Miles Davis – highs and lows at Newport

Miles Davis

When the Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954, it became a barometer for all that was hot in jazz in 1950s America. As such it was the backdrop behind the singular career trajectory of Miles Davis, gloriously documented in Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 – The Bootleg Series Vol.4 (Columbia/Legacy). The wide-ranging music provides a parallel live soundtrack to Davis’ studio career that saw him rise from the lows of drug addiction, to new musical highs – Kind of Blue among them – and back again to poor health and his semi-retirement in 1975. Stuart Nicholson takes an in-depth look at this extraordinary career arc and how his appearances at Newport were of singular importance in jazz history and in creating the legend of Miles Davis

If any person’s career could be defined by being in the right place at the right time, then it was Miles Davis. The place was the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The time was the third concert on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955. Billed in the festival programme as an ‘All-Star Jam Session’, the innocuous 20 minute spot was there to give the festival crew time to clear the stage and dressing room after Count Basie’s set in readiness for a performance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, then enjoying enormous popular success. Guest emcee that evening was none other than Duke Ellington, who joked that the jam session musicians “live in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach”. Outer space, in other words.

After introducing Percy Heath and Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet on bass and drums respectively, Ellington raised his voice, “and we go on down to Miles Davis, trumpet, Miles Davis!” Davis stepped onto the stage a picture of sartorial elegance in a white striped jacket and black bow tie. His appearance was completely unscheduled. Jaws dropped in the press gallery. For most of the 1950s he had been struggling with drug addiction and had come to be regarded by both music business insiders and fans as inconsistent and undependable. He was considered, even by the best informed critics, to be a figure from jazz’s recent past, underlined by the release two months earlier of eight instrumental nonet sides from the 1949-50 Birth of the Cool sessions on a 10 inch Capitol album called Classics in Jazz – Miles Davis (the first time they had appeared on vinyl). Yet here he was, looking the complete antithesis of received opinion.


“They launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead


Ellington introduced the remainder of the sextet – Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax and Thelonious Monk on piano – and they launched into Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and what was immediately apparent, despite the brisk tempo, was the authority and clarity of Miles Davis’ trumpet lead. It translated into an electric solo, and by now he had the attention of both critics and crowd. Another Monk tune followed – ‘’Round Midnight’ – and again Davis shone, playing with both economy and emotion. The group rounded out their brief spot with Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’, a piece Davis had recorded with Parker in 1945 when he was a member of the saxophonist’s quintet. The sextet left the stage to a standing ovation; Metronome magazine noting that Davis’ performance was “dramatic enough to include [him] in all the columns written about the festival”.

This performance has been released as a part of the Columbia/Legacy set Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975. The Newport Jazz Festival – founded by promoter George Wein and wealthy Rhode Island socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard – was the first annual outdoor music festival in the USA. It began in 1954, and the four CD set documents Davis’ appearances in 1955, 1958, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1975 at Newport, Rhode Island, New York City’s Lincoln Center, Berlin and Switzerland, all produced by Wein under the Newport Jazz Festival imprimatur. It includes four hours of previously unissued material and the set is both a commentary and obbligato on Davis’ pace-setting role in shaping jazz of the period. It is also rich in historical significance, not least his 1955 ‘’Round Midnight’ solo.

In the audience that evening was Columbia record producer George Avakian and his brother Aram, a photographer. They had box seats since George Avakian was a charter member of the festival board. Nothing much had been expected from the ‘All Star’ sextet while Davis’ inclusion was an afterthought, added too late to the festival roster to even be mentioned in the programme. Both Avakian brothers had known Davis since the late 1940s. “Soon after I set up a pop album department in Columbia in 1947,” recalled George Avakian, “Miles started this little campaign. Whenever I’d run into him, he’d say, ‘Hey George, when are you going to sign me up?’ He would say it in a charming, winking kind of way. But I always knew he meant it.”

Unfortunately, there were two problems standing in the way. One, Davis was under contract to Bob Weinstock’s Prestige record label and two, Davis was a junkie. Although Davis had been a member of Charlie Parker’s Quintet (Parker was also a notorious junkie), he did not succumb to addiction until 1949, after he had left the group. “I didn’t want any part of junkies,” Avakian said later. “I’d been around them enough to know they’re nothing but trouble. It was terrible to see it in Miles. Around 1952 he was hardly working and would come and sit-in at New York’s Birdland on Mondays when they had an open door policy. He looked slovenly and his playing had deteriorated… he looked like a bum. He went downhill so badly he didn’t shave or bathe… it was a sad thing.”

In mid-1953, Davis returned to his parents’ farm in Millstadt, Illinois, some 14 miles south of East St. Louis. There he shed his addiction ‘cold turkey’. He returned to the jazz scene in early 1954 determined to make up for lost ground, signing a three-year record deal with Prestige that resulted in the album Walkin', recorded on 3 and 29 April 1954, which received a rave review in Downbeat magazine. That record is now a bona fide jazz classic. Davis’ comeback may have got under way but club owners and booking agents remained wary. “He used to cancel out at the last minute so club owners saw him as absolute poison,” recalled Avakian. “He had a terrible reputation for not showing up and leaving owners hung-up with the financial bill.” Nevertheless, Avakian checked out “the clean Miles Davis” at the Birdland open door sessions and felt reasonably sure the trumpeter was back on the straight and narrow, “Increasingly he was beginning to sound like the Miles of old,” he concluded. And still, with a cheeky nod and wink, Davis kept asking, “When are you going to sign me?”

So when he strode onto the Newport Festival stage that evening in July, 1955, Avakian’s professional interest was awakened. Halfway through his solo on ‘’Round Midnight’, Aram turned to his brother and said, “Sign him – now! After tonight everybody will know he’s back”. By the time the band were into ‘Now’s the Time’, George was on his way backstage. As soon as Davis caught sight of him in the dressing room, he threw him a big grin. They agreed to meet for lunch the following Tuesday at Lindy’s, just up the street from Avakian’s office at Columbia. Davis came with his friend and adviser Lee Kraft and his lawyer Harold Lovett.

Avakian offered Davis a two-year contract with options and a $2,000 advance for two albums against a royalty of 4%, which was only a point below what Doris Day, a big Columbia star, was receiving. An agreement was reached with Bob Weinstock of Prestige; Columbia would record Davis right away, but not release anything until the Prestige contract expired. Weinstock agreed, recognising the promotion Davis would receive from the Columbia publicity machine would help leverage sales of his Davis’ albums on Prestige. Also, Avakian insisted, Davis must have a regular, working band. Long before the waiter brought two Nesselrode desserts and four forks, a working plan had been thrashed out.

