Wes Montgomery is a shining star in the complex world of American jazz music. Born in 1923 of a musical family in Indianapolis, Montgomery is considered one of the top jazz guitarists the United States has ever produced, and a major influence in the milieu.
Some of the jazz greats who floated in and out of his life include such heavyweights as Lionel Hampton, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane. But Montgomery was hailed as a star in his own right, though his career was cut short after only 25 years.
As an artist, Wes Montgomery became known for his signature use of octaves, which was later dubbed “the Naptown Sound,” a nod to his birthplace. Indy is, in fact still called Naptown by some in the know, referring not to a sleepy capital city in Indiana, but to the type of bluesy jazz sound Montgomery employed.
Montgomery also developed a flair for single-note melodic improvisations and solos using block-chords, techniques that would affect many generations of jazz guitarists to come. He played with his thumb, without a pick, an unusual approach that he developed out of consideration for his wife, who was inevitably trying to sleep during his practice hours. His thumb developed a callous that he was able to use to create an edgier sound when he plucked, lending yet more variety to his unique technique.
|Hear the haunting solo of jazz great Wes Montgomery in this video recording of “Round Midnight.”|
Starting at the age of nineteen, Wes Montgomery taught himself his craft, learning the solo riffs of guitar great Charlie Christian note for note. It was this ability that brought him to the attention of the great Lionel Hampton, who signed Montgomery on with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1948.
Montgomery toured with Hampton as lead guitarist for two years, after which he and his brothers, Monk and Buddy, formed their own group called the Wes Montgomery Trio in Indianapolis. The trio recorded some five albums, on the Pacific Jazz and Riverside Records labels, from 1957 to 1959. It was during this period that his career truly blossomed and the jazz world began to recognize that they had a genius in their midst.
|Video of Indianapolis native Wes Montgomery taking some stunning solos in John Coltrane’s “Impressions.”|
Wes Montgomery branched out from his classical jazz roots over the course of his relatively brief career. He died at the age of 45 of a heart attack, after performing “soft jazz” for the last few years of his life. He also wrote some original material for pop songs of the late sixties.
Montgomery made over 30 recordings between 1958 and 1966. He is still considered an innovative genius in hard bop, pop jazz and jazz fusion, as well as mainstream, smooth, soul and crossover jazz. Purists of the American jazz insist that his early recordings reflect his acumen and artistry far better than his later recordings, but the fact is that Montgomery never completely abandoned jazz; he simply grew within it.
Wes Montgomery is one of the most famous musicians on the long list of famous people from Indianapolis. A park inside the Circle City is named in his honor; the Wes Montgomery Park has been the site of some of the greatest live jazz music in Indianapolis.
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