Celebrating 100 Years of Wes Montgomery
March 6, 2023, would have been Wes Montgomery’s 100th birthday, Joe Barth looks back on artist interviews from over the years.
In all my twenty-five years of interviewing the best jazz guitarists in the world, they all agree on one thing: John Leslie (Wes) Montgomery is the overall greatest jazz guitarist that ever lived. Other guitarists played differently than him but he was the “bar” that everyone aspired to. Last March 6, 2023, we marked the 100th anniversary of his birth in Indianapolis, Indiana. Much has been written about Wes so in this article I want you to hear from the guitarists themselves on the impact that Wes and his recordings have had on them.
His Sense of Time
Wes’ time is always so deeply centered in the groove of the beat. Herb (Ellis) is always on the front edge of the beat gives it this energy and works so well for him. Barney (Kessel) played that way too. But Wes is so deep into the center of the beat that this works for him as well. It is unshakable. You would think that by using his thumb that his attack would be a little delayed. The thumb is a little softer and less pointed than a pick so you would think it would be delayed just a bit. But he puts things just right where it should be. Emily Remler and I talked numerous times about how she was influenced by Wes’ sense of time and how centered it was.
What struck me was just how Wes swung with his rhythmic feel. The guitar presents issues in terms of making lines really flow and swing in terms of legato–staccato articulation. Wes came across as having found a comfortable, happy, and unique spot of playing the beat. Of course, I loved his harmonic sense and sound. They are second to none.
How He Conceived Music
When I was in high school and college I worshiped Wes. I transcribed many of his solos. Wes has this transcendent quality. If you had a friend who hates jazz but you played him Wes he would say “I don’t care for jazz but I like that guy.” He is so melodic. You never get the sense that he is just playing licks. I mean, Wes has his devices that he draws from but you really get a sense that Wes is always really in the moment. He is such a great improviser and is so pure. He is so creative and fresh when he is playing through a complex tune. It never sounds contrived. Rhythmically his sense of swing is so in the pocket. He is so deep.
I first heard Wes on a double album with Johnny Griffin on sax. This was when I was in Israel. I was struck by how beautiful it was. His tone, and his lines are so satisfying. Wes was the second jazz guitar record that I heard, Joe Pass being the first. Everything he does is so perfect, complete. He uses the guitar in a way that no one had used before. He is completely rooted in the blues coming from the school of Charlie Christian and Django. His sound is so fat, so engaging. Listen to the little bit of reverb he has here. He brought the guitar into being the featured instrument of the ensemble. Charlie Christian used the guitar as the featured instrument but Wes took it to a new level with a beautiful full sound that had a dimension of excitement to it. Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell were contemporaries of Wes and featured it as well. But Wes took it to a new place. He had his way of building a solo where he took single lines to the intensity and then octaves to their intensity and chord solos that sound like a big band and add to that how he stated his melody and the guitar was taken to a new place as a real featured instrument. When in the hands of Wes, the guitar is a big instrument like a saxophone or a piano.
Wes is the Father of Modern Jazz Guitar. His concept of jazz guitar is what jazz guitar became from the bebop era until now. His sound is so personal and yet so universal. His ability to improvise is unsurpassed. He never plays cliché’ or licks. His command of the instrument was so great that every melody he played is based on the melodic idea he had just played before. Then you add to this his sound that is so rich. This is why he is so attractive to so many people. When I hear him I hear true jazz, it is not about technique, though he had plenty of it. He could develop ideas in any way he desired. Then how he played octaves and how wonderfully he developed them. Those things are not easy to play. He played them as easily as he played single lines. Then add to that how he could so proficiently chord solo. He wasn’t just technique, he had an impeccable musical taste. He was able to deliver in such a refined way and not beat you over the head. He would love you and curl you into his ideas. He was it on jazz guitar.
There’s only one person in the world who plays like that. Is that the album with Milt Jackson? What can I say? Wes’ music says it all. It is foolish to even analyze it. It goes beyond analysis. He played all the right changes and his time was great and his feeling was beautiful. It is much deeper than that. He is just a natural player.
His impact on me was huge in a direct musical way. Wes got everybody playing with their thumb (laughter)! You don’t need a pick to play fast. You can do the whole gig without one.
Wes Montgomery, of course, is the gold standard of jazz guitar. I compare everyone else to him. He’s the Shakespeare of jazz guitar. What a talent, what a sound! He has never ending lyricism and creativity in all his lines.
