Dave Gould's Guitar Pages
Wes Montgomery Interviews
The Thumbs Up
By Bill Quinn
Down Beat June 27th 1968.
"Success is a big thing to
me," conceded Wes Montgomery, "but not a great big thing.
"Everything relates to life," the guitarist continued, reaching for one
of the bisquits that have made Gladys', a southside
Turning around suddenly, Wes held up his plate before the cute little waitress who, without recognizing the guitarist's face, was thoroughly grabbed by his personality. "Sweetheart, do you have a little gravy for this rice?" "Just for you," she beamed, moving toward the kitchen with his plate.
Observing his way with people, I remarked that he seemed to be a past master at the somewhat obscure art of making fast friends all around, his celebrated identity remaining unknown all the while.
"I don't know any strangers," he said. "When you attempt to get above other people, you have to make believe; when you make believe, you have to prove it."
For Montgomery, one of the brightest lights lit by the currents of the jazz idiom in recent years, the list of accomplishments is as long as the neck of his guitar. This, however, seems to rest as easily with the guitarist as the plate of food the smiling waitress was placing in front of him again with plenty of gravy now added.
In addition to having been voted
Down Beat's New Star Guitarist of 1960, he has won the Established Talent category on his
instrument for five of the last seven years, and has been voted the Playboy poll's all-star
guitarist for six successive years. He has, in fact, won so much recognition in print that
he possesses three dresser-drawers full of press clippings lauding his way with the
fretted axe. One of the clippings must be regarded as unique, not only for a jazz-oriented
instrumentalist, but for almost any musician in this country: when he was the feature
attraction at a midwestern jazz festival not long ago, he received front-page coverage
complete with picture in the
For this man from Indianapolis who didn't pick up a guitar until his 19th year, who didn't seriously concentrate on becoming a full-time professional musician until a decade after that much of his success stems from traceable sources, such as the fact that he came along at what he calls "the right time" for his sound. On the other hand, he finds the extent of his recognition among the "Now" generation something of a phenomenon.
"The kids, you know, they don't seem to go overboard for anything that bears the jazz label these days. `Jazz' the young layman usually says, `I don't want to hear that stuff.' It's unfortunate for many musicians to be called jazzmen in this day and age, because the minute some people are identified with that strange term, the kids the biggest market, are scared away before they hear whatever it is the musician is saying . . . and they may have loved it. No label should turn listeners off like that.
"I want to tell people - this is those who write about it as well as the public - not to worry about what it's called; worry about whether it pleases people. That's what it's all about anyway," he added. "People are the final judges."
To his latest and greatest successes Wes feels that the addition of full bands and orchestras behind his solo lines have contributed much. "My a&r men and arrangers usually work with me on the recordings. I accept their suggestions in numerous cases, sometimes even when I'm doubtful myself. So far, though, things have worked out better than I thought."
Of this thesis, some have been
more than a little critical. Of Wes' California Dreaming album, a Down Beat record
reviewer said: "Now that
The reviewer shares the sentiments of a number of purists (or die-hards, if you wish) who feel that the addition of strings and the relatively uncomplicated, melodically dominated improvisation characteristic of many of the more widely accepted jazz musicians are blatant heresy.
"In the first place," said Wes, seemingly not the least bit fazed by that brand of criticism, "people are not listening as well as they think they are in all cases. I have changed my way of playing, just as many others have, to fit with the times. Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, and many others could have had the same doors opened for them that have opened for people like Jimmy Smith and Ramsey Lewis - it seems to me that they just decided against it.
"Those who criticize me for playing jazz too simply and such are missing the point. When I first came up big on the Billboard charts they couldn't decide whether to call me a jazz artist or a pop artist. I think I originated a new category, something like `Jazz-Pop' artist. There is a different direction on my records these days; there is a jazz concept to what I'm doing, but I'm playing popular music and it should be regarded as such."
Wes, unlike some other musicians on whom fame and fortune have fallen, candidly answers a "qualified yes" to the question of whether or not his increasing popular successes have lessened the "esthetic content" of his efforts recently. But in an admirable display of common sense that defies criticism from all save those whose heads with visibility cut to zero in a columnus nebulous of sheer naivete-are above it all, Wes added: "It doesn't matter how much artistry one has; it's how it's presented that counts." (The remark would be viable in this economic system if it came from a mediocre musician; coming from a musician who has been hailed as "the man to give the most to the guitar since Charlie Christian," the man who literally invented the "round sound" of playing a line with the meat of the thumb, the only guitarist yet who can play melodies in octaves with any speed and consistency, one has no recourse other than to allow that this virtuoso has opted for reality).
"I have seen what happened to people like Tatum and Coltrane. Though Coltrane died before his thing had been completely resolved, Tatum died at a time when he should have enjoyed all the benefits of being the greatest piano player in existence but he didn't, you dig?" the guitarist says.
"I hear Buddy every night. (Buddy Montgomery, Wes' brother, is the group's pianist.) He's got a complete style of his own; he's fluent, clean, interesting, all of that. On the basis of his talent, I can't understand how he hasn't been recognized . . but artistry is beside the point.
"It's too bad," he continued. "An artist has to believe in his own ability. He has to think he has sufficient artistry, has to be confident of his talent before he'll risk performing in public. Then, when he finally gets out there, he discovers that it doesn't matter what his technical ability is.
"The proof of what I'm saying can be seen in the quality of the television shows that go off the air and the ones that stay on. No matter how educational a show is, if the ratings are higher for something silly and stupid, the program director will pull the other show off and leave the goofy one just as long as the rating stays high".