But a verbal contract is, as they say, not worth the paper it’s written on. The proposed deal almost didn’t happen. One, Columbia Vice-President, Albert Earl, knew of Davis’ reputation, “George, think about this,” he said, “this guy might be dead by the time you can record him.” Avakian succeeded in getting Earl to sign-off on the deal, based on his success with Dave Brubeck, and all parties signed on the dotted line a couple of weeks later. Meanwhile, news of Davis’ Newport success spread fast, and by November, Downbeat magazine was reporting: “After a time of confusion and what appeared to be a whirlpool of troubles, Miles Davis is moving rapidly again to the forefront of the modern jazz scene,” going on to report a recent contract with Birdland that guaranteed him 20 weeks’ work a year and his recent addition to a three-and-a-half week Birdland All-Stars tour.

But Avakian had not signed Davis as a hard bop player, even though his debut with Columbia, Round About Midnight, might have suggested otherwise. “I saw Miles in a different way,” he said. “What struck me was that Miles was the best ballad player since Louis Armstrong. I was convinced that his ballad playing would appeal to the public on a very large scale. While his bebop playing had established his reputation among musicians and jazz bands, I knew bebop would never connect on a large scale. It was ingenious music but far too complicated for the average ear and too hard for the mass market to follow the melodies. It’s really Miles’ melodic playing that put him across with the public on a wide scale. That happened first with our album Round About Midnight in 1956.”

When Round About Midnight was released, it flew out of record shops thanks to Columbia’s promotional campaign. It resulted in a nice surprise when Davis received his first royalty cheque, which was substantially above his advance. He promptly bought a Mercedes two-seater sports car. The Davis legend was gathering momentum. However, for his next album Avakian was ready to put his plans into action. He had a title for the album – Miles Ahead – but wanted to get away from the small group concept that had defined Davis’ work on Prestige. He suggested an orchestral album and Davis asked for Gil Evans as arranger to build on the kind of ensemble concepts he had explored on Birth of the Cool. In 1957, the Round About Midnight quintet disintegrated, but Davis was concentrating on recording Miles Ahead and made no small group recordings that year. “The release of Miles Ahead in the fall of 1957 eclipsed everything Miles had ever done and started him on his way as one of the biggest selling jazz artists of all time,” said Avakian. “It sold one million copies and established him internationally.”

In 1958, Davis was back with a new group, recording Milestones in March. Meanwhile, Avakian left Columbia around this time to help set up the Warner Brothers label, but Columbia would largely stick with his long term plan for Davis. However, while Davis’ appearance at Newport in July that year is documented on the Columbia/Legacy Newport set, this concert is rather perfunctory – despite being the legendary Kind of Blue band live. Tempos are too fast with ensemble playing falling apart on ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’, while the band appears uninterested. “Unfortunately the group did not perform effectively,” was Downbeat’s verdict. What also seems odd is that Davis did not join in the tribute to Duke Ellington (who was in the wings and whose band would climax the evening) by playing an Ellington-themed set, as festival producer George Wein intended. Dave Brubeck, for example, who followed Davis, did exactly as asked, his performance released by Columbia as Newport 1958.

If Wein was disappointed that Davis did not acknowledge Ellington he did not say publicly, but for whatever reason the trumpeter did not appear again at Newport until 1966. By now his celebrity in the jazz world had grown exponentially, helped by the huge success of Porgy and Bess, which he began recording in August 1958, and Sketches of Spain, which he began recording in November 1959, two major collaborations with Gil Evans. Also in 1959 came Kind of Blue, which today is Davis’ most famous album.

By the time of his 1966 Newport appearance, he had the most sophisticated ensemble in jazz with Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. In December 1965, a Columbia recording remote had caught them at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago and Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel represents jazz-making at the highest level of creativity. That their Newport appearances in 1966 and 1967 did not quite reach this intense level of artistry – both are documented on the Columbia/Legacy set – in no way diminishes the remarkable achievements of this band or the value of these performances.

From 19 October to 12 November 1967, the Davis group, together with roster of top jazz talent, headed for Europe with a tour called Newport Jazz Festival In Europe, organised and promoted by George Wein (their London concerts, between 23-29 October were called Jazz Expo ’67). On the final leg of the tour, Wein and Davis had a falling out over money, with Davis pulling out of the tour. In June 1968 came evidence of change in Davis’ music again as subtle inferences of rock music seeped into Filles de Kilimanjaro, but because of the falling-out between Wein and Davis, the trumpeter did not appear at Newport that year. He was there in 1969, although Wayne Shorter was held up in traffic and failed to show, by which time the change in his music embracing the tone colours and rhythms of rock was well underway, with a ramped up version of ‘It’s About That Time’ from the album In a Silent Way, which had been recorded in February that year, and a preview of what was to come with ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ and ‘Sanctuary’, both of which would be recorded again in six weeks time for the seminal Bitches Brew.

Davis was touring with Santana in 1970, so did not appear at Newport that year, neither did he appear there in 1971. Instead, the Columbia/Legacy set documents Davis’ Newport Jazz Festival in Europe concert that year at Switzerland’s Neue Stadthalle in Dietikon, presented by George Wein during an Autumn European tour that took in 12 cities in three weeks. Once again Davis’ music had changed, Keith Jarrett was on a twin keyboard set-up, saxophonist Gary Bartz was the latest recruit through the revolving saxophone door following Wayne Shorter’s departure, Motown bassist Michael Henderson was on hand with percussionists Don Alias and Mtume and an interesting feature was the presence of drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler. The music is edgy and in a constant state of becoming; collectively it is a powerful statement but Jazz Journal felt Davis’ playing at the London concert had, “too much of the hot declamatory outburst and less of the natural rhythm. The Davis who had swept along with the rock sounds had become bogged down by them.” Meanwhile writer Leonard Feather noted that Davis had become indifferent to touring, aiming for a “policy of semi-retirement.”