The album that really made me want to play jazz guitar is the Wes Montgomery album where he plays “‘Round Midnight” on it. His whole style was attractive to me. His warmth, his ability to play bluesy, and his sophistication, all was attractive to me. In fact, his playing is so warm and inviting that even though he was dead when I first heard him, his playing made me feel that I was his friend. I have since become friends with Buddy Montgomery and Buddy has that same warmth about him in his piano playing.
You know, I used to be cocky, because I was 13 years old and could learn all these songs that were on the latest 45s. One day I went to rehearsal and the bass player brought this album called Tequila by Wes Montgomery and he said, “You think you are so bad, take this home and listen to it, learn it and you come back here and try and play this for us.” I took that album home not knowing what to expect because I had never heard of Wes Montgomery before and when I listened to it, it was like a flash of lightning hit me. I thought, wow, what is this stuff? This guy must have some kind of an effect on his guitar, there isn’t anyone who can play the guitar like this. So, I sat down and tried to figure it out, like I did with the 45s and…. Zero (laughter)! Nothing, I couldn’t understand one thing about it and I didn’t understand the language of jazz at that point in my life anyway. My parents had recordings of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Joe Williams around the house, but when you are that young you think “that’s old people’s music, I want to play the new stuff.” So, subconsciously that style of music was a small part of me, but I had never heard anything like Wes Montgomery before and he just blew my teenage mind. From then on, it became a personal challenge for me to learn as much Wes Montgomery and the kind of music he played as I could.
The music that Wes played is so strong that it transcends any instrument. It is so strong that it is beyond all that guitar stuff. There is so much musicality, and intensity and everything he played meant something rhythmically. Every note from him was for keeps. There was no fluff in his playing.
Whether playing straight ahead or in a more commercial setting, Wes’ playing always had so much information in it. Something of Wes’ musicality seemed to transfer into my mind and musical consciousness. Years later, when I recorded Eyewitness in 1981, I went back to the most basic elements: a guitar, an amp, a little reverb, and I just played. After its release, I was reading some reviews of the album, and one of the critics had written: “Steve Khan sounds like a space-age Wes Montgomery.” Of course, I didn’t think so, because I wasn’t using octaves or anything that we associate with Wes. But there was something in my playing that the reviewer was identifying. Sometime later, I was listening to that same album, and I got it. I heard myself ending phrases as Wes might have done. I wasn’t consciously trying to play like him, but Wes’ influence had firmly landed in my playing.
Wes is at the top of the list. He is a natural player. His playing is straight from the heart, not contrived, and very much his own voice, which is what we all strive to do. He was so successful at it. What impressed me most about him was when I first saw footage of him playing and how relaxed and effortlessly it came out of him. How surprised he seemed when he heard himself play. He was enjoying it as much as you are. Everything he plays is so well conceived and musically compelling. As a sheer improviser, his musical ideas are so satisfying.
When I saw Wes (Montgomery), that topped it all! He just had all this technique, and his sound was so warm. I remember reading somewhere that once Wes started playing you could not see his thumb. And, I thought to myself, “Right!” But, it was true. I sat about six feet from the stage at one of his concerts, and once he started playing, you couldn’t see his thumb. I also learned a lot about sensitivity to dynamics from Wes, especially in his chord solo. Wes also knew how to choose his notes well. He dealt with all the colors of the rainbow, so to speak. He would explore the extreme depths of the guitar. Of all players I have ever heard, Wes seemed closer to the instrument than anyone else.
Later, when I was Charles Earland, we were in Atlanta, GA playing this breakfast show in a club and Wes was playing in another club in town and he would come to our show and sit about three feet in front of me. I was terrified (laughter)! But, he enjoyed watching me play. Later, when we were both playing in New York City, he brought a bunch of people from Atlantic Records to see me. But this time he hung in the back of the club so I couldn’t see him and wouldn’t get so nervous. Later, in conversation with some people, he said of me “This man is a legacy.” I was deeply touched by his comment about me. He would often go out of his way to hear me. After Wes died, people would come up to me and say that Wes Montgomery had spoken so well of me to them and they should go hear me if they ever had the chance. That was quite a compliment!
