© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Wes Montgomery was already a seasoned professional in his mid-30s with a decade of gigging in clubs behind him when he broke into the New York jazz scene in 1959. That was quite late in his career for such a breakthrough (and the remainder of that career was to be all too brief), but it was entirely characteristic of a man who did very little by the standard methods. In this, as in many other ways, Wes Montgomery was a singular phenomenon, and maybe even a unique one.
The guitar was slow to assert its place as a solo instrument in jazz, but when it finally did break out of the rhythm section and into the front line with the development of an effective means of amplification (the invention of the electro-magnetic pick-up in 1936 brought the guitar the clarity and volume it had always lacked in a band context), the instrument quickly began to make up for lost time. The bop era produced a string of notable soloists, but none stood higher than this modest, hard working man from Indianapolis.
Montgomery possessed what must have been an incredible ear, since by his own admission he never learned to read chord symbols, far less notation, or assimilated a sophisticated understanding of music theory, an omission which sometimes embarrassed him, especially in the studio (even genius has its insecurities). What he put into practice, however, was the product of a refined musical intelligence derived almost entirely from his innate ability to hear musical sounds and relate them to each other.
Apart from some guidance from his brothers and a bit of on-the-job steering from other local musicians in Indianapolis in his formative years, the guitarist was self-taught, and claimed that his understanding of harmony and harmonic movement came from puzzling out for himself the aural relationships of the constituent sounds
which made up the chords, rather than a theoretical knowledge of their parts.
That combination of a natural ear and a highly developed musical sensibility was accompanied by his willingness to put in the necessary hours of labour in gaining complete technical mastery of his instrument (despite his often deprecating comments to the contrary), and if his approach was unorthodox, it brought about a revolution in jazz guitar.
He developed a characteristic style around his preference for using his thumb rather than a plectrum (also known as a pick) and his advanced use of playing in octaves to double the melody line, both in playing themes and in soloing. Neither technique was new to jazz, but Montgomery took them to places only he had imagined at the time, and made himself into one of the handful of most important guitar stylists of the century in the process.”
- Kenny Mathieson, Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65
In his essay entitled Hard Bop, which was published as a chapter in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Gene Seymour creates this context for the music and significance of guitarist Wes Montgomery:
“Other musicians would likewise take up R&B-gospel motifs while maintaining their connections with bebop and swing. As a result, many of the tunes closely associated with what became known as "soul jazz" became as much a part of the African-American community's soundtrack as the burgeoning black pop music put out from the late 1950s through the 1960s. The names of Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, for instance, were as recognizable on a corner jukebox in a black neighborhood as Ray Charles, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson.
A self-taught guitarist from Indianapolis, Montgomery apprenticed (like many others in hard bop) with Lionel Hampton's band in the late 1940s and spent most the 1950s working in his hometown's nightclub circuit. After performing and recording in groups with his brothers Monk (on bass) and Buddy (on piano and vibes), Montgomery organized his own trio and began recording under his own name in 1959 for Riverside. The following year, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside/OJC, 1960) was recorded and released to critical acclaim. Using what became the most celebrated thumb in jazz guitar, Montgomery deployed a velvety attack and liberated the rest of his fingers to play the unison octaves and parallel chords that gave distinction and influence to his style. He even paid tribute to the digit in a tune called "The Thumb," which can be found on the 1966 album Tequila (Verve), one of the heavily orchestrated albums produced late in the guitarist's life that have drawn fire from critics and historians for being too commercial. In spite (or because?) of the pop luster of such covers as "Goin' Out of My Head," "California Dreamin'," or "A Day in the Life," Montgomery, who died at forty-three in 1968, remains the most influential guitarist in jazz after Charlie Christian.”
In the same book, Neil Tesser writing about The Electric Guitar and The Vibraphone in Jazz, observed:
The guitar's prominence in organ trios and on "funky jazz" records constitutes one of two vectors in establishing the instrument as a mainstay of modern jazz; the other was the popularity of rock music, in which the guitar replaced horns and often piano as the voice of choice. It's no surprise that the spread of jazz guitar paralleled the rise of rock. "Funky jazz" had dipped deep into the blues, a guitar-driven music and the primary precursor of rock-and-roll. As rock ascended in the 1960s, the guitar came to dominate American music; as rock and Jazz converged, the guitar symbolized the evolving musical fusion.”
This video tribute to Wes lends credence to Gene and Neil comments. It feature Wes’ composition Jingles as performed by Hammond B-3 organist, Melvin Rhyne [who played on all three of the original Wes Montgomery Trio dates for Riverside Records], guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Kenny Washington.