your cup of tea, it’s always good to go out of your musical comfort zone and explore other styles of music. Not only because there’s so much out there in the world to explore but also it gives us a break from all the chaos and stress in our daily lives. Enjoy!