Wes Montgomery: Early Recordings By A Late Guitar Great

Apr 8, 2012
Originally published on March 26, 2012 11:12 am

When legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery died in 1968, the list of his recordings filled an entire page — single-spaced. Now, more space is needed, because a significant new collection of previously unreleased Wes Montgomery music is out this month on a new compilation, Echoes of Indiana Avenue.

The album features the earliest recordings of a jazz musician who became a pop star. Montgomery created hit recordings of "Goin' Out of My Head," "Windy," and "California Dreamin'" — but he took grief from jazz critics who thought he had tamped down his immense talent as an improviser to reach a mass audience.

On Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR editor and guitar aficionado Tom Cole speaks with Susan Stamberg about how Montgomery's performance on Echoes of Indiana Avenue fits in the context of his iconic career.

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When legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery died in 1968, the list of his recordings filled an entire page, single-spaced. Now, more space is needed because a significant new collection of previously unreleased Wes Montgomery music is out this month. It features the earliest recordings of a jazz musician who became a pop star and took grief from jazz critics who thought that he tamped down his immense talent as an improviser to reach a mass audience.


STAMBERG: Well, Montgomery's talent was there from the very beginning, and you get a good taste of it on the new CD. It's called "Echoes of Indiana Avenue." NPR editor Tom Cole joins us to talk about Montgomery. Some years back, he did an hour-long profile of the guitarist for NPR, and he hosts a weekly program called G Strings on a local public radio station here in Washington, D.C. Hi, Tom.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Hi, Susan. Thanks for asking.

STAMBERG: Sure. We are going to talk about Wes Montgomery in a bit, but first will you pick something from this hitherto unreleased collection, something we can listen to.

COLE: Sure. Let's give a listen to the album opener. It's called "Diablo's Dance." It's a Shorty Roger's composition. And Wes's solo is just spot-on.


STAMBERG: Wes Montgomery is in his 30s here - that's all. And you hear that incredible improvisation. Where did he learn that?

COLE: He was completely self-taught, which I think might have helped him in developing in the way that he did and developing a unique sound. One of the myths about Wes was that because he didn't record until he was in this 30s, people got the sense that he started late. He's been playing since he was a kid. His brother, Monk, who was a pioneer of the electric bass, got him his first guitar when he was 12. And so he had roughly 20 years to, you know, work things out on his own. He started out playing literally note-for-note Charlie Christian solos that he'd learned off the records in the (unintelligible) clubs and then he went on the road with Lionel Hampton.

STAMBERG: That's pretty good. He must have been awfully good to get that far.

COLE: You'd think so, yeah. And then he wound up, you know, he only toured with Hampton for a brief period and then came back to Indianapolis.

STAMBERG: Yeah. And he had to have a lot of day jobs there in Indianapolis.

COLE: It was kind of a grueling schedule. He worked as a welder, he worked for a milk company, he worked in a radio parts factory roughly from, you know, whatever, 7 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Then, I guess he'd sleep and then he played a regular gig from 9 in the evening until 2 in the morning. And then, he would go to an after-hours club where he played from about 2 in the morning until 5 in the morning. He did this for six years.

STAMBERG: Oh, it's amazing. Well, thank goodness. Eventually, he got hurt by some biggies - Cannonball and Nat Adderley, jazz-playing brothers. And they got him signed by Riverside. He made his first album, he was 36 years old.


STAMBERG: Well, that's just absolutely gorgeous - "Round Midnight." But there is an earlier version of that Monk tune on this new collection of, until now, unreleased recordings.


STAMBERG: That was two years before the Riverside release of "Round Midnight." What do you hear? What difference do you hear in this?

COLE: It is kind of striking. For his Riverside debut, he pretty much played "Round Midnight" straight and doesn't really cut loose. But on this version that the liner notes postulate was maybe made as a demo recording to land him a record deal. The solo is fabulous, and it's, really, it's one of the characteristics of his playing how organically he moved from the melody, doing little embellishments, right into solo.


STAMBERG: How did he play? There was something unusual, wasn't there with Montgomery?

COLE: Well, the first thing that people think about with him was that he played with his thumb rather than a pick. Now, he started out playing with a pick, but in an interview for a Detroit public television station in 1968 - you know, not too long before he passed away - he told the story of how he came to use his thumb. And it all had to do with the fact that he was so devoted to the instrument that he would just play late into the night. And he had to figure out a way not to make too much noise.


WES MONTGOMERY: I would go into the night practicing, but then I would disturb the neighbors. So, that was very shortly brought to my attention. I had my amplifier really cut down. If I cut it down much more, I might as well not use it. So, then I set the pick on top of the amplifier and made a much louder sound softer. So, why go through all the trouble of developing a pick when I can play my thumb when I want to play?

COLE: And he certainly figured out how to play what he wanted to play with his thumb. The other thing that he's known for is playing octaves, and that's playing two notes, an octave apart at the same time. He wasn't the first one to do this - Django Reinhardt did a little bit of it - but he really made it his trademark. It's very hard to do. You know, you're playing two notes simultaneously going up and down the neck playing an improvised solo. It's much harder than doing it on a single string. The improvising on this new recording is really remarkable. You get a real sense of someone who had a real intuitive organic way of thinking about music, something that was uniquely his own, something that he developed on his own, and something you could hear in a tune like maybe "Body and Soul."


STAMBERG: What was Wes Montgomery's personality? This music is so mellow. Was he mellow?

COLE: He did have that reputation. I mean, everybody, you know, in the various interviews that you read, he was described as humble, as almost insecure in a way, perhaps because he was self-taught. You know, he was always not quite sure about his guitar sounds. He was very sort of, you know, deferential to other people, very approachable. He also was a different sort of jazz musician in that he didn't drink, he didn't do drugs. In fact, some of his band mates apparently at one point called him Reverend Montgomery. But he smoked heavily, and he died of a heart attack at the age of 45.

STAMBERG: Forty-five.

COLE: Just nine years between the time he made his debut and the time he passed away.

STAMBERG: Thanks so much. NPR editor and guitar aficionado Tom Cole. This new CD of long-lost Wes Montgomery tapes is called "Echoes of Indiana Avenue." Thanks, Tom.

COLE: You're welcome.




STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Susan Stamberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.