Both Wes Montgomery’s and Howard Robert’s records made an equally amazing impression on me. The sound just seemed to bounce off the disc. Now, remember this is only 1964, when I put those records on my sister’s little funky turntable with these tiny speakers, the sound just seemed to jump off the record at me. Both Wes’ and Howard’s sound are so clean and warm and present and again just seemed to pop off the record at you. Wes, with this great tone, also played with this amazing amount of rhythm. People always note Wes for his octaves and how influential that was and, of course, every jazz guitar player learns to play that way. But along with his sound, he made a huge contribution with his rhythmic concepts. Wes was much more rhythmical than almost every other jazz guitar player at the time. Another rhythmic player would be Barney Kessel.
Howard had this clean, rich, round guitar sound. Those two guitar players influenced me so much from a sound point of view. My entire career, as a young student of the guitar, then a studio guitarist, and later as an artist, the sound of the guitar has become a very big deal to me. To this day, I spend hours tweaking my sound on recordings. When I was a studio guitarist, I was rarely satisfied with the sound of my guitar and was always searching to improve the recorded quality of it.
Wes and Kenny Burrell have impacted me more than any other guitar player. I find Wes especially to be the daddy of all of us. Something in his timing, grace, and eloquence is always in his playing. But with that, there is also this soul and greasiness to his playing that is a mature type of greasiness. He plays the blues better than anyone else. The way he built a solo from single lines to octaves to block chords is a type of device but he is so convincing in communicating it in a way that doesn’t seem preplanned at all. It was just how he heard it.
The kind of notes and intervals he heard over certain harmonies is like . . . he found the way to his own voice using the vocabulary of Charlie Christian and bebop where other people just used bebop vocabulary. He created his own vocabulary. Another thing is that he had such a great warmth in his tone. Truly an individual sound.
As a Composer
I have made it one of my missions to bring greater exposure to Wes Montgomery the composer. When I’m with either my contemporaries or younger up-and-coming guys and I say let’s play some Wes tunes it is always the same two of three tunes that come up, “Four on Six” or the “Work Song.” But, he has some masterpieces like “Doujie“ which is his take on “Confirmation” and “Jingles” and many, many others. Wes was very clever in his writing and always to the point. He did have a few harmonic trademarks.
I used to play in Indianapolis a lot at a club called “A Place to Start.” The owner of this club suggested that I play there with Mel Rhymes and Paul Parker who hadn’t played together in years and didn’t really like each other all that much. Both agreed to play with me even though they hadn’t played together since Wes. When I got to the club Mel was there setting up and so I started setting up. Mel can be a pretty crusty guy. I saw Paul walk in and Mel and he never even acknowledged each other. They got ready and we play the first set and after the set they were talking about the old days and back to being friends again.
The Sense of Joy Expressed in His Playing
I love all those commercial things Wes did. The man is so musical. I love so many guitar players. When I listen to a jazz guitar record for personal enjoyment I usually play Wes. Because he makes me smile. He not playing polyrhythms or out harmony or things that make your head spin, but in terms of swing, feel and heart Wes is the greatest. I especially love the things he did with Mel Rhymes on organ and Peter Jackson on drums.
Listen to that. What a sound! With his thumb, I am not sure that he plays upstrokes as well as downstrokes. I am still not sure. This is the alternate take.
I was so blown away by Wes’ sound. He brought to my attention the importance of developing your own sound. His sound is so personal. It is very open and has a wonderful spirit. He is so joyous on stage. I love even the CTI and A&M things he did. He played so great.
Wes Montgomery Trio with Mel Rhyne and Paul Parker. What was impacting about this was that I have never heard lines played with such extremely smooth, effortless execution. There is also a real sense of joy and jubilance in Wes’ playing. The only other guitar player that I think has that kind of jubilance in his playing is Django. Joy is what Wes expresses as he plays lines. Another thing about Wes is that he doesn’t play a lot of guitar clichés. When you listen to a lot of bebop guitarists, there is almost a certain guitar language and Wes never plays any of it. He is so original! Also, I love Wes’ sense of rhythm and syncopation. And then there is the sound of his guitar, the roundness of the tone (which is attributed to the thumb), which was not harsh. I just love his sound.
Who He was as a Person
It is hard to say enough about him. He was a fantastic guy. We were getting to know each other pretty well before he died. He was very self-effacing. He, of course, drew a lot of attention to jazz guitar. People who were interested in the technical aspects of the guitar were amazed by him. His bluesy feeling was enormous. His octave playing was amazing.
