Wes Montgomery Biography

John Leslie Montgomery, 6 March 1923, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, d. 15 June 1968, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Montgomery was inspired to take up the guitar after hearing records by Charlie Christian. Nearly 20 years old at the time, he taught himself to play by adapting what he heard on records to what he could accomplish himself. Guided in part by Christian’s example, but also by the need to find a way of playing that did not alienate his neighbours, he evolved a uniquely quiet style. Using the soft part of his thumb instead of a plectrum or the fingers, and playing the melody line simultaneously in two registers, Montgomery was already a distinctive stylist by the time he began to work with local bands. In 1948 he joined Lionel Hampton, touring and recording.

In the early 50s Montgomery returned to Indianapolis and began playing with his brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery in the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet (the other members being Alonzo and Robert Johnson). During an after-hours session at a local club, the visiting Cannonball Adderley asked him if he would like a record date. On Adderley’s recommendation, Montgomery was recorded by Riverside Records in a series of trio albums that featured artists such as Hank Jones and Ron Carter. These albums attracted considerable attention and Montgomery quickly became one of the most talked about and respected guitarists in jazz.

In the early 60s he worked with his brothers in northern California and also played with John Coltrane. Further recordings, this time with a large string orchestra, broadened Montgomery’s horizons and appealed to the non-jazz public. However, despite such commercially successful albums as Movin’ Wes, Bumpin’, Goin’ Out Of My Head and A Day In The Life, he continued to play jazz in small groups with his brothers and with Wynton Kelly, Herb Alpert, Harold Mabern and others. In 1965 he visited Europe, playing club and festival dates in England, Spain and elsewhere. During this time he recorded what many regard as his best live album, Smokin’ At The Half Note, recorded in New York with Jimmy Cobb, Kelly and Paul Chambers. His career was at its height when he died suddenly in June 1968.

An outstanding guitarist with an enormous influence upon his contemporaries and countless successors, Montgomery’s highly personal style was developed deliberately from Christian, and unwittingly shadowed earlier conceptions by musicians such as Django Reinhardt. In Montgomery’s case he stumbled upon these methods not with deliberate intent but through what jazz writer Alun Morgan has described as ‘a combination of naïvety and good neighbourliness’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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