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JazzGuitarVolume OnefeaturingWes MontgomeryBarney KesselHerb EllisJoe Pass
Wes Montgomeryin Belgium, 1965
LEGENDS OF JAZZ GUITARVOLUME ONEby Mark Humphrey
Jazz and the guitar started getting seriously chummy aboutthe time the artists in this video were born. Jazz was thesensational new kid on the musical block in the 1920s; thesteel-string guitar was itself an ingenue, and no one was toosure what it could do. Brashly, it unseated the banjo in jazzbands and became a cornerstone of the rhythm section. Afew outstanding players, foremost among them Eddie Lang,tested the guitars capabilities as a solo jazz instrument. Bythe time our four legends were in their teens, the guitar hadbeen amplified to keep apace with the eras brassy bands.The instruments technical evolution went hand-in-hand withstylistic developments in jazz and popular music. At each turn,imaginative players stepped in to explore new possibilities.By the time they entered their twenties, the four guitarists inour video were ready, willing, and able to put their stamp onjazz history. As this video demonstrates, they continued to doso over subsequent decades.
Swing, bebop, and ballads are abundant here, as is theblues. Its very important to recognize that jazz is a particu-lar dialect of music, Barney Kessel wrote in his Guitar Jour-
nal (Guitar Player, May 1977). It has its own vernacular, itsown values and shadings. That vernacular is spoken herewith elegant zest by four legendary artists who helped pushthe guitar from the back pages to the front cover of the jazzlexicon.
WES MONTGOMERYThe most modern and hippest guitarist of our time.
George Benson on Wes Montgomery
Being modern and hip exacts a price. Montgomery wasthe first (and one of the few) jazz guitarists to become a starbeyond the purview of jazz lovers. His flirtation with pop idi-oms and audiences was deemed a gross infidelity by his ini-tial (and most ardent) supporters. He was very unhappy anddisturbed by this attitude, recalled his disciple, GeorgeBenson. He died a very sad man. Its tempting to depictMontgomery as a tragic figure, a victim of his own success.There may be something to this view, but the joyous figureseen in this video vividly counters it. Any great talent struckdead by a heart attack at age 43 is, in a sense, tragic. ButMontgomerys creative triumphs endure. Critic Marc Gridleyhailed him as probably the best hard bop guitarist. Joe Passranked Montgomery in a trinity alongside Charlie Christian andDjango Reinhardt: the only three real innovators on the gui-
Photo by Chuck Stew
tar. Montgomerys jazz-pop forays have not diluted his repu-tation among those who really heard him play, as he does inthese 1965 performances on the BBCs Jazz 625 program.Given Montgomerys enduring impact, its remarkable that lessthan a decade elapsed between his 1959 discovery and hisdeath in 1968. With an understatement analogous to his style,Montgomery succinctly said: I had to play and tell my story.
John Leslie Montgomerys story began in 1925. The In-dianapolis native was already grown and married when hefell in love with the guitar in 1943. The reason? It was arecording by a man who had died the previous year, CharlieChristians Solo Flight. That was it for me, Montgomeryrecalled. There was no way out. That cat tore everybodyshead up...he said so much on records. Christians recordswere Montgomerys constant companion for months as helabored over a guitar in hopes of coming close to Christianssound. I started off practicing with a plectrum, he recalled.I did this for about 30 days. Thin I decided to plug in myamplifier and see what I was doing. The sound was too mucheven for my next-door neighbors. So I took to the back of thehouse, and began plucking the strings with the fat part of mythumb. This was much quieter. To this technique, I addedthe trick of playing the melody line in two different registersat the same time the octave thing.
The octave thing would become Montgomerys stylisticsignature. Voicing lines in octaves was not new to jazz gui-tar, observed Marc Gridley in Jazz Styles, but Montgomerysuse of this device did much to popularize the approach. Atfirst, however, Montgomery was just looking for a gig. A cathired me for the Club 440, he recalled. Id play CharlieChristians solos, then lay out. Montgomery worked aroundIndianapolis, occasionally venturing out on the road with atouring band, and earned his first break in 1948 when LionelHampton hired him. He allowed me to keep my amp onduring the entire length of the numbers we played, Mont-gomery recalled, not just during my solos. Encouraged, Mont-gomery rose to the occasion: I began working hard and ex-perimenting with techniques, he recalled, seeking out theones that felt good and were most expressive of my thoughts.My explorations continued for quite awhile. My techniqueimproved, developing out of particular playing situations. Moreand more of me passed through my amplifier to those whotook time to listen.
