Back in the 1940s there was a funeral home—Willis Mortuary–on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. A piano player named Sax Kari worked there during the day, and at night he’d rehearse in front of a display casket on the funerary organ with a local guitar player.
The duo broke up after what must have been the strangest audition of all time. Chitlin’ circuit promoter Denver Ferguson, who made a living booking acts such as Christine Chatman and Her Boogie Woogie Seven into nightclubs that catered to blacks, came to hear the duo in the darkened funeral chapel one night. He liked Kari’s playing, but decided that at 17 the guitarist was too young to go on the road. He hired Kari, who is now so obscure his name doesn’t appear between Kamuca, Richie and Katz, Dick, in jazz encyclopedias. The guitar player went back to practicing in his bedroom, trying to copy solos by Charlie Christian, the first great electric guitarist.
The guitar player who wasn’t signed that night was John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, born on this day and raised in Indianapolis. At the time of his audition with Kari he was just a beginner, and it showed; he was self-taught, and played with his thumb rather than a pick, a technique that he used to practice quietly, so as not to disturb his wife’s sleep, which resulted in a rough, muffled sound.
Montgomery eventually became good enough to play with Lionel Hampton’s band from 1948 to 1950–he can be heard on a few radio broadcasts from these years–but he gave up touring and returned to Indianapolis, where he worked day jobs and played clubs at night for the better part of the 50s. He was part of a musical family—one brother was a vibraphonist and the other played electric bass—so he had a ready-made trio he could fall back onto like a living room sofa at home.
In 1959 Montgomery first appeared on a commercial recording with an organ trio, and in 1960 his debut album—titled with no false modesty The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery—made him more famous than all but a few jazz instrumentalists in the country.
From that point on, except for a brief period playing in the John Coltrane sextet, Montgomery would always be the bandleader, the front man, an important distinction in the marginally-profitable world of jazz. It meant he could make a living playing his music.
Montgomery’s work is typically divided into three periods: In his early years, he recorded traditional jazz offerings in small groups that included veteran sidemen such as Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones on piano. Then there are his orchestral dates, in which he succumbed to every jazzman’s secret longing; the desire to be swathed in strings, the music of the whorehouse wrapped in high-toned finery. Some folks like this sort of stuff, but to my ears it’s like eating a steak with a side of cotton candy. And I don’t eat with my ears.
At the end of his career he signed with A&M, the home of easy-listening jazz acts such as Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Jazz fans didn’t like the studio’s use of Montgomery–simple restatements of pop standards smothered by strings and woodwinds–but the strategy put his music on AM radio and helped introduce modern jazz to people who might not otherwise have encountered it.
The quip that Ginger Rogers was more talented that Fred Astaire because she could do anything he did backwards and in high heels applies with minor changes to Montgomery. He developed a style of soloing in octaves so that he played two notes for every one played by other guitarists. To put it another way, they always had three free fingers to play their next note, while he had none. The sound he produced was soothing, but it was hard work. I remember trying to transcribe his solo on “Road Song,” from his last album of the same name, for a college jazz course. Let’s just say I faked it, the professor knew it, and I got a B.
To a generation of young guitarist wannabes in the sixties, Montgomery was a cool breeze amidst a heat wave of rock soloists who emphasized speed over soul. He died in 1968 at the age of 45 with 39 albums to his name. In 2012 newly-discovered Montgomery tapes were released as Echoes of Indiana Avenue, live recordings from 1957-58 that predate his first album.
It seems fitting that his final recording returns our impression of Wes back to his beginnings, before all those easy-listening dates, jamming on Indiana Avenue after he wasn’t good enough to make it out of a funeral parlor.
Con Chapman is the author of “Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good,” forthcoming from Equinox Publishing (UK).