In 1972 came On the Corner, a year when Davis was again involved in a falling out with George Wein, but this time it was highly publicised. The festival, now transplanted from its Rhode Island home to New York, advertised the Davis’ concert for 4 July. He did not appear, a Freddie Hubbard group playing instead. Davis complained to the New York newspapers he had not been offered enough money, and besides he added, he had never agreed to the concert in the first place. The fact that his festival appearance would have been his first concert date in months lent speculation as to whether the fee was the real issue. Later in the year he broke both ankles in an accident in his Lamborghini, completing a year when he was inactive for the first four months of the year and completely inactive for the last two.


By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained


In 1973, he reformed his band with Dave Liebman on sax, and spent the second half of the year playing in Europe, where he had not appeared since 1971 because of his health. The first tour was in July, the second as part of a Newport Jazz Festival in Europe package but before he embarked he was in the studio working on Get Up With It. The second trip lasted three weeks opening at Malmo on 24 October. The Columbia/Legacy set includes the Berlin Philharmonie concert on 1 November. The band is introduced by Britain’s Ronnie Scott, but the concert is a somewhat rambling affair, Davis dependent on morphine to dull the excruciating pain from an arthritic hip which had become an increasing distraction. But at least Scott has six amusing minutes to himself at the end. Yet despite his health, Davis was now performing more than he had for some years, and in March 1974, Columbia recorded his Carnegie Hall concert for release as Dark Magus. By now he was on eight painkillers a day and had also developed a bleeding stomach ulcer, his energy all but drained. By the summer of 1975, he was aware he couldn’t put off surgery much longer.

When Davis played a midnight concert on 1 July 1975 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York – billed as ‘The Midnight Miles’ – most reviewers noted that it was his first return to the Newport Jazz Festival in New York since refusing to play in 1972. This concert is only partly documented by the Columbia/Legacy set with a lacklustre performance of ‘Mtume’. Distracted by both pain and painkillers, Davis’ music was now only attracting lukewarm reviews and this concert was no exception. While the liner notes claim it was his last concert of the year (before taking his much publicised six year furlough from music) he in fact played the Schaefer Festival in Central Park on 5 September, The New York Times noting that, “Miles Davis’s ability to leave his listeners languid was given pointed display”. Two days later, Davis’ band members and equipment were in Miami, for a concert at the Gusman Hall. Davis failed to make it, cancelling at the last minute with the promoters impounding his equipment to set against their losses. One more concert, on 12 October at the Auditorium Theatre, had been planned, but again Davis pulled out, finally recognising treatment was his only option.

Davis would not be heard of again until his ‘comeback’ concerts in 1981, the most publicised event in the history of jazz. It leaves Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 as an absorbing counterpoint to the albums that were released during his lifetime – some of the best-crafted, emotionally serious and aesthetically satisfying albums in the whole of jazz. Yet for all these great achievements, the Newport set awakens a thought that lingers in the mind. From his July 1955 performance at Newport that announced his rehabilitation from heroin, to his final Newport concert in July 1975 where the creative flame that had lit up his music had all but been extinguished, it is impossible not to wonder how this remarkable career, and by extrapolation the history of jazz during this period, might have turned out if Davis had not made that fateful Newport Jazz Festival appearance on Sunday evening, 17 July 1955 in Freebody Park, Rhode Island, or George Avakian had been looking the other way.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Jazzwise. 


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Louis Armstrong – was he really the greatest?

Louis Armstrong

The first and greatest soloist and improviser in Jazz, Louis Armstrong, nonetheless, has been misrepresented in jazz history, says Stuart Nicholson. Was he really the greatest thing in jazz?

It is difficult to think of any single artist who exuded the word jazz more completely than Louis Armstrong. He was a star performer who succeeded on recordings, on radio, on television, in the movies and on the concert platform in personifying jazz to the world. As influential as an instrumentalist as he was a singer, he was a key figure in transforming a polyphonic folk music into a soloist’s art while transcending the racial conventions of his day, thrusting open the doors for others to follow.

The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy) is probably the cornerstone of every jazz follower’s album collection. These recordings, together with the early big band sides and the best of his recordings for the Decca label provide testimony to his greatness. That he was a key figure in jazz is beyond debate. What is not beyond debate, however, is the tendency in recent years to go the whole hog and claim that all his work is equally great. While there is genuine pleasure to be had from some of the All Star sides, and among them classics such as Satch Plays Fats and Plays W.C. Handy, Armstrong’s later period often inspires affection rather than awe.

Today, Armstrong has been elevated into a father figure for jazz, a metonym for a grand artistic tradition, a patriarchal continuum of jazz artistry and wisdom. This omnipotence has tended to obscure the achievements of Henry ‘Red’ Allen, who, like Armstrong, also came from New Orleans and although, from time to time, he found himself a sideman in Armstrong’s big band, he was nevertheless a bravura trumpeter in the Armstrong mould in his own right. 

Fine examples of Allens playing can be found throughout his career, which began on record at the age of 21 in 1929 and include ‘Stingaree Blues’ with King Oliver, ‘Jersey Lightning’ and ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’ with Luis Russell and his Orchestra, ‘Roamin’’ and ‘Patrol Wagon Blues’ under his own name (with the Russell band recording for a different company), with the Billy Banks Rhythmakers, Spike Hughes and his Negro Orchestra, on ‘Shakin’ the African’ with Don Redman, with Horace Henderson on ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day’ which inspired the Benny Goodman brass team of Harry James, Chris Griffin and Ziggy Elman to base their own trumpet soli on Allen’s solo (see the 1937-8 Columbia airchecks), on ‘Wrappin’ It Up’, ‘Down South Camp Meeting’ and ‘Queer Notions’ with Fletcher Henderson, and with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.

Yet while Allen was an important contributor to jazz history in the late 1920s and 30s he has been curiously underrated. As Martin Williams has pointed out: ‘Hear Walter Fuller with Earl Hines; Harry James with Benny Goodman; Ziggy Elman with Goodman and Tommy Dorsey; Buck Clayton and Harry Edison in their early days with Count Basie, and many others, Louis Armstrong is clearly the inspiration, but Red Allen is the model.’ Yet although Allen remained under Armstrong’s shadow for the greater part of his career, towards the end of his life, during a period when he was playing Dixieland jazz at the Metropole in New York – by all accounts a rowdy tourist tavern off Times Square – his playing underwent an astonishing transformation indicative of continued artistic growth.