I remember Wes was at the Half Note in New York City with his organ trio with Melvin Rhyne and Paul Parker on drums and he had ordered some food and it came right at the end of his break. So, he asked me to play a couple of tunes so he could eat his food. I didn’t have a guitar pick or anything, but I went up there and played a couple of tunes. I must have been drunk or something to do that with Wes sitting there (laughter).
Another time, Wes and I were both working in San Francisco. I was with Sonny Rollins at the time. We were hanging together and getting in and out of taxi cabs. I threatened to shut his thumb in a cab door if he didn’t straighten up (laughter)! That has gone around and some people thought that was a serious threat (laughter).
The Way He Stated a Melody
I heard Wes Montgomery and that just changed my life. Recently I was listening to some previously unreleased Wes Montgomery stuff, some of the stuff might have been with Harold Land, some of the stuff might have been with Jimmy Smith and he would move into the octaves and start soloing with the octaves, it is just incredible. I’ll tell you a great recording, “How Insensitive,” I don’t know what record that’s on. My wife has a Brazilian compilation of his, and the way Wes plays his octave solo on that, I mean his playing is wonderful on the whole recording, but his octave solo on that song is unbelievable. It is so clean. It’s so brilliant the way he chooses his intervals, absolutely brilliant!
This thing swings so hard. He has the power of a whole orchestra in his hands. The way he states octaves, every time I hear it I think that it is not possible. As a kid at 13, when I first heard this recording of “Tequila” his sound was so warm that I thought he had some effect on (laughter). I was just floored. I immediately fell in love with his music, the sound of his guitar, the way he states a melody, his improvisation is so free and airy, and his sense of chords.
You know, Wes could play one note and it would strike someone deeply, as is evidenced by his great popularity. It was the sound of how he played the guitar with his thumb, his chord solos, his octaves, his incredible touch, feel, swing, and happiness in his music. Also, it was a live recording and so you have that special feeling of immediacy about his playing. It was just so incredible.
What I love the most are his single-line things. I love his octaves and chord solos. This may sound funny but I can do without the octaves. They are a little out of tune so I don’t do them. I leave them to Wes. His single lines are so warm with a fat tone. He’s the whole package.
I love this so much. It is so beautiful. From the first note, I knew it was Wes. It was a soft sound and so I knew the guitarist wasn’t using a pick. The timing and the placement of every note is so perfect, it had to be Wes. This is a one-chorus ballad and so all his embellishments come as obbligatos, arpeggios, and embellishments within the line. He did certain embellishments that are so original. For example, there were certain sounds over the denominate seventh chord that is his alone interestingly not many people have ever copied. There is a wonderful sense of flow to his playing. The song is at a slow tempo and he places the notes beautifully in that flow but when he plays an embellishment that is more fleeting he never loses the sense of flow he has established.
Concerning Some of His Albums
A Day in the Life: A&M/CTI Records; Wes Montgomery: guitar; Herbie Hancock: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Grady Tate: drums: others 1967
Wes’ album A Day in the Life influenced me greatly. I knew every tune on the album. I heard it about the time I started getting into jazz. I didn’t know about Wes, or his thumb or octave technique and I thought, “Wow, this guy is as fluid of a player as I have ever heard.” I also was drawn to the orchestral colors that Don Sebesky did in his arranging. I went out and got every Wes album I could find.
Down Here on the Ground: A&M/CTI Records; Wes Montgomery: guitar; Herbie Hancock: piano; Ron Carter: bass; Grady Tate: drums: others 1968
It is one of the last three records that he ever made. It’s Down Here on the Ground. I know that this is one of the records that many people are always putting down because they say “he went commercial” around then. The people who dismiss those records are missing some of the most profound playing that Wes ever did, exactly because it was so simple. The way he plays the melody on the song “Down Here on the Ground” is about the closest thing that I have heard that any guitar player has ever done to achieve the kind of melodic playing that Miles (Davis) did. It is so specific and there is so much information in each note. Playing simple to me is way harder than playing complicated. With all the aspects of Wes’ playing, and there are many things we could talk about, the thing that strikes me and inspires me is how he could play simply and make it sound so beautiful and so deep.
JB: I have heard others speak of the challenges of playing simply really well.
