When Indianapolis was one of the nation’s jazz hotbeds, it was Wes Montgomery who laid down its blistering guitar track.
The virtuoso had his start playing the clubs and concert halls on Indiana Avenue, but went on to enjoy national and worldwide success. He’s regarded as one of jazz’s greatest guitarists, an influence to today’s stars.
With the release of a collection of newly discovered live and studio recordings by Montgomery, “In the Beginning,” the entire jazz world is celebrating. Old fans are revisiting his work, and new fans are discovering him for the first time.
No one is more excited than the people of Montgomery’s hometown. The Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis is hosting a party to mark the release, replete with a panel discussion of area jazz greats, presentations and a guitar summit of talented local musicians.
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“We all build on the past. For a young musician, it’s necessary to listen to that,” said Bill Lancton, jazz guitarist and board member of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation. “Wes was probably the most influential jazz guitar player in history. His music is timeless.”
“In the Beginning” is the kind of treasure trove that music aficionados hope to uncover. The album spans Montgomery’s career from 1948 to 1958 and is only the third new release of mostly unheard material from Montgomery since he died in 1968.
The album includes a never-before-released session from 1955 with famed producer Quincy Jones. Another record features Montgomery as a sideman in a band led by tenor saxophonist Gene Morris.
Live recordings from the Indianapolis home of his sister, Ervena Montgomery, as well as at famed Indy clubs the Turf Club and the Missile Lounge from 1958, also are part of the package.
“With a recording like this, it’s not as easy for people to forget,” said David Allee, owner of the Jazz Kitchen. “This is something new, not just a new format. These are new recordings that people are hearing for the first time.”
Along the way, Montgomery is heard playing alongside legends such as tenor saxophonist Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson at C&C Music Lounge in Chicago, and his brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery at Columbia Studios in New York City.
“In the Beginning” started to come together after Buddy Montgomery’s widow came to Resonance Records with the tapes of shows at the Turf Club, Missile Lounge and from private jam sessions.
The recordings had been made on a portable tape recorder by a Butler University student who followed the Montgomery brothers around at the time.
Slowly, producers for Resonance were able to track down other rare recordings, enough to put together 26 tracks for the new album.
“It’s a big deal when they find new music that no one’s ever heard before from an artist who is deceased,” Lancton said. “Wes has been gone for over 45 years now, so it’s exciting to hear these tapes come out.”
To go with the album, producers compiled writings about Montgomery from jazz historian and biographer Ashley Kahn, memories from Quincy Jones, and an interview with Indianapolis-based jazz photojournalist, author and historian Duncan Schiedt.
In the liner notes, The Who guitarist Pete Townshend writes, “What comes across (in these recordings) is a sense of fun and discovery. There is mischief and experiment. This was a period when jazz was breaking ground on all fronts …”
In Indianapolis, the Jazz Kitchen has tried to uphold the city’s tradition by honoring the past and bringing in the new generation of jazz musicians, Allee said.
“What we try to do is continuously support the jazz legacy of Indianapolis. This release is a great opportunity to do this,” Allee said. “It’s allowing Indianapolis to further its claim to the whole jazz legacy.
“If there’s any one guitarist in the lineage of jazz who has made his mark and put his stamp for those after him, it’s Wes Montgomery.”
That heritage plays out in events such as the Indy Jazz Fest and shows throughout the year at the Jazz Kitchen, Allee said. Even nationally recognized jazz guitarists such as Pat Martino and John Scofield come to town raving about the influence that Montgomery had on them.
“All these guys, every time they come in, you can tell how much Wes meant to them,” Allee said. “For guys like that at the top of the jazz food chain to have such respect for what Wes did, it strikes me.”
That made it natural to host a celebration for the release of one of Indy’s greatest musicians.
A panel featuring local jazz writers, historians and musicians will answer some of the questions about Montgomery’s contributions, as well as how his legacy has endured.
Lancton, Steve Weakley and Frank Steans will host a guitar summit to play some of some of Montgomery’s classic songs and other jazz numbers to close out the ceremony.
Lancton had been asked by Montgomery’s son, Robert, to put together a guitar group when another collection of unreleased songs came out in 2012.
While Montgomery is certainly a transcendent talent, his success also speaks to the quality of the entire jazz community in Indianapolis in the mid-1900s.
“You kind of have to give credit to the whole scene,” Allee said. “Obviously, Wes was from a very musical family with Buddy and Monk. They had a sound, and they were all part of this at a when a time there was a Midwest sound.”
Straddling the edgy vibe of East Coast jazz and the more laid-back sound of San Francisco and other Western cities, Indianapolis’ music was muted but still had fire, Allee said.
“When I think of Wes, I think of that whole era,” he said.
Wes Montgomery CD Release Party
What: A celebration of the release of new work from Indianapolis jazz legend Wes Montgomery, “In the Beginning.”
When: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 12
- 5 p.m.: Dinner is available to order
- 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.: Panel discusion
- 6:30 to 7:15 p.m.: Cocktail meet-and-greet, solo guitar with Joel Tucker
- 7:15 to 8 p.m.: Presentations
- 8 to 9:30 p.m.: Indy Guitar Summit featuring Bill Lancton, Steve Weakley and Frank Steans
Cost: Free on a first come, first serve basis