John Leslie Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana to a musical family as his brother Monk played bass and Buddy the vibraphone. Incredibly, Wes didn’t pick up the guitar until he was nineteen years old but clearly had tons of natural talent for the instrument. Wes learned by ear and was able to play Charlie Christian’s entire solos note for note and this ability led to his first gigs. He also developed his own unique style of playing using his thumb to pluck the string instead of a pick. Wes was already married by the time he began playing guitar seriously and it is said he developed this style due to the need to practice quietly at night while she slept.
In 1948 Montgomery was hired by Lionel Hampton due largely in part to his ability to play Charlie Christian’s solos and toured with Hampton’s big band for several years. Wes returned home to Indianapolis to be with his wife and kids and for the better part of the 1950s would work from 7:00a.m.-3:00p.m. in a factory and then perform locally every night. Montgomery made his first record as a leader in 1959 called ‘The Wes Montgomery Trio’ and followed those up with some very classic recordings of his including ‘The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery’ and ‘Full House’. These recordings defined Wes as a jazz guitar player and heavily influenced most Jazz guitar players after him including Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, George Benson and Kenny Burrell. In 1963 Wes began playing music designed to help him reach a main stream audience and won a Grammy for his song ‘Going Out of My Head’ in 1965. Unfortunately his life ended much too soon as Wes passed away in 1968 from a heart attack.
Wes Montgomery leaves a legacy on guitar matching any Jazz guitar player's who ever lived even in his short life. Wes was nominated for six Grammy awards with the win in 1965 and in 1968 for ‘Willow Weep For Me’ and won Down Beat magazine’s Critic Poll for best Jazz guitarist six times. Montgomery’s guitar playing speaks for itself and I have no doubt Wes will continue to inspire new generations of Jazz guitar players for a long, long time.
“To me, all guitar players can play, because I know they're getting to where they're at. It's a very hard instrument to accept, because it takes years to start working with it, that's first, and it looks like everybody else is moving on the instrument but you. Then when you find a cat that's really playing, you always find that he's been playing a long time, you can't get around it.”
“It's impossible for me to feel like there's only one way to do a thing. There's nothing wrong with having one way of doing it, but I think it's a bad habit. I believe in range. Like, there's a lot of tunes that I play all the time-sometimes I hear 'em in a different register. And if you don't have complete freedom, or you won't let yourself get away from that one straight line, oh, my goodness, that's too horrible to even think about.”
“I don't know that many chords. I'd be loaded if I knew that many. But that's not my aim. My aim is to move from one vein to the other without any trouble. The biggest thing to me is keeping a feeling, regardless what you play. So many cats lose their feeling at various times, not through the whole tune, but at various times, and it causes them to have to build up and drop down, and you can feel it.” – Wes Montgomery.