© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Along with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery formed a triumvirate of plectorists who were arguably the most influential Jazz guitarists of all time [although a strong case could be made for Chuck Wayne's, Barney Kessel's and Tal Farlow’s roles, collectively, in bringing Bebop to the Jazz guitar].
But because Wes has been such an iconic figure in Jazz guitar circles for 50 years since his death in 1968 at the ridiculously young age of forty-five , many Jazz fans are unaware of the fact that his recording career spanned only the last 8 years of his life. He made his first important recordings for Orrin Keepnews in 1960. And after that label went bankrupt in 1964, Creed Taylor brought him over to Verve where he had four years of blockbuster hit recordings before his passing.
And had it not been for Orrin Keepnews who acted on Cannonball Adderley’s recommendation to record him, Wes might have remained an obscure local Jazz figure based in Indianapolis who never came to the attention of the national and international Jazz public.
This reminiscence from Orrin explains how it all came about and it can be found in his The View from Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles plans to present Orrin’s essays on Bill Evans, Cannonball and Nat Adderley and Johnny Griffin in future postings on these pages as they represent some of the more cogent and coherent primary source material in existence about Jazz in the second half of the 20th century.
Some of My Best Friends
“All five of these essays were written to accompany examples of a particular form of album reissue called "twofers." The concept was thought up by Ralph Kaffel of Fantasy Records in the early 1970s and widely imitated by others (which is by no means a complaint on my part; it has meant the return to ready availability of a vast quantity of worthwhile jazz). Since these involved two records packaged together, there was always substantial room on the double interior surface for extensive annotation. And since this was inside space, not visible when the sealed unit was on display in stores, there was no incentive to have these notes do any sort of selling job. The result was often valuable and informative writing. Being in the frequent role of handing out such writing assignments, I was able to reserve the opportunity to express myself about several Riverside colleagues who had been very important to me.
At the times when these five pieces were written, however, there was a rather depressing ratio: three (Cannonball, Wes Montgomery, and Bill Evans) dead, and Johnny Griffin self-exiled to Europe for over a decade. It is somewhat helpful to note, as an update, that Nat Adderley remains a close friend, and that in 1978 Johnny Griffin began a series of regular return tours of this country, as one result of which we have been able to work together on five more albums. The 1983 Evans notes deal with a very specific portion of our association; although I had some internal reservations about their frankness, they surprised (and pleased) me by winning that year's Recording Academy Grammy award for Best Album Notes.”
“Wes Montgomery 1973
It has been more than two decades since I began making the switch from just plain jazz listener, fan, and record collector to a total (in bad moments I might call it an excessive) involvement with the music: first as a writer and, since the mid-1950s, primarily as a record producer. I have on the whole gained a lot from the move, but I have lost something, too. Most of all, I've lost a hobby—it has been a very long time since I could have that pleasantly voluntary degree of involvement that the fan has, listening to jazz only when you care to, listening only for enjoyment, having only a superficial or non-existent or gleaned-from-magazines knowledge of musicians as people. I know it doesn't affect everyone, but I happen to be one of those who has trouble enjoying a solo by a man I happen to know to be personally a son of a bitch.
But of course that personal level works both ways: I have been able to form some friendships that are among the most valuable things in my life. To be very specific (and without in any way minimizing certain other very important jazz-linked personal associations), if I had not gotten enmeshed in this music, I undoubtedly would not have come to know Wes Montgomery, and that would have been a very big loss to me.
Whether or not they realize it, almost everyone who ever heard Wes knew him to some extent—I can verify that the warmth and directness and spontaneity and love you seem to hear in his music was really there. What is on his records is actually that honest a projection of things that were in him. That is a pretty rare state of affairs. First of all, not many players make the kind of music that so directly reflects who and what they are. (To do so is not in itself necessarily "good" or "bad"; I'm simply stating a demonstrable fact.)
Secondly, there are a great many more of the sons of bitches around. To put that in more formal terms, it is not at all uncommon for talent, genius, artistic superiority to be thoroughly intertwined with eccentricity, temperament, perversity of one sort or another, and a highly developed tendency on the part of the artist for both self-torture and the tormenting of those around him. (I think I understand as well as the next man why this is so often the case; at the moment, though, I'm not making any value judgments about society and creativity and such; I'm simply stating another demonstrable fact.) After a while, I must add, you come to think of the stresses and jolts involved in dealing with such men as an unavoidable part of the dues you have to pay, as perhaps the emotional entry fee into the world of creativity.