This transformation amazed fellow trumpet player and then avant-garde musician Don Ellis to observe in the 28 January 1965 edition of Downbeat magazine that ‘Every time I have gone to the Metropole to see Henry [Allen] during the last two or three years I have said to myself: “It can’t be true. He must be having a very good night. All those wild things he is doing must be lucky accidents! After all, he has been around for almost as long as Louis and it is simply impossible he could be playing that modern.” Well, a few weeks ago, after hearing Red on a slow Tuesday night with only a handful of people in the club – a type of night that would be very uninspiring to most artists – I became convinced that Red Allen is the most creative and avant-garde trumpet player in New York. He is one of the major improvisers in the truest sense of the word. Other trumpet players may be able to play faster or higher than Red (although his facility and range are remarkable), but no-one has a wider range of effects to draw upon and no-one is more subtle rhythmically and in the use of dynamics or asymmetrical phrases than Henry ‘Red’ Allen.

Allen made several recordings with Coleman Hawkins around this period, not least Ride Red Ride (RCA) from 1957 that included ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ which Gunther Schuller described in The Swing Era as, ‘One of the most magnificent extended trumpet solos of that or any period. It brims with interesting, bold, contrasting ideas, draws continually upon his lively creative imagination, is alternately gently ruminative and passionately expressive, and is played with a new, husky, breathy, singing tone… He can sound at times like a richly endowed Bobby Hackett or a wise, matured Miles Davis… as the years passed, Allen could embrace other styles without really ever going outside himself.’ In fact, Allen recordings from this period of career provide the kind of unequivocal pleasure that today’s revisionism tells us we should find in Armstrong’s later work.

In the Ken Burns book of the TV series Jazz, on the page devoted to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the pace setting Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Armstrong’s album Hello Dolly is featured. The implication is clear: here is an album that should be considered alongside these works. Indeed, Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon is now no longer just about his music, something that was bought home to me while I was in the States recently and met a leading Armstrong scholar: I gave him a copy of my Billie Holiday biography, pointing out an interesting snippet about Armstrong I had come across that had not – to my knowledge – appeared elsewhere.

In 1936 Armstrong appeared in a production Stars Over Broadway in which Billie also appeared, together with a host of other stars. But in March that year, New York Amsterdam News reported that Armstrong’s affair with an ‘ofay corine’ had ended in tragedy when she jumped out of a fifteenth storey window. With the girl’s mother threatening adverse publicity, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser pulled Armstrong from the show and sent him out on the road. An interesting story, you might think, but it was greeted with horror – I well remember the academic’s expression, which said this kind of information was neither sought nor welcome.

Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon has been consolidated in part as a way of responding to the economic, racial and cultural legacy of the Reagan-Bush years since sadly, jazz history in America is becoming about ‘the negotiation of agendas’, as one leading musician put it. Politics to you and I. The tragedy is that this distorts history, marginalises the choice canvases of a minor master like Henry Red Allen and devalues Armstrong’s greatest masterpieces by claiming that all his work is equally great.


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This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of Jazzwise.

Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Uprising

Kamasi Washington

The emergence of Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington as one of the hottest names in jazz – thanks to the avalanche of music he unleashed on his remarkable triple-disc debut album The Epic – has caused shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did The Epic come out at No.1 in Jazzwise’s Album of the Year Critics Poll, it’s won almost universal acclaim from both the jazz and rock press. This new LA scene’s wider impact now sees Herbie Hancock working with influential jazz-influenced über-producer Flying Lotus and bass-guitar whirlwind Thundercat. Kevin Le Gendre speaks to Washington and his bassist Miles Mosley, joining the dots of this expansive collective and tracing its deep links from contemporary rap star Kendrick Lamar to 1990s psychedelic hip hop and the 1960s spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane

A major cinematic event of 2015, Straight Outta Compton would have done nothing to change a defining image of Los Angeles: the birthplace of gangsta rap. The big screen dramatisation of the rise and fall of N.W.A, a lethal force in 1990s hip-hop, reinforced the notion that the West Coast of America is a stomping ground for ‘urban’ music in which political substance often battles hard with a certain gun-ho nihilism.

However, a few months before the release of the above came the attention-grabbing arrival of one of the key jazz moments of the year, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, an engrossing triple album that presented California in a distinctly different cultural light. Blending the spirituality of the Coltranes [Alice and John] with Stravinsky’s orchestral flourish and the tonal density of modern black pop, the music unveiled a largely unknown young tenor saxophonist of startling maturity. Perhaps more importantly it bolstered any legitimate claim Los Angeles can make to being a vital creative hub for improvised music, even though the geography of the city, above all its sprawling expanse, may have given another impression, as Washington explains.

“The scene is interesting,” he stated via email. “There are lots of amazing musicians, but Los Angeles is just a really big, as in large, city. You can drive for two hours in no traffic and still be in LA! That can sometimes make the scene feel diluted, but if you look closely there are some truly unique talents and one-of-a-kind sounds in LA.”

No greater symbol of this creative subsoil is the collective The West Coast Get Down (WCGD), a 10-strong aggregation of players in their early 30s, of which Washington is a part, that includes double bassist Miles Mosley, pianist Cameron Graves, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, bass guitarist Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner and vocalist Patrice Quinn.

Crucially, there is a chemistry that binds these musicians by dint of the fact that they attended the same music education programmes at the tender age of 15, above all Reggie Andrews’ Locke Multi-School Band, before they went on to strengthen their ties through countless gigs at anything from post-match shows for basketball teams at the Great Western Forum to clubs like Boardners in Hollywood, which mostly leans towards rock and goth audiences. The other Tinseltown venue that proved to be a ‘compositional incubator’ was Piano Bar. “This was where the WCGD residency had the longest, most popular run,” explains Miles Mosley. “We would regularly pack 300 people in there on a Wednesday night and 500 on a Friday. It became the ‘go-to’ hang for every high level musician in the city. We created a controlled environment in which quality was guaranteed and the music was entirely ours.”

Such is the collective thinking that drives the WCGD, the sessions that yielded The Epic comprise no fewer than 170 songs that will filter through to the wider world as albums under the names of each composer in the collective in the fullness of time. Having said that, WCGD member Thundercat has been a known quantity since his 2011 debut The Golden Age Of Apocalypse. That wily offering and its 2013 follow-up Apocalypse drew together electric jazz and a digital age lexicon in a manner that was neither contrived nor incoherent.

In other words virtuosity was offset by a finely calibrated use of programming, sequencing and bang up to date audio software. Solo did not submerge song. Pop went with art. Player and studio were at one.