PM: It all depends upon the story you want to tell. There have been times when I play a lot of notes, but there are ways to play simply using a lot of notes. It goes beyond the quantity. It is the atmosphere that you create on a narrative level that separates musicians that are improvisers who can manifest images as opposed to just notes. They can make a sound have an almost literal meaning. It can be done in a lot of different ways. When I think of the best of Wes (Montgomery) it transcends everything. It transcends guitar, it transcends all the details you could talk about with his technique or sound, it speaks to people who aren’t even musicians. It just does. That is why he was so popular. It goes beyond all that to this other dimension that is really special and it’s elusive to guitar players, especially jazz guitar players for reasons that are very complicated.
Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery; Riverside Records; Wes Montgomery: guitar: Tommy Flanagan: piano; Percy Heath: bass; Albert Heath: drums 1960
The first jazz guitar album I ever bought was Wes’ Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. That recording changed my life. Before that, I was into rock and blues. My uncle had told me about Wes and he played me some homemade tapes he made of Wes in a club in Indianapolis (Royce’s family is from the Indianapolis, Indiana area) and that was where I first heard Wes. On those tapes, Wes played a couple of jazz-style blues songs that weren’t as easy to figure out as the other blues I was playing. I thought I understood the blues form but Wes was going outside that blues form. I was determined to figure them out.
Movin’ Wes; Verve Records 314 521-433-2; Wes Montgomery: guitar; Bob Cranshaw: bass; Grady Tate: drums: others 1964
This album was so significant for me. I had just moved back into my mother’s house in the mid-‘60s, my parents were divorced, and I was playing drums in this surfing music group, the Chantays, who had a huge hit with “Pipeline,” though I did not play on that record. It was the guitar player in the group, Bob Spickard, who had played me Wes’ Boss Guitar album. So, I bought Movin’ Wes. I remember sitting on the floor, in my room, and I put this LP on and listened. Then, I went over to my drums in the next room, sat down, and thought to myself, “Who is ever going to hire me? I will never play like Grady Tate. I have no skills as a drummer.” Soon I quit the drums, took up the guitar, and changed my major to music at UCLA. I was determined to do everything right on the guitar. A couple of years later, my father (songwriter Sammy Cahn) introduced me to Wes Montgomery at the soundcheck for his concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Wes was a very sweet man and was always very kind to me. This rendition of “Caravan,” mainly because of Grady Tate, had a profound effect on my life.
Before I saw him play I bought Movin’ Wes with the big band. I never heard such fullness of sound from the guitar. His sense of projection, his use of dynamics, and how he let the phrasing breath were all extremely masterful. The songs were arranged so well in how the guitar would come in and later go out in the arrangements.
Smokin’ at the Half Note; Verve Records; Wes Montgomery: guitar; Wynton Kelly: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Jimmy Cobb: drums 1965
Wes Montgomery Smokin’ at the Half Note. It is loose and swinging, Wes is guesting with the Wynton Kelly trio who did so many recordings with Miles. Classic solos on “No Blues” and “If You Could See Me Now.” We get to hear Wes really stretching out in a live setting.
Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note is certainly number one. That record just defined so many things for me. Rhythm section playing, melodic playing, Wes’s solo on “If You Could See Now” is the greatest guitar solo I have ever heard. That’s the one. It is like Coleman Hawkin’s solo on “Body and Soul” or some of the other great solos to me. That solo is the ideal, perfect improvised statement that any guitarist has ever made.
Wes Montgomery Smokin’ at the Half Note, is just some of the best jazz ever played on the guitar, especially the song “No Blues.” To me, it represents an incredibly inspired performance that just really swings so hard. I thought to myself, “I will never play the way Wes plays on that album, it is just too hard.” The chords, it was unfathomable, and even now I still don’t see how he pulled it off and did it with such a snap. I felt that if I just practiced hard enough, I could play as fast as Pat Martino. With Jim Hall, I thought that if I just got into the feel of the music enough, I could play like him. But with Wes, forget it, (laughter) it’s just not in me.
Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, his swing and time feel are so great on that record. His solos are so melodic and developed. They just build so well. I also love the warm sound he gets from his thumb. I try to get that warm sound in my own way through the Tele-style guitar that I play. I try to get a fat sound through the way I process my sound. I also loved the way Wes phrases his solos on that album.
What can you say about Wes that hasn’t been said? He has the hippest lines played with heart, soul, and great feel. He has a beautiful touch with his thumb. This is a solo that I feel all my students should transcribe. This song is built on the changes of “Summertime.” Students see how a master plays through certain changes. Not that you would play the exact solo on a gig but when one learns solos like these, some of this comes through as a player.
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