But Wes was obviously far more talented than most, as close to pure genius as any. Shortly after Wes died in 1968, Ralph Gleason wrote: "the two bosses of the jazz guitar were Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery; he made that kind of a contribution", and the comment still holds up as truth, not eulogistic hype. Yet there was about him not a trace of any form of torturous or torturing egotism. Again, I am not making value judgments. Nor do I mean to imply that he was made out of spun sugar, or that you could faintly see a halo when he walked down the street without a hat. He was a man, with some routine traits and some faults and a few peculiarities and this one large touch of genius. He was also, as I'm trying to stress right here, a very rare and beautiful human being whose music sounded like his soul and who, as far as I know, never deliberately gave anybody a hard time.
In retrospect, though, he probably gave himself much more of a hard time than anyone realized. When I first met him, in his native Indianapolis in 1959, he was working evenings at a roadhouse called the Turf Bar and then moving on each night to the Missile Room, an after-hours club where he played until about six in the morning; he had only recently given up a variety of additional non-musical daytime jobs. The basic motivation for this extreme amount of activity was quite unmysterious: he was supporting a wife and six (later seven) children. This was also why he had not left town a few years earlier with his older brother Monk and younger brother Buddy when they had relocated in California and achieved some fame as half of a strong-selling pop/jazz group called The Mastersounds. The three brothers had grown up as a close personal and musical group (the Turf Bar engagement had been a family gig for years) and they remained tight-knit, although their relative (no pun intended) positions went through some flips that must have been rather confusing. Wes, who hadn't really turned to music until his late teens, played a bit with his brothers as a sort of added starter during the height of their Mastersounds success. When he began to gain some attention on records, the three realized their ambition to work together as The Montgomery Brothers—but that name didn't mean enough to bring many bookings and after a while they had to split up. When Wes really made it big they came back together, but with his name as the drawing card, for the last years of his life.
It is quite possible to look back over his career as a whole and find quite a bit of evidence of pressure and tension. There was his late start and lack of formal training (the story that he learned guitar from Charlie Christian records when he was 18 or older seems accurate) . There was his even greater delay in coming out into the world as a musician—he had toured with Lionel Hampton's band between 1948 and '50, but not until 1960 (when he was already in his mid-thirties) did he begin to record and work regularly as a leader. Such things can certainly give a man a feeling that time is short and every minute counts, and I wondered almost from the start of my working years with him about the extent to which this might relate to certain physical and/or emotional hang ups. He often spoke in a general way of suffering from "nerves," and more than once sought medical attention for spells of dizziness. He had a strong fear of flying: he took short trips if absolutely necessary, but they left him pretty shaken up. (The first time he was approached about a European tour he pointed out that he didn't much care for ocean voyages either, and finally claimed he'd go only if someone could figure out a way he could drive there.)
Particularly in the beginning, he was very outspoken about his feeling that he wasn't playing well, or had played much better at some time long before I had ever heard him. I used to get very impatient with him about such remarks—being extremely aware of the melodramatic thunderclap nature of my initial encounter with Wes. (I have the feeling that this story has already passed into legend or folklore; but, briefly, it is quite true that Cannonball Adderley burst into my office at Riverside one day, having just returned from hearing Wes at the Missile Room after a concert in Indianapolis; his enthusiasm was so convincing that a few days later I flew there to hear for myself; it took about thirty seconds to make a believer out of me; and Wes had signed a Riverside recording contract before dawn broke at the after-hours club.)
On the whole, though, I always felt that his doubts about his playing were just slightly excessive outcroppings of a kind of perfectionist self-criticism I've come across in quite a few major artists (Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans are two who come readily to mind as being about as negative as Montgomery). At times he actually was a bit less than perfect, but not very much so; and it is of far more consequence to note how quickly other musicians warmed to him and accepted him when he first showed up on the New York scene. I recall one incident that seems to wrap up these several points— how good he was, though not flawless; and how people felt about him from the start, as though by instinct. During either his first or second recording trip to New York, he sat in with Horace Silver's group at the Village Gate one night. The tune was "Nica's Dream", I think; anyway, it was a Silver composition and Wes really tore up the crowd with his solo. After the set, Horace told him: "You know, you weren't in the same key as we were, but you sounded so good I didn't want to stop to tell you."