Thundercat’s longstanding association with Flying Lotus, grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, a producer at the cutting edge of electronica, was key to his development, and they also bonded over their love for another Californian, the late keyboard wizard George Duke, whose 1975 fusion classic, The Aura Will Prevail, lit their creative path. “Me and Thundercat would drive around and listen to that record like some people listen to Juicy J [aka rapper Jordan Michael Houston],” Lotus told The New York Times last year. Tellingly, Kamasi Washington has loosely connected references, given that his father Rickey was a horn player for a band that greatly inspired Duke and also had a wholly unique take on populism, sophistication and Egyptology: Earth, Wind & Fire.

Los Angeles, location for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, the revolutionary 1971 film for which EWF provided the soundtrack, is a city with a rich jazz heritage in any case. Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton began blazing trails there from the 1940s and many other keepers of the flame would follow. All of which means today’s prime movers did not simply step out of a vacuum. They are part of a history with very deep roots.

It was indeed the old guard to which the young Turks of the West Coast Get Down turned in their formative years. They learned much at The World Stage in Leimert Park. “We would constantly attend jam sessions at that venue,” says bassist Mosley. “And surround ourselves with LA heroes like Billy Higgins, who was a mentor to us all.”

Washington echoes his sentiment and also hails the pianist-composer Horace Tapscott as a key pathfinder. “I grew up in Leimert Park and his footprint is all over that area. We all learned his music and his philosophies from the elders who played with him that are still with us. Horace is one of the most important figures in the foundation of music in LA, from both a purely musically and socially conscious perspective. My dad took me to hear [Tapscott’s] Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra many times and I played with them after Horace passed away.”

The aforementioned group is something of a west coast jazz institution, certainly for its decisive political as well as musical substance, and the sense of community that it came to embody. While the legacy of Tapscott, who nurtured countless musicians between the late 1960s and his death in the late 1990s, can be heard in the WCGD, the other artist who is a kind of bridge between the two is vocalist Dwight Trible. One time vocal director of P.A.P.A he has brought his sterling baritone to the music of Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders and Kamasi Washington and in 2005, after long years as a guest artist, he made a superb album under his own name, Living Water, which was flooded with Coltranian spirituality and luminous balladry.

Perhaps more importantly Trible collaborated with producer Carlos Nino, one half of hip-hop duo Ammoncontact, and while this might have appeared a novel consolidation of jazz and beats-based music it simply became another strand in the established entwinement of the two forms. Lest we forget the West Coast, despite the headline grabbing rise of gangsta-rap, yielded throughout the 1990s and into the millennium a wave of esoteric, irreverent, feverishly original, often jazz-informed hip-hop acts that includes Freestyle Fellowship, Hieroglyphics, The Pharcyde, Madlib and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, whose pithy compound nomenclature is a thinly veiled reference to a legendary Chicagoan bandleader who beamed all the way down to earth from Saturn.

Quite fittingly, Sa-Ra member Shafiq Husayn contributed to Thundercat’s Golden Age Of Apocalypse, and as far as Washington is concerned the ‘alt’ hip-hoppers drew on the same sources as West Coast improvisers. “Horace Tapscott heavily influenced local hip-hop heroes like Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde as well. His form of avant-garde jazz really set the table for what we are doing now!”

Accurate as the observation may be it doesn’t quite explain why the likes of Washington and Thundercat have made such a big impact beyond a jazz constituency. What has brightened the mainstream spotlight on them is the record deal offered by Flying Lotus, who has issued their work on Brainfeeder, a subsidiary of Ninja Tune, the UK label that has purveyed cutting edge dance music for some 25 years.

Miles Mosley welcomes the connection. “In releasing Stephen [Thundercat] and Kamasi’s records he [Lotus] has introduced his fan base to music they may not have otherwise taken note of. It seems that he has a shared theory that the music we refer to as jazz is broad, and does not have to be reserved for intellectual pursuits.”

Furthermore, Thundercat, Washington and other WCGDers made a significant contribution to one of the other great musical events of 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, not so much a hip-hop jazz album as an encounter of the two aesthetics in which one neither neuters nor adulterates the other. Again Mosley sees benefits here.

“Much of what has helped expand the reach of The Epic is the pop culture influence of Kendrick, and his willingness to share the spotlight with us, the musicians that worked on his album. As I see it, the symbiotic relationship, and the magnetism found in Kendrick’s album openly exhibiting jazz influences and The Epic portraying open hip-hop influences, allowed for a bridge to be made between the two.”

All of which should hopefully shift perceptions of the West Coast beyond the gangsta-rap brought to the big screen. Then again cinema has also partially impinged on local jazz. The availability of work in film and television leads to what Mosley calls, “the dispersion of its most talented musicians into more lucrative areas of the music business”. Yet as Washington et al are proving, a peer group committed to its art that is open to other collaborators can make a difference. “There is a telepathy that has developed among the musicians, a short hand that defines a unique sound for a scene, and often an entire city.”


Review Kamasi Washington – The Epic ★

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This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise here:

Bud Powell - the Agony and the Ecstacy

Bud Powell

Brian Priestley celebrates Bud Powell’s place at the forefront of modern jazz, revisits his achievements alongside Charlie Parker at the birth of bebop, and explores the darker side of Powell’s exceptional abilities, which saw him endure spells in psychiatric hospitals and periods taking hard drugs

You have to wonder why it is that Bud Powell only gets lip-service from most fans and even historians. Especially when fellow pianists all acknowledge how important he was. Not only did he have a host of contemporary imitators, but there’s copious evidence that he was much admired by his seniors – Monk, Hank Jones, even Art Tatum – and by younger pianists such as Evans, Tyner, Hancock and Corea. The last-named did a whole album dedicated to Bud two decades ago and, now that Keith Jarrett has released a version of his tune ‘Dance Of The Infidels’, it’s official that jazz pianists idolise and emulate Powell.

Maybe we should also be listening to the non-pianists who worked with him, and observed him at his best. As Sonny Rollins put it recently, “I think he was a genius. When I was coming up, our prophet was Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker was the guy. But Bud Powell, his improvisations were definitely on a par with Charlie Parker. If you’re thinking of the bebop style, Bud Powell was supreme. In fact, some people put him above Charlie Parker.” According to Jackie McLean (interviewed for Peter Pullman’s exhaustive Powell biography, Wail: The Life Of Bud Powell), in the late 1940s Sonny was one who held that point of view.