The likelihood of John Leslie
The guitarist verified the story that he stumbled onto his style more or less accidentally. "I started off practicing with a plectrum. I did this for about 30 days. Then I decided to plug in my amplifier and see what I was doing" he said. "The sound was too much even for my next door neighbors, so I took to the back room in the house and began plucking the strings with the fat part of my thumb. This was much quieter. To this technique I added the trick of playing a melody line in two different registers at the same time, the octave thing; this made the sound even quieter."
After four years of fitting in practice time after his other obligations had been met, Wes went on the road with Lionel Hampton's big band. The guitarist recalls that Hamp paid him the ultimate compliment for his particular instrument: "He allowed me to keep my amp on during the entire length of the numbers we played, not just during my solos". This altered the sound of the band slightly, something which no other guitarist up to that time had accomplished with the hard-charging leader.
Big bands off the stand are nothing more than tightly knit groups of working guys who enjoy a laugh on one of their number as well as anybody. Hamp's '48 outfit, peopled by such luminaries as Charlie Mingus, Fats Navarro, and Mill Buckner, was a fun-loving group, to say the least. Because of Wes' teetotaling nature, which he maintains to this day; the bandsmen quickly dubbed him "Rev.,,
The years following his
barnstorming days with
"Working three gigs all that time was not the worst thing that could have happened to me," he said. "From all that scuffling I learned a lot about discipline as an entertainer. I don't go overboard now maybe because it was a long time coming."
Wes' first LP was a World Pacific release on which he sat in with his brothers, pianist Buddy and bassist Monk, both with his current quintet, but then co-leaders of the Mastersounds, a group with a solid but unspectacular reputation. Nothing much happened for Wes as a result of that date, and the group dissolved in early 1960.
In Wes' estimation, however, it
was the wax and a little help from some friends that ultimately made the difference.
"As far as I'm concerned, Cannonball (Adderley) opened the door for me," he
said. "He called Riverside Records once, when he was in
He was satisfied."
FROM THEN ON, it was mostly coasting to the good things for the guitarist, especially when one considers what he had previously been through. But though Wes has been among the headliners at festivals all over the U.S. and in London, Madrid, Brussels, Lugano and San Remo, and has been the leader on more than a score of top hit LPs, three of which are currently on the Billboard best seller lists, he is the last one to see his good fortune as overwhelming in any sense of that word.
"When you start to make it slightly, everyone talks like you're a millionaire. But let's not forget that this isn't the Beatles or somebody nobody ever makes it that big in jazz. I can't retire for some time yet," he clarifies.
Considering his uniquely appealing instrumental approach, one might think that Wes could have an armload of those lucrative television commercial contracts that sometimes accrue to even the most anonymous musicians, but such is not the case. There are several commercials now making the rounds of video that utilize the dulcet octave guitar sound so pointedly reminiscent of The Thumb, but only one is actually his - the rest are commendable copies from which the inventor garners no royalties. "I don't mind," he said with a smile. "It lets me know they're thinking about me, anyhow."
Plumbing the murky depths from which spring the sequoias of success, someone recently asked Wes how in the face of all the electronic effects, oscillation, tremolo, feedback, etc. he managed to retain his place in the market with such a comparatively "straight" approach. His answer, he reported, had been that he observes all of these developments. "Nothing new," he emphasized, "gets by unnoticed. While some cats turned up their noses at Elvis Presley and the Beatles, I tried to find out what was best about what they were doing and incorporate it into my thing without duplicating their stuff.
"We just finished a new album, for instance, that is done with a Baroque influence on every track. We're doing things like Fly Me to the Moon, Greensleeves, and My Favorite Things. There's a mixed bag of instruments on the different tracks -a string quartet on some, woodwinds on others but everything is done in the Baroque style."
Today, if one walks into a club to hear Wes Montgomery's quintet, one hears some of the most irresistibly swinging music call it jazz, pop or even rock that exists anywhere. After two martinis or whatever his poison the reader is hereby defied not to pat his foot to the proceedings. Part of the reason for this circumstance is that the group is just one big rhythm section. Part of the reason is also that this rhythm section is composed of uninhibited swingers who have nothing against having fun while they work and it's contagious.
In addition to Buddy, whose pianistic abilities have already been cited and Monk, a double threat on either Fender or upright bass there's conga drummer Alvin Bunn, who anchors the pace to the nitty-gritty at all costs, and, last but not least, the irrepressible metronomics of drummer Billy Hart, a musician who is obviously as gassed by the act of playing his axe as is his leader.
When the unit kicks off into any of the two dozen or so numbers with which most of the audience is familiar, and the chorus of approbation goes up, "Yeah," be advised that one of jazz' greatest public relations men is at work he is talking to both square ears and round.
Facing a summer with George
Wein's traveling cornucopia of jazz a la
Consequently, it is a self-assured Wes Montgomery who says: "I found out a long time ago that you've got to appreciate life first, before you can do anything else. At one time, when I was young, I was exposed to a lot of things; whisky, dope, etc. I had seen a lot of it, heard a lot of guys say that those things would help me project myself. But I knew it wasn't true. From a very early age, I could see that the mind would function no better than when it was clear. A lot of times, when my head was clear, and another cat's wasn't, I'd hear him talking and I knew he thought he was making sense when he wasn't.
"I'd like to pass on the fact that you don't need the influence; you'll learn faster, produce more. A lot of cats want company when they use narcotics" he added "because it's not pleasant to use them solo-but let 'em".
Clearly, though being top guitar
means taking a lot of trips, Wes Montgomery is not goin' out of his head.
FastCounter by LinkExchange