Few musicians in jazz history were more innovative, or more unassuming, than guitar legend Wes Montgomery (1923-68). He dispensed with the plectrum and developed an incredible thumb-picking style, played octave and chordal passages with the fluency and nuance of single lines, and organized these astounding techniques in solos of daring detail and sustained shape. Yet Montgomery modestly saw himself as a provider for his large family, a man who turned out entertaining music that just happened to redefine the possibilities of the jazz guitar.
Wes was the second of three musician brothers from Indianapolis, and the last to make his name nationally. He had briefly worked under his given name John Leslie Montgomery with Lionel Hampton from 1948-50; but then he returned home, to raise his family, work a day job as a welder, and develop his revolutionary style in one and sometimes two gigs a night at clubs like the Turf Bar and the Missile Room. His brothers, electric bass innovator Monk and vibist/pianist Buddy, had moved to San Francisco and were enjoying success as half of the Mastersounds when Wes, still working organ gigs at home, joined them on several late-Fifties recording sessions. It was word of mouth from musicians like Cannonball Adderley and Gunther Schuller, who passed through Indianapolis and were knocked out by this local legend, that created a groundswell of interest in the guitarist among the New York opinion-makers and led to his Riverside recording contract in 1959.
The rest, which was all too brief given his unexpected death from a heart attack nine years later, was guitar and jazz history. He was an immediate success with critics, who were prepared to top any superlatives awarded him in album titles; became the model for an entire new generation of guitarists (as well as some established players who recognized the shape of guitar to come); and found himself just as eagerly celebrated by the general public, who heard a warmth and emotional directness in Montgomery's music that made questions of progress and influence secondary. For a time, Montgomery retained the local trio featuring organist Mel Rhyne that was heard on his first recordings; but soon he would reunite with Monk and Buddy as the Montgomery Brothers. Despite studio partnerships with some of the greatest players of the era (including Adderley, Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, and Jimmy Smith) as well as large orchestras, and a couple of immortal live recordings with Wynton Kelly, not to mention an invitation to join John Coltrane's band (then a sextet with Eric Dolphy) that was briefly accepted in 1961, most of Montgomery's remaining work was in bands with Rhyne or his brothers.
As Montgomery moved to larger labels and more commercial projects, his popularity kept pace and his albums began to appear in the upper reaches of the pop charts. Yet his live performances still left musicians and jazz audiences speechless with his virtuosity, a situation that his slim but essential discography has continued without abatement in more than a quarter century since his untimely death.