You only have to listen to a couple of live broadcasts where Powell and Parker played together – Complete Live At Birdland with Fats Navarro (RLR, 1950), or Summit Meeting At Birdland with Dizzy Gillespie (CBS, 1951) – to feel the force of the argument. Perhaps the competitive edge temporarily left both Bird and Bud on Jazz At Massey Hall, but the demonic drive and diamond-hard precision of his playing a couple of months earlier on the opening trio tracks of Powell’s Birdland 1953 reissue (ESP-Disk) is a startling reminder of his abilities. And it was an up-tempo solo version of ‘Just One Of Those Things’ (Verve, 1951) that inspired drummer John Stevens to compare Bud with Albert Ayler and state that “He almost plays off the end of the piano.”

When you hear the fantastic intensity as well as the accuracy from this early period, it’s perhaps not surprising that he had a troubled history. Born the middle of three brothers in 1924 (the younger Richie played with – and died in the same road accident – as Clifford Brown), he was initially taught by his amateur pianist father. Bud’s tremendous facility inspired the father’s ‘classical’ ambitions and, along with his indulgent mother, created a teenager who believed he could do no wrong. After being taken under the wing of the more senior Thelonious Monk, Bud was soon into the world of alcohol and drugs and, according to bassist Curly Russell (quoted by Pullman), “Bud used drugs, but he had himself under control. But the minute he drank alcohol… he became belligerent.”


The first Verve session, which yielded four brilliant originals and two standards including a coruscating ‘Cherokee’, was made during a one-day release from the psychiatric hospital


The problem of the first drink being one too many persisted throughout his life, and may have been a factor when he was arrested and brutally beaten about the head by cops in 1945, while touring with the Cootie Williams band. This led to a spell in the notorious Bellevue Hospital, but worse followed when, after a couple of years of normal functioning back on the bebop scene, he was committed (following a bar-room fight) to an institution that, among other things, gave him electro-shock treatments. Powell then re-emerged on the scene for another couple of years, until the 1951 arrest alongside Monk on a possibly ‘planted’ drugs charge led to further institutionalisation. (A gruesome ‘first’, in Pullman’s book, is the detailed documentation of these events from police and hospital records.)

The publicity description of ‘The Amazing Bud Powell’ was never more justified than in the music made between these various confinements. Sideman dates for Savoy with Parker, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon, his own trio dates for Clef/Verve, and the trios and quintets (with Fats Navarro and the young Sonny Rollins) for Blue Note and Roost are unfailingly impressive. Yet we’re lucky that some of these recordings were made at all. Pullman’s research reveals the first Verve session, which yielded four brilliant originals and two standards including a coruscating ‘Cherokee’, was made during a one-day release from the psychiatric hospital. And Rollins recounts the following incident:

“He was a very volatile person and, as you know, he had some mental problems. But unfortunately, back in those days, we used to use narcotics. I did have an experience with Bud, but he and I went to a place to use narcotics. It was up on the top floor of a tenement building in Harlem, with the needles and all of this paraphernalia. I was younger than Bud, so I was OK but, after Bud took his, he passed out. I ended up cradling his head and trying to get him to revive. My whole life came before me and, God, ‘if Bud Powell dies and he and I are together using drugs’ – it was just a nightmare scenario. It might have been after he was away for a while so, when he came back on the jazz scene, his body wasn’t used to the drugs, you know. You’re not healthy enough to get to do drugs – a funny turn of phrase. Anyway, as providence would have it, he came back to consciousness.”


The extraordinary composition ‘Glass Enclosure’ goes through four different emotional areas within 140 seconds – and with no improvisation whatsoever


As well as the tumultuous improvisations on standards which have come down to us from this period of Powell’s life, there should be far more attention paid to his original pieces (one of the positive points about the more recent book, The Amazing Bud Powell, by Guthrie Ramsey). There are numerous distinctive versions of the traditional AABA 32-bar song-form, such as ‘Wail’ (aka ‘Fool’s Fancy’), ‘Bouncing With Bud’ (aka ‘Bebop In Pastel’) or ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’, one of his few tunes to be covered by others – in this case, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. All are on Blue Note, as are the far more unusual ‘Glass Enclosure’ and the 1951 mambo ‘Un Poco Loco’, its theme employing polytonality and using voicings no one else used then, while its extended solo (like most latin montunos) is entirely modal. The extraordinary composition, ‘Glass Enclosure’ from 1953, not only has ‘slash-chords’ before slash-chords were invented but goes through four different emotional areas within 140 seconds – and with no improvisation whatsoever.

Listening to this piece brings to mind a phrase from the blog of pianist Liam Noble, concerning “the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy.” If Powell’s playing became less intense and often less accurate after 1953, this may be related to the exclusive management of his career by the owners of Birdland, which included fixing him up with a female minder (his common-law wife Buttercup). Two brief forays to Europe in 1956-57 led to what seemed a new start involving residence in Paris, and a similar exclusive contract with the Blue Note club starting in 1959. It transpires that Val Wilmer, fellow photographer Tim Motion and I all made separate pilgrimages to see him there in the winter of 1960-61. My own recollection of nursing a drink through his three sets (opposite Kenny Clarke’s trio) was that the approximate, rather non-committal playing of the early evening became gradually more focussed as the night wore on. But the recollection of the distant, lost figure sitting at a table between sets is more indelible.

This Paris period, of course, was the inspiration for the movie Round Midnight, wherein Dexter Gordon re-enacts Powell’s life-story but with a saxophone. The film also has some fine music, including Bud’s tune ‘Una Noche Con Francis’, and walk-on parts for both Michael Cuscuna and the real-life Francis Paudras, the French artist who tried to rehabilitate Powell through love and empathy. That hope was crushed by the pianist’s acceptance of a return season at Birdland, which proved far less successful than in the movie, and his death less than two years later at the age of 41. Listening to the records from the second half of his career is rather like the experience of listening to him live, and holding your breath for some semblance of the earlier fire, or at least the melodic cogency and the brilliant execution. But there are sessions where he almost pulls it off, including Our Man In Paris (Blue Note) with Dexter and Essen Jazz Festival (Black Lion, aka Hawk In Germany) with Coleman Hawkins in 1960.

