Wes Montgomery (1925 - 1968) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1925. At age nineteen he took up the tenor guitar and moved almost immediately to the six-string electric. As a part of his efforts to learn the guitar he memorized Charlie Christian solos off records. Then armed with these solos he got his first job playing in a local band where, by his own account, his job was to play the Charlie Christian solos.
By 1948 he had progressed significantly because he got a job in the Lionel Hampton big band and went on the road with Hampton for two years. During this time he appeared on a long list of Hampton studio and broadcast recordings, among them "Lavender Coffin, and "Benson's Boogie" and "Where or When". His appearances on the studio recordings were limited to rhythm playing. But every now and then he got a short solo on some of the broadcast recordings like "Hot House".
Montgomery left The Hampton band in 1950 and returned to Indiana where he worked with his brothers and other local bands, including his own trio. He recorded his first record as a leader in 1959 when he made The Wes Montgomery Trio. Between 1959 and 1963 a succession of important Wes Montgomery recordings appeared that still represent some of his best work. Among these recordings were The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, The Wes Montgomery Trio and Full House. During this same period he made a set of recordings with his brothers that remain jazz classics today. All the recordings from this period were made in small groups and each represented important milestones in Montgomery's evolution as a jazz guitarist.
After 1963, Montgomery began recording for Verve and A & M Records and the recordings took on a very different production quality aimed more at the mass music markets. Orchestration was added and more pop tunes were covered. It was the recording that included the title tune Going Out Of My Head that won Montgomery a Grammy in 1965.
The recordings in this second period were more significant for their commercial success than for the music. To some extent they were over produced and did not have the same immediateness and power of the small group recordings. They remain somewhat unpopular with jazz guitar purists. However, they made Wes Montgomery a household name and helped elevate the guitar to a whole new level in American popular music.
For the jazz guitarist, the recordings from the first period remain the most significant. All Wes Montgomery recordings have the unmistakable Montgomery imprint, but it is the small group material that best presented the whole context of the Montgomery approach to jazz guitar. Wes Montgomery was a superb melodist who made the head of the most common jazz standard sound fresh. His improvisational skills were second to none, and he was a magnificent supporting musician. And, of course, there was that warm Wes Montgomery sound achieved by using his thumb rather than a pick. The small group material gave the listener immediate access to all this better than the later recordings.
Wes Montgomery died suddenly of a heart attack in 1968. He left behind a legacy that included changing the guitar's place in popular culture. He most likely did not set out to do this, it just happened as a by-product of his very accessible talent.
For the jazz guitarist, he changed the course and direction of jazz guitar evolution and left an unsurpassed musical legacy.
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