The initial attitude towards Montgomery could easily have been the opposite. When a man shows up in the big city preceded by all sorts of stories about his legendary accomplishments back home, the natural tendency is for the New York musicians to gang up on him and try cutting him down to size. This never happened to Wes: for one thing, it was immediately obvious that he was as good as the legends said; but, even more important, it was equally obvious that he was a totally non-arrogant, no-nonsense person whom it was just about impossible to dislike. From the start, no one had to coax players of the caliber of Percy Heath or Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones to record with Wes, and I still remember his early sessions as among the most enjoyable I've ever been involved in— despite the fact that Percy could run Wes a close second in the fine art of complaining about the imperfection of his own performance. Other musicians were incredibly eager to play with Wes; in addition to co-star and guest-star recording with Cannonball, Milt Jackson, and George Shearing, there were many plans and requests from name performers that just never did get to happen—and, sadly, there wasn't even amateur recording equipment on hand during those few weeks in the early '60s, mostly at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, when he worked as part of John Coltrane's band. I never heard them and must wonder about how well they fitted together then (Wes expressed some reservations; and McCoy Tyner, who was in the group, says it was sometimes remarkably interesting and sometimes not). But I am most intrigued by the fact that they came together at Trane's urging.
Such enthusiasm from those around him, plus quick approval from virtually all jazz writers (it should be noted that men like Gleason and John Wilson and Nat Hentoff showed no signs of standard critics’ caution about a new artist: they jumped in with those daring, even though entirely accurate, Charlie Christian comparisons) did begin to improve Wes's self-confidence. Large-scale public approval, however, did not come so swiftly. He did become a poll-winner almost overnight, but as many a jazz musician has learned to his sorrow, you cannot live by the applause of Down Beat readers alone. Wes was understandably unhappy about the incongruity of being hailed as the world's greatest jazz guitarist and still being unable to make money thereby. I explained to him, with tongue only somewhat in cheek, that he had to have more patience: "Only a year or so ago you were an unknown. You were a bum and broke; now you're a star and broke; that's real progress."
Actually, significant financial success did not arrive until after the end of his Riverside period. And mention of that brings me up against an admittedly very prejudiced personal evaluation: "early" as opposed to "late" Wes Montgomery. Bluntly, I considered the small-group, strictly-jazz settings of almost all the Montgomery albums I produced to have been the most fertile musical soil for him. I feel that those records, most of which present Wes with little more than first-class rhythm accompaniment—have far more validity and lasting importance than the albums he made later for others, the big-selling records with heavy backgrounds, pop-oriented repertoire, and hardly any room for improvisation.
Going against my position is the weight of the huge sales racked up by that other formula—but on my side is my own stubborn immodesty on the subject, the opinion of most musicians I know, and, I must feel, the opinion of Wes himself. Certainly he appreciated the fame and money that were beginning to come his way after the shutting-down of Riverside freed him to sign a recording contract with Verve. But I recall his complaining to me about how little he liked his first big success there, "Goin' Out of My Head." With vast illogic, I told him he couldn't do that: "As much as that number has done for you, you have to accept it. I can dislike it; you can't." Most seriously, though, and (I hope) without any aroma of sour grapes, I can dislike the fact that Wes was presented to a broad audience in a manner that I have to think of as falling far short of expressing his best qualities. That all those people fell in love with his music is a tribute to him, a triumph of artist over surroundings. Of course I would have preferred it if there could have been some middle ground, if he could have gone out to the mass market sounding rather more like the Wes I knew and worked with.
Anyway, the rest of the story is just that in 1968 Wes, with very little forewarning, had a heart attack and died while he was much too young. But I guess no matter when he died, he would have been too young for it. We were very closely attuned in several ways—for one, our birth dates are only four days apart (the sign is Pisces). Since we were no longer working together, we didn't see too much of each other during the last three years of his life. But the feeling of closeness remained for both of us—I'd have to say that there haven't been over half a dozen people in the world who have meant more to me.”