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Unsold op-ed for Wes Montgomery's centennial (which is today)

Monday 3/6/23

Get hooked on jazz for Wes Montgomery’s centennial.

Jazz is something that people seem to think would be a neat subject to say you’re interested in. There’s a cool factor with jazz. History tells us its important. After all, it’s America’s only indigenous music. Jazz has intellectual cachet. Real artists have made jazz. People with names like Holiday, Coltrane, Monk. You just know they’re important.

Getting into jazz is a bit trickier. Where does one start? Artful jazz isn’t readily served up in any facet of our current culture. One has to go looking for it. Searching can feel overwhelming. As a result, jazz often exists more as an appealing concept, than music that’s regularly devoured.

There’s a perfect point of entry to the world of jazz, though, and that’s through the musical art of guitarist Wes Montgomery, who is marking his centennial on March 6.

We’re all familiar with the guitar. If you’ve listened to popular music at any time in your life, you’re well-versed in the instrument, but no one had ever played it the way that Montgomery did when he hit the national scene in 1959.

He’d gotten a late start, especially for a jazz musician. Years had passed with Montgomery mastering his technique in his home of Indianapolis. Jazz musicians had a tendency to start fast, die young, making us wonder what could have been, all while being blown away by the music that had been made.

Montgomery only lived until the age of forty-five, succumbing to a heart attack in 1968, but during the first half of the 1960s, he created a body of work that can stand with nearly any in the medium’s history, and which also represents the perfect place for every would-be jazz fan to get started.

Montgomery took a pointillist approach to the guitar. He awed with controlled blasts of single notes which coalesced into an enveloping canvas. The blues was in his music. As was swing. The energy of bebop, which remains the most intensely kinetic music in this country’s history. The surge of rhythm and blues. The indomitable aspect of gospel.

And yet, Montgomery’s music was pure Montgomery. A Montgomery riff was like a story within the framework of a conversation. A guitar lick was akin to a nod, a waving of the hand, an enjoyable beckoning.

One need not know anything about music theory to love Montgomery. A lot of jazz discussion gets weighed down with jargon. That’s because many of the people who write about jazz are academics. Loving Montgomery’s music is a lot like loving Jimi Hendrix’s, and it’s no wonder that Hendrix loved the ax-man from Indiana.

You sit there and let Montgomery’s playing happen to you. It’s a life experience that does all of the work. One need only listen and be transported. This is jazz that is every bit as accessible as rock and roll, and also a wonderful, salient lesson: Namely, that there’s a version of this same experience to be had with John Coltrane. With Duke Ellington. Ornette Coleman. The “heavies” of the genre.

These were artists who always wanted you, the potential listener, no matter your background, your education level, what you normally partook of. This was music for you. Not the classroom, not for people to namecheck to look impressive.

To hear Wes Montgomery cut loose on records like So Much Guitar (1961) and Smokin’ at the Half Note (1965) is to partake of jazz almost as if you’re unaware that you’re listening to jazz.

This is music beyond the bounds of labels, which is always true of the best jazz. One hears it, and one wants more of it.

Jazz is intoxicating, but with the mind becoming unclouded, the senses sharpening. Listening to Wes Montgomery, you’re on edge, but also calm. There’s impeccably controlled—masterfully orchestrated—excitement. You give yourself over to this music.

That’s maybe the best thing about jazz and about Wes Montgomery’s version of it. The music does the work. It’s a downhill journey, but, paradoxically, to lofty heights. You ride the current down the stream and the destination is comprised of the sounds of the journey.

Partaking of the Montgomery discography may feel like the easiest, most natural thing you do, after you start doing it. You wonder where this music has been your entire life, and you’re glad you have a lot of time awaiting you to keep listening.

Montgomery’s own playing was about listening. How he heard the members of his bands, how he responded to what he’d just played. Jazz is like a palpitating dialogue, a give and take of absorbing and presenting. It’s so much like we are, as people.

Play any single Wes Montgomery LP from the first half of the 1960s—it’s forty minutes out of your life!—and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. Then there’s no turning back, and no wanting to. You’ve set out on a life of listening to jazz.


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