“By the way, did you know that Duke Ellington was a big fan of Bud Powell?” says Sonny Rollins, and thanks to Val Wilmer we have confirmation of this. Apparently while recording with Mingus and Roach, Ellington told them: “Just think of me as a second-rate Bud Powell” and, though talking tongue-in-cheek, only five months later he chose to produce a Powell album while in Paris. The Duke was clearly aware that, despite the legions of imitators and disciples, there was only one first-hand Bud Powell.


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This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit:

Wes Montgomery – The Full Monty

Wes Montgomery

More than four decades after his death, the music of Wes Montgomery continues to illuminate the jazz guitar world like a beacon. Jack Massarik reappraises the Indiana superstar’s life and work 

He never used a pick, only the fleshy part of his right thumb. He never stood up but sat back, holding his guitar at a semi-horizontal angle, 45 degrees from his lap. His solos would swell into octaves and block chords, driven more swiftly and cleanly than most players can articulate single-string notes. There never was another guitarist quite like Wes Montgomery, and the appearance of a newly-discovered masterpiece by him just proves it.

His basic stats were simple. John Leslie ‘Wes’ Montgomery was a devoted family man born in Indianapolis on March 6 1925, which astrologically makes him a Piscean Ox, the sign of the contented family man with a hearty mealtime appetite. He raised seven children there and took up guitar relatively late. After an early taste of the road with the Lionel Hampton band he returned home to feed his growing family. On a typical day this would involve an eight-hour shift in a radio-parts factory, from 7am until 3pm. Then he would dash home for a late lunch, some practice and a nap before gigging at the Turf Bar between 9pm and 2am, followed by an all-night session at the Missile Room from 2.30 to 5am. This just left time for breakfast and a shower before returning to the electronics factory. Wes maintained this gruelling schedule for several years, during which the following remarkable album was recorded.

Echoes of Indiana Avenue, released on Resonance Records, reveals the blossoming of a jazz maestro. Originally taped as studio demos and private recordings from live gigs at Indianapolis bars and nightclubs, it comes down to us in nine heavyweight tracks. Witnesses with long memories date them back to 1957-58, some time before Wes was plucked from midwestern obscurity and whisked to international stardom. Digitally remastered by Fran Gala and produced in Los Angeles by Zev Feldman, a keen jazz archeologist currently processing some equally rare Bill Evans tapes, the sound quality is remarkably good. Better still are the performances by Wes and his brothers, pianist Buddy and bassist Monk, alongside other Indianapolis musicians, some of them uncredited.

The opening track, ‘Diablo’s Dance’, is not the kind of theme associated with the Montgomeries. It’s a precise original by Los Angeles trumpeter Shorty Rogers, whom they met during a California sojourn. Wes’ classic waltz, ‘West Coast Blues’, though not included here, also dates from that visit. Other tracks, like ‘’Round Midnight’, ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Nica’s Dream’, reflect close study of cutting-edge New York albums of this period by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and the first Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Clearly the Indianapolis jazz scene, where the 17-year-old Freddie Hubbard was also taking his first steps, was strong enough to handle this music with real conviction, and closer investigation is due. Every major city has its forgotten venues and unsung local heroes, and Indianapolis probably had as many as Chicago (Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan), Detroit (Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef), Washington (Shirley Horn, Buck Hlll), San Francisco (Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson) or Los Angeles (Hampton Hawes, Buddy Collette and many more). These cities deserve their own Bill Birch, the intrepid archivist who gave Manchester its wonderful jazz history, Keeper of the Flame. For historians this Indianapolis recording is an important document, and the first fact it establishes is that even at this stage Wes’ work was the technical and creative equal of anything he would perform in later years.

His ideas are as mature, as personal and distinctive as ever, owing no debt to any other guitarist. Something of Milt Jackson’s funky phrasing and Clifford Brown’s joyful attack are the only discernible influences. And his sumptuous tone, so lustrous on ‘‘Round Midnight’, is fully developed, as is his mellow yet commanding presence and amazing all-round facility. There’s less octave and chordal work than listeners would later come to expect, but it’s all there when he needs it. Contemporary snapshots show that he was already the proud owner of a top-of-the-range Gibson L5 deep-bodied semi-acoustic guitar. His amplifier, too, sounds as good as anything he would use later, though Wes was famous not only for rejecting a plectrum but also for achieving his warm tone without help from the guitar’s tone dial, which he kept on zero. 

The only exception to this rule is the final track on the album, a raunchy slow blues which has the feel of a request number ordered at the end of a very long night. Here Wes ramps up the amp to produce a T-Bone Walker-meets-Muddy Waters kind of edge. And why not? Indianapolis, after all, is less than 300 miles south of Chicago. “You can see where he’s goin’!” shouts a happy ringsider at one point. “He sounds like Steve Green!” (No, I don’t know who he is either. Answers on a postcard please.)


‘You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play’ – Wes Montgomery


In later life one of Wes’ most intriguing quotes was: “You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play.” Fans took this with a pinch of salt, yet his remarkable self-deprecation was probably genuine and rooted in the fact that he was an ear player, entirely self-taught and unable to sight-read music. Many great musicians have found it necessary to conceal this fact, because learning by ear instead of learning by eye remains the last taboo.

When asked if he could read, the great pianist Erroll Garner once replied: “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Django Reinhardt (in his way every bit as distinctive a guitarist as Wes) did not read music either. All are or were not only wonderful ear players but also magnificent individualists whose recorded work, unlike that of so many conservatory graduates, can be recognised instantly. Guitarist Martin Taylor, who learned to read only after learning to play, once defined jazz as a process of elimination, involving the acceptance of attractive ideas and the rejection of unattractive ones. “In that sense all jazz musicians are self-taught,” he concluded. “Particularly the best ones.”

So while the Montgomery brothers may not have written down their arrangements, the lines were always performed in perfect unison and based on agreed harmonies which were hip, accurate and often complex. Make no mistake, theirs was one of the finest family groups in jazz, ranking right up there with the Jones brothers Hank, Thad and Elvin, and the Heaths, Jimmy, Tootie and Percy, not to mention the trumpet-playing Candolis, Pete and Conte. And Wes’ repertoire reflected a particularly sophisticated grasp of chord theory. Consider his material. Many of his themes were cleverly disguised standards. ‘Four on Six’, for example, is ‘Summertime’, ‘Doujie’ is ‘Confirmation’ and one of his best lines, ‘Twisted Blues’, features an unusual turnaround reminiscent of ‘Limehouse Blues’.

