Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will pay tribute to guitar great Wes Montgomery by performing selections of his compositions next week at the National Museum of American History. The event is part of Jazz Appreciation Month, or JAM, celebrated every April in the United States.
My colleague Tom Turco is a die-hard fan of Wes Montgomery. He suggested I include Montgomery’s cover of The Association’s pop hit “Wendy,” as an example of his “vastly superior music.” Turco describes Montgomery’s music and style as nothing short of unbelievable. “His playing was cool, clean and beautiful,” Turco says.
Recently, several long lost tapes of previously unreleased Montgomery music have been discovered and restored. Resonance Records, a non-profit Jazz Label, released this treasure trove March 6, on an album titled Echoes of Indiana Avenue. That day would have marked Montgomery’s 88th birthday.
Echoes of Indiana Avenue, a taste of the early days of Wes Montgomery, showcases him in studio and in live performances recorded in his native Indianapolis in the late 1950s. It’s sold with a booklet of previously unpublished photos as well as essays reflecting on Montgomery, his talented brothers Buddy and Monk and friends.
John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born March 6, 1925 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He taught himself the guitar at the age of 19, learning by ear by studying guitarist Charlie Christian. He later became one of America’s all-time favorite jazz guitarists. During his 25-year musical career, the internationally renowned guitar virtuoso recorded at least 35 known albums. He won two Grammys for “Best Instrumental Jazz Performance” in 1966 and 1969. Montgomery died of a sudden heart attack in his hometown June 15, 1968.
The guitarist was well-known for his innovative soft thumb-picking and octave techniques. Many people wondered why Montgomery didn’t use a pick when playing the guitar. He explained that his practice was limited to nighttime because he worked long hours during the day. So, he had to practice at home while his wife was asleep. He found that using his thumb to strum chords reduced the noise and achieved a softer guitar sound.
I always loved Montgomery’s gorgeous arrangements and sound reproduction of “The Shadow of Your Smile”, one of my all-time favorite love songs from the 1965 movie “The Sandpiper,” The movie starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s not easy to re-work such a great song and play it beautifully on the guitar.
Montgomery was known to have developed a corn on his thumb, as he himself later revealed in the liner notes for the album Ultimate Wes Montgomery. It gave his sound what guitar giant George Benson described as a “point.” Montgomery “would get one sound for the soft parts, and then that point by using the corn. That’s why no one will ever match Wes,” Benson wrote in the album notes.
Montgomery had a great impact and influence on generations of guitar players who followed him. Many currently acclaimed jazz guitarists spoke of his influence on them, including George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Russell Malone, Emily Remler, Kenny Burrell, John Pizzarelli, and others. The legendary saxophonist John Coltrane once asked Montgomery to join his band after performing in a jam session together, but Montgomery preferred to lead his own group. Before his death, he also performed and recorded with many jazz legends and big bands, including Thelonious Monk, leaving an unprecedented legacy as one of the greatest jazz innovators and improvisers.
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