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Wes Montgomery Obituaries

Crescendo Magazine July 1968

To be writing in the past tense of the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery seems unbelievable. But the tragic fact is that, at the age of 43, after a heart attack on June 15, Wes died. He will be mourned not only by the world's guitar exponents but by instrumentalists of all kinds.

Almost exactly three years ago, Wes appeared for a memorable month at Ronnie Scott's club. In an article headed "Montgomery The Magnificent," Crescendo collated the ecstatic reactions of musicians who were fortunate enough to hear him. The words "fantastic," "incredible" and "genius" were applied unstintingly. George Kish summed it up: `This is something we've never heard before, and are not likely to hear for the next 20 years . . . his timing, his whole conception, the way he builds a tune. Each chorus is always better than the one before. He's the kind of man who, had he taught himself any other instrument, would be just as brilliant."

Late in life

But it was the guitar that Wes mastered, unaided by teachers or books - not as a child, but comparatively late in life. He had felt impelled to do so after hearing a Charlie Christian record. His younger brothers, Buddy and Monk, had been playing long before him around their home area of Indianapolis, Indiana. Once he got studying, though, Wes raced ahead of them to earn acclaim as a true giant of jazz. And all with no reading ability, playing with his thumb instead of a pick, using a fingering technique that enabled him to execute lengthy passages in octaves, apparently effortlessly. The key factor to his success was that he never allowed his virtuosity to distract him from the basic business of swinging like mad. Along with Garner, Rich and a few others, Wes was one of the absolute naturals, possessing a God-given instinct for doing all the right things in all the right places.

Off the stand, Wes proved to be a friendly, smiling man who had the endearing knack of poking fun at himself. Although he could not explain all he did, he was always happy to talk music with other guitarists. Such an accomplished professional as Ike Isaacs found himself greatly enriched by his musical and social contact with Wes.

Comments Ike: "A great guitarist has gone and the jazz world is bereft of one of its finest jazzmen. To me and to several of my colleagues who have had the good fortune of meeting Wes Montgomery as a person, this is a bereavement that leaves a deep hurt. We share this great loss with those who were close to him.

"Much has been said about his playing and undoubtedly still more praise will be bestowed posthumously on this genius of the jazz guitar. I can only join with my fellow musicians in mourning the untimely departure of one who was truly the `incredible guitarist,' one who has left the indelible mark of his artistry and personality among all jazz musicians in the world today."

His visit to Britain demonstrated that all his assets were not fully represented on records. Wes admitted that he could not achieve total relaxation in the studio, being inhibited by awareness of recording. His recent best-selling albums with strings and big orchestras made beautiful listening, but the real Wes became known to those who experienced his exciting in-person performances.

The feature in this issue (prepared before the news of his passing) is characteristically candid but self-effacing and must be regarded by us as his last utterance. But musically Wes will live on in his albums.

Les Tomkins.


Down Beat – July 25th 1968


Guitarist Wes Montgomery, 43, died suddenly at his Indianapolis home June 15 of a heart attack. He had just returned from a tour with his quintet. Montgomery was at the height of his fame when death struck. He had reached a degree of popular acceptance that few jazz artists achieve, especially in our time.

John Leslie Montgomery was 19, just married, and an ardent admirer of Charlie Christian when he bought his first guitar and taught himself to play. He developed an unorthodox style, using his thumb in place of a plectrum, which gave his playing a distinctive sound, combined with the unusual octave effects he was able to obtain.

He soon made a local reputation for himself, and in 1948 went on the road with Lionel Hampton's big band for two years. Upon his return to Indianapolis, he embarked on a strenuous schedule of working in a factory by day and leading a combo at night. In 1959, the guitarist went to San Francisco, where he briefly joined the Mastersounds, a group co-led by his brothers. (Monk, a bassist, is older; Buddy, who plays piano and vibes, is the youngest.)

When the Mastersounds dissolved in early 1960, Montgomery formed his own trio. He had begun to record under his own name for Riverside in 1959, and his following among jazz enthusiasts was growing steadily. In 1965, he teamed up for a year with pianist Wynton Kelly's trio for nightclub, concert and festival appearances. At the suggestion of a&r man Creed Taylor (he was now recording for Verve), Montgomery made an album, Movin' Wes, with big-band backing. It was a hit, as was his next release, Bumpin'. Early in 1966, the big break came with Goin' Out of My Head, which received a Grammy award as best instrumental jazz performance of that year.

This was followed by A Day in the Life, his first album for Herb Alpert's A&M label, to which he had moved when Taylor left Verve for this new venture. Montgomery's contract with this label was one of the most favorable ever signed by a jazz performer, and the album became the best-selling jazz LP of 1967 (it is still on the charts).

When Montgomery began to record hits of the day in settings of a more commercial nature than his previous smallgroup work, he was exposed to the customary criticism from jazz purists. But he took it in his stride, and his success was heartening, considering the current popular status of jazz. Moreover, when he performed in public with his quintet (which now included his brothers), he still played exciting improvised jazz along with the hits requested by the public.

Prior to and even after his commercial success Montgomery was considered the outstanding guitarist in contemporary jazz. He won numerous awards, including the Down Beat Critics Poll (1960-63; 66-67) and Readers Poll (1961-62; 66-67); the Playboy "All Stars' All Stars" poll for six years running, and the aforementioned Grammy award.

He leaves his widow, Serene; two sons, and five daughters.
BMG August 1968

Wes Montgomery – Natural Genius

Wes Montgomery
– only recently voted the top jazz guitarist of 1968 by Downbeat Magazine –
died suddenly of a heart attack on June 15th.
This appreciation of the man and his music is by John Duarte.