Furthermore some of his original compositions contain passing cadences, such as the bridge on ‘Jingles’, that occur only in Montgomeryland. When soloing on a blues or modular theme such as ‘Impressions’, Wes also used a distinctive minor-to-relative-major transposition, analysed in detail in guitarist-educator Adrian Ingram’s tuition books and videos. Wes’ superb solos on ‘Darn that Dream’ and ‘Body and Soul’ on this newfound album offer further conclusive evidence that he could negotiate the most complex chord progressions with ease. ‘Con Alma’ and ‘Born to be Blue’ on later recordings are other examples of fiendish progressions resolved by a beautiful mind.

Wes liked to tease journalists, however. He told some that playing octaves always gave him headaches, and claimed that he never practised at all, adding: “Occasionally I throw a piece of meat into my guitar case.” In a later interview he explained that this merely meant working on actual tunes and new material rather than practising scales and other dreary drills. Of course a technique as awesome as his had to be earned somehow, and no doubt it was gained during those crazy wood-shedding years when he was holding down three jobs a day and practising with his thumb to avoid waking his children or annoying the neighbours. Certainly all the hard work had been done before Cannonball Adderley’s quintet blew into Indianapolis one night in 1960 and changed Wes’ life.

Wes Montgomery

The great altoist was so taken with the bearlike guitar-man of Indiana Avenue that he called Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews in New York and implored him to check Wes out in person without delay. The rest, as they say, was hysteria. Wes’ first albums for Riverside, which bore unbridled titles like So Much Guitar! and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, hit the jazz public like a guided missile. Fellow stars immediately accepted Wes as the finished article and embraced him like a long-lost brother.

Soon he was gigging and recording everywhere from New York to San Francisco, where he had earlier remained for a year, this time playing the Monterey festival as part of John Coltrane’s group. He also recorded with Cannonball and others [The Poll Winners] in Los Angeles, with Johnny Griffin [Full House] and Miles Davis’ rhythm section, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb [Smokin’ at the Half Note] and rejoining his faithful brothers, who had been travelling as The Mastersounds, for Grooveyard and other fine sessions.

Europe was also clamouring for him, but Wes had an oxlike fear of flying and refused all offers until a 1965 tour was put together involving two-way travel by ocean liner. In London he played a week at Ronnie Scott’s old club in Gerrard Street, whose small room was tightly packed nightly, mainly by guitarists for whom seeing was not quite believing. Wes also hopped a cross-Channel ferry for a live date in Paris with Harold Mabern, Arthur Harper and Jimmy Lovelace, with Johnny Griffin sitting in. Other after-hours bootlegs from this trip are still occasionally surfacing.

Having known real economic hardship, Wes turned no decent offer down after returning to the States. When not touring and recording with a straight ahead trio featuring two hometown buddies, organist Mel Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker, he was developing a lucrative sideline in seductive guitar for lovers. “Make me sound like Frank Sinatra,” he told record producers, who responded by hiring the likes of Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky to craft sexy settings for Wes’ mellow octave sound and rich chord voicings.

Well-packaged albums of ballads and latin standards aimed at the sophisticated adult market, they sold very well, irritating certain critics but charming others. Even at his most mellow, as in Tequila, Bumpin’, Goin’ Out of My Head, and California Dreaming, there was always a strand of soulful righteousness to savour. US critic Ralph Gleason nailed it when he wrote of “beautifully melodic solos that border on schmaltz but are so deeply rooted in jazz and blues that they are valid.”

Many more studio and in-person masterpieces were envisaged from Wes when a massive heart attack struck him down in the summer of 1968. He was then only 43, but those hard times back in Indiana would have taken chunks off anybody’s life. A great pity, though, because Wes was otherwise a clean-living, sensible and easygoing individual who had never messed with booze, hard drugs, fast women or slow racehorses. His solitary vice was cigarettes, which were then of course marketed without health warnings. But thankfully his music will never die. New generations of music lovers out there will have so much to enjoy, particularly those who play guitar.

Thumb-driven operators remain extremely rare, but another who has always worked without a pick is the wondrous Jim Mullen, who had never heard of Wes until the age of 17. “I was only eight when I got started and I had no technique at all,” he explains. “When I tried to play, the pick kept flying around the room so I stopped using it. Somehow I also taught myself to play right-handed even though I’m left-handed. I wouldn’t change back now, it’s fine, but unlike Wes I only play downstrokes, whereas it’s clear from his records that he played downstrokes and up-strokes. I read somewhere that he could do this because he had a doublejointed thumb. Apparently he could bend it forwards and backwards.”

Another prominent player proud to admit his debt to Wes is Nigel Price. “If swing, tone, melodic ideas and full involvement in the music matter to you then Wes should matter to you too,” he declares. “Listening to Wes in full flight you always get a sense of good feeling among all the players. He swept them along with those melodic cascades, plus octaves and chunky chordal passages that rhythm sections could really get their teeth into.” No doubt many players will get their teeth into Wes Montgomery’s last-known album, particularly those who never saw or heard him live. For older musicians and fans already familiar with his work, it will just make us miss him a little bit more.

Five must-have Montgomery discs

The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes MontgomeryThe Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery

Riverside, 1960

The shot heard around the guitar world. Wes meets Tommy Flanagan and the Heath brothers, Percy and Albert, with all the panache of someone who has all his stuff together and knows it.


So Much Guitar!So Much Guitar!

Riverside, 1961

Different rhythm section, same amazing chordal, octavian brilliance. By now ashen- faced fellow guitarists like Kenny Burrell are fantasising about catching his right thumb in a taxi door.




Full House MontgomeryFull House

Riverside, 1962

Wes cooking live in a smart Californian club with impish tenorman Johnny Griffin and MIles Davis’ then-current rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.




Movin' WesMovin’ Wes

Verve, 1964

First of his “make me sound sexy” albums and one of the funkiest. This and Bumpin’ (1965) are acceptable examples of jazz meeting pop, or the gentle art of swinging over silken strings. Nobody did it better.



Smokin' At the Half NoteSmokin’ At The Half Note

Verve, 1966

All that studio smooching was fine, but straight-ahead neo-bop grooving was always Wes’ game, and never more so that live in New York with Kelly, Chambers and Cobb.



This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Jazzwise. To subscribe to Jazzwise, visit:


Feature The 100 Jazz Albums That Shook The World

Review The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery ★

Feature Miles Davis – The Lost Quintet

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