Music changes through the years, but the dream of stardom has remained constant for hundreds of years. Musicians across all genres dream of traveling around the world playing for seas of people. That wasn’t the case for John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery, who lived from 1923 to 1968. The Indianapolis jazz guitar legend felt more at home strumming in an Indiana Avenue club than playing for a massive crowd several states over.
One of Montgomery’s initial big breaks was touring with jazz saxophonist Lionel Hampton. Traveling did not agree with Montgomery, so he moved back to Indianapolis and took a welding job to support his family, playing in clubs when he was off work. While turning down the opportunity to play with Lionel Hampton might sound like career suicide, Kyle Long, local DJ, music journalist and radio host of “Cultural Manifesto,” said it actually helped Montgomery’s skills because he could fully immerse himself in the local jazz scene.
“Wes was growing up in this city at a time when he had a lot of competition, and that was the drive in his innovation,” Long said.
Despite Montgomery’s passion for music, he had no formal training and couldn’t even read sheet music, so in order to be competitive in the Indiana Avenue market he developed a style all his own. Most guitarists, both during Montgomery’s time and today, use a pick. Because Montgomery could only practice at night when his wife and neighbors were asleep, he developed a unique style where he used the flesh of his thumb to strum the strings of his guitar, so he would be quiet enough not to disturb anyone, creating a unique sound.
“He developed this way of playing octaves that’s one of the most distinctive sounds any instrumentalist in any genre of music have ever created,” Long said. “When you hear that octave of playing the guitar, that’s Wes Montgomery.”
Montgomery’s homebody attitude and self-created style paid off when Cannonball Adderley, a nationally recognized jazz saxophonist, discovered Montgomery at an Indianapolis club. Adderley was so impressed with Montgomery that he immediately called Riverside Records. In 1959, Montgomery signed a contract with the label and went on to become one of jazz’s greatest guitarists. His album “Goin’ Out of My Head” won a Grammy for best jazz performance in 1967.
Montgomery worked both as a solo artist and in different bands. Montgomery’s most famous collaborations were with Adderley and the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, a band with his brothers Buddy and Monk.
Montgomery died young from a heart attack during the height of his career. He was 45. After his death, Indy Parks named a park, located at 3400 N. Hawthorne Lane, after him in 1970. From a bird’s eye view, the park looks like a guitar.
“People say Indianapolis doesn’t have a sound,” Long said. “To me, the sound of Indianapolis is Wes Montgomery’s guitar.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.