Photo by Chuck Stew
For years, however, listening to Montgomery meant show-ing up at the Turf Bar or Missile Room in Indianapolis. After atwo-year stint with Hampton he settled into a grueling rou-tine which divided his energies between daytime employmentat a radio parts factory and nightly gigs. Montgomery hadseven children and took his parental responsibilities seriously.Some musicians might...cut off the rest of the world to con-centrate exclusively on their thing, said Montgomery. Whatsort of person would I be, he asked rhetorically, if Id de-voted all my time to the instrument...? There are other thingsgoing on, you know. And the grind which kept his family fedalso tempered Montgomery the musician: From all that scuf-fling, he reflected, I learned a lot about discipline as anentertainer.
In 1959, Cannonball Adderly heard Montgomery at theMissile Room and called Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews ofRiverside Records with news of his find. Within a matter ofweeks, Montgomery and his Missile Room trio had recordedthe material for two Riverside albums, Boss Guitar (RiversideRLP 67301) and Round Midnight (Riverside RLP 673099). Ac-claim was instantaneous: critics compared Montgomery toJohn Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. down beat awarded him itsNew Star honors in 1960, the same year Billboard called Mont-gomery the most promising instrumentalist of the year. Thatpromise was fulfilled on further Riverside recordings and atouring schedule which eventually moved Montgomery to SanFrancisco. When Wes came on the scene, reflected veteranSan Francisco critic Ralph Gleason, he was so innovative andso powerful that he just swept the other guys away into thestudios.
When Riverside folded in 1964, Montgomerys talents wereenlisted by producer Creed Taylor at the Verve label. ThereMontgomerys music took a turn which disappointed his jazzfans but which earned him a far broader audience. He tooktodays better pop tunes and played them with such jazz feel-ing and power that he caught the ear of the pop listener bywhat he was playing, wrote Dom Cerulli, and the imagina-tion of the jazz listener by how he was playing what he wasplaying. Not al l jazz l isteners were captivated, butMontgomerys version of Going Out of My Head claimed the1966 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.
To his critics, Montgomery said frankly: Those who criti-cize me for playing jazz too simply and such are missing the
point. Theres a jazz concept to what Im doing, but Im play-ing popular music and it should be regarded as such. Luck-ily, at least one significant pre-pop performance by Mont-gomery exists on videotape. Pianist Harold Mabern, bassistArthur Harper, and drummer Jimmy Lovelace join him in a1965 performance for the BBCs Jazz 625 program. TwistedBlues, a Montgomery composition, gives generous solo spaceto Mabern and Harper as well as offering a plenitude ofMontgomerys signature shimmery, swooping octaves.Jingles, another Montgomery original, showcases the tight-ness of this quartet driving through bluesy bop terrain. Bycontrast, the pop chestnut Yesterdays finds its wistful melodyswung in a cool way. (A 1933 Jerome Kern tune, Yesterdaysdebuted in the musical Roberta in which a young Bob Hopeappeared in the stage production.) Montgomery plays it punchywithout grandstanding, an art tenor saxophonist Johnny Grif-fin admired in his old jamming partner: He had a fantasticcreative force, Griffin said of Montgomery. Everything hedid in life was rounded out, definitive. No waste of energy oremotions.
Photo by Tom C
JOE PASSBy the end of the 1980s, he was the most recorded guitarist
in jazz history, and arguably the most gifted. Leonard Feather on Joe Pass
He became known for his sensitive accompaniment tothe likes of pianists George Shearing and Oscar Peterson andsingers Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae. He would latershare the spotlight with such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, DizzyGillespie, and Duke Ellington. A consummate accompanist(Singers worshipped him, wrote Leonard Feather), Joe Passreally excelled as a soloist. Its in that role we see him on thisvideo.
Born Joseph Anthony Passalaqua in New Brunswick, NewJersey in 1929, Pass was a child prodigy on the guitar. En-couraged by a strict father who had him practicing up to sixhours a day, Pass was playing in local bands at age 12 in hishometown, Johns