West Montgomery Plays Gibson L-5

Nearly 40 years after his death, Wes Montgomery remains one of the most inventive and important jazz guitarists in history. His exciting musical legacy, in fact, is so enduring that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it was achieved almost entirely within a window that lasted less than a decade.

Montgomery was born in Indianapolis in 1923, and came to the guitar relatively late, not getting serious about the instrument until the early 1940s. Inspired by jazz legend Charlie Christian, however, Montgomery was a quick study: By 1948 he was touring with Lionel Hampton, although the association didn’t catapult him into the limelight. Returning home to Indiana, he spent most of the 1950s living in relative obscurity and working a day job in a factory while playing music at night, often with his brothers. (One brother, Monk, was a bassist, while the other, Buddy, played vibraphone and piano.)

Obscurity ended forever in 1960, the year that Montgomery released The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery on the Riverside label. It was a watershed album. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery made him an immediate darling of the jazz cognoscenti, and his dazzling guitar approach was on full display—including an inventive use of octaves, which became his calling card, beautiful chordal work and single-note guitar lines imbued with Coltrane- and Parker-like bebop horn sensibilities. Several of the album’s tracks, including Montgomery originals like “West Coast Blues,” “Four On Six,” and “Airegin,” have long been considered classics and remain required learning for serious jazz guitar players everywhere.

Montgomery was off and running, expanding the role of the guitar as a centerpiece jazz instrument and building upon something that had begun with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and developed even further through the 1950s with the work of players like Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow. The '60s, however, belonged to the virtuosity of Montgomery and his Gibson L-5CE, and the guitarist set a new standard for jazz guitar on a number of seminal albums, including Movin’ Along (1960); So Much Guitar! (1961); Full House (1962); Boss Guitar (1963); Guitar On the Go (1963); Portrait of Wes (1963); and Movin’ Wes (1964). 

One landmark chapter in Montgomery’s career is Smokin’ at the Half Note, which was cut in the summer of 1965 for the Verve label. (Montgomery had joined the label the previous year after Riverside went bankrupt.) A landmark live album, captured at a popular New York City nightspot, the recording found Montgomery backed by one of the most formidable rhythm sections in jazz history—the Wynton Kelly Trio, which included pianist Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Montgomery’s improvisational powers and the hard-driving rhythm section make for a remarkable performance, perhaps most in evidence on “Unit 7,” which stands as one of his finest moments. 

“Wes’s unique way of playing guitar with his thumb, instead of using a pick like most guitarists, has brought many comments from fans and critics alike,” Chuck Taylor says in the original Half Note liner notes. “When Wes appears in a club, the local guitar players usually show up for ‘their lessons,’ and they all rave about the incredible Wes Montgomery.” 

Jazz guitarist George Benson provides revealing insight to Montgomery’s thumb technique in his notes to The Ultimate Wes Montgomery

“Wes had a corn on his thumb, which gave his sound that point. He 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. And his thumb was double-jointed. He could bend it all the way back to touch his wrist, which he would do to shock people." 

As the decade progressed, Montgomery continued a creative break with jazz purists. His art moved in an increasingly pop direction (sometimes with orchestral arrangements), although his expanding audience and commercial viability—and the feverish criticism he endured—didn’t mean the erosion of his virtuosity. 

“The debate goes on: Should Wes Montgomery have devoted what was to be the final half of his recording career to albums that didn’t fully represent his many talents?” Zan Stewart wrote in the reissued edition of Movin’ Wes, one of Montgomery's pop-oriented projects. “In retrospect, we can always look at the albums that are strictly jazz and hold those aloft as proof of his prowess. But it’s also true that no matter what piece of inane music he touched, he suffused it with his glowing sound, his regal octaves, his breathtaking chordal work, and his unflagging swing. And by treating sometimes bland popular music in this high manner, isn’t it possible that those who heard these albums were really opened up to the joys of jazz—in a subtle, serendipitous manner?” 

Wes Montgomery’s ultimate creative direction, however, will forever remain an open question: He died of a heart attack on June 15, 1968. He was 45 years old. A quintessential era of jazz guitar ended with his passing, but the colossal reach of his influence—reflected to this day in the playing of jazz and rock luminaries alike—remains firmly intact.