This has been a dreadful thirteen months. In May of last year Ida Presti was put to rest; later in the summer there was the tragic death at the age oaf 29 of Segovia's only daughter (the maestro himself is currently recovering from two successive operations on his left eye); barely two months ago Castelnuovo-Tedesco passed away; and now Wes Montgomery has died of a heart attack.

Like Ida Presti and Django, Reinhardt before him, he was 43 years old. Not yet being in possession of the full facts, I find it diffiicult to understand why he should have been susceptible to such a cause of death. He did not drink at all, if I remember correctly, if he smoked it was in moderation, and he was not corpulent though when my wife, at table, pressed him to eat more, observing that he was "a big man", he said "I guess I am, but I'm trying not to let it show!" As for strain, the round of nightclub and similar work was one to which he had been accustomed for years, and, towards the end of his life, considerable commercial success must have greatly relieved the burden of anxiety that goes with the support of a wife and seven children for whom he cared deeply.


He was a natural genius whether regarded as a guitarist or as a jazz musician, and conscious of this only insofar as others pointed it out to him. I once asked him if, given his time over again, he would choose lo be a guitarist. He said he would not be a musician - he would rather have been a welder (which he originally was) because "you can still be creative and it doesn't mean that you have to spend so, much time away from your family".

Coming to, prominence and success so late (by jazz-musical standards) in life, he felt a certain wonderment and concern; he did not listen to classical music because he feared that he would be influenced by it and that this would change his playing and as a result he might lose whatever it was that had made him popular and successful. Curious but logical.

His technique was inseparable from the content of his playing. Having tried and discarded the plectrum, he used his right-hand thumb because it produced the quality of tone and attack that he wanted. Like Reinhardt he was an unorthodox natural, but his unorthodoxy was, unlike that of Reinhardt, chosen and not enforced.

Equal terms

Eddie Lang was the first really important jazz-guitarist innovator and in this respect he is a permanently important figure; his music was, however, a hybrid born at a time when white musicians were striving to play jazz with intensity of feeling and, charming as it is, it is more than tinged with Zeitgeist and is now listened to - to, some degree as a page of history.

Charlie Christian brought the guitar on to equal terms with other solo instruments in jazz, showed how the amplified instrument could be used effectively and in perfect taste. His contribution was musical rather than technical and in technical ability he could not be compared with Reinhardt, who had already been established for some years. Reinhardt threw down a technical gauntlet that has since been picked up by very many virtuosi of the jazz instrument, providing a spur that has had drastic and permanent effect. Musically, he too was a hybridiser, and it is only when he sought to adopt the phrasing of even phrases of other instrumentalists that his playing now sounds curious or dated; in the main, what he did was timelless in that it was intensely personal and little connected with the mainstream of jazz - as it then was.

His unorthodox technique not only stimulated others to seek equal facility, it even encouraged a small number of people (who should have been old enough to know better) to refrain from using their third and fourth left-hand fingers; inevitably passing time has consigned them to, obscurity.

Wes Montgomery did not play faster than anyone else using normal techniques; he did not do anything that had not been done before; all his musical textures had been explored before. What he did was to give the guitar, with his right-hand-thumbed attack, a deep-throated and powerful voice, which spoke timeless jazz of the, fully developed mainstream kind with the same eloquence as that of the wind players; this he did as one who was dazzlingly creative into the bargain. Had he played any instrument he would have been outstanding. One could in fact listen to his playing for its own sake, disregarding the technical feats that went into its creation.

Technically, though he created nothing new other than the use of the right-hand thumb (and even this, had been used effectively before the war by Teddy Bunn, though with very much less mobility), he developed the use of practically every feature to a marvellous degree. His playing of single notes had flexibility and expressiveness that transcended the existence of frets and the limitations of the struck string, his octave playing was of an order that had never been dreamed of before and may not be seen again in our lifetime. (Reinhardt too, used the octave line but at a level that was cramped and did not even bear serious comparison), whilst chords became, something with which he could colour a melodic line and reinforce it changing them with incredible speed.

Many facets

The only mystery that chords held for him was in their names; he didn't know their names or symbols, but he could recognise and speak them as fluently as most of us can write or speak. Music was to him such a natural language that he bypassed all questions of grammar and syntax.

Fortunately he was well recorded, though some of his records may now be difficult to obtain. His records exhibit the many facets of his talent and his ability to adapt to any company which he chose or was chosen to keep. .

Segovia impressed

There will now probably be memorial releases of unissued tracks or perhaps of tracks that are on records now out of issue; I hope so, because it would be tragic if they were to vanish completely. It is ironic that ill-health seems to have been one of the least of his worries. His over-riding fear was of aircraft. When he came ito this country in 1965 he flew (I believe, for the first time in his life) and he told me that he had taken enough pills to keep the pharmaceutical industry prosperous for years to come. I reminded him that he had arrived safely, and that Segovia flies in upwards of 100 aircraft in his average year; his answer was "Man, he's living on borrowed time - and so, am I"

In that same year I played two of his records to Segovia who, despite his lack of rapport with the music, was deeply impressed. Alirio Diaz, each time he comes to visit me, requires me to play his records and invariably departs with the numbers written in his diary.

Talent of this order will impress itself on those with perception, no matter what boundaries it has to cross. He will not go unmourned by any but the jazz enthusiasts or the jazz-guitar aficionado.

In addition to all this, he was a delightful man with an irrepressible sense of humour on the one hand, and deep seriousness on the other; he gave no little thought to the fundamental things of life.

Many outstanding jazz musicians have little else to offer and are pretty dull people without an instrument in their hands; Wes was not one of these and his company was neither dull nor unprofitable. We shall all miss him in many ways, but none more acutely than his wife and family, to whom our deepest sympathies go out.













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