The song starts with the signature thump, the sound of a thumb striking the strings of a guitar.
Lush, warm notes spill from the speakers. Wes Montgomery’s infectious playing picks up tempo as heads start bobbing, fingers begin tapping and feet move with a mind of their own.
When the Indianapolis-born Montgomery unveiled the unique style of picking with his thumb, it was like nothing the jazz world had ever heard before. More than 60 years later, his talent is still unmatched.
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“He was a trailblazer, and a lot of people tried to imitate his style. But he was an original,” said Zev Feldman, executive vice president and general manager of Resonance Records. “In the jazz pantheon, he is probably the most recognizable guitarist in jazz history.”
Montgomery’s genius will take center stage again at this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, which starts today. While the event will take music lovers to multiple venues to experience the varied inceptions of jazz music, the main attraction will be a day-long tribute to one of Indiana’s most cherished and noteworthy musicians.
Guitarists from all over the world will converge to honor the man, with nearly 20 performances, special sessions of previously unreleased music and panels exploring Montgomery’s legacy and that of Indiana Avenue in general.
“Wes redefined the jazz guitar. Most of the guitarists we have coming in for the tribute day will tell you they owe their existence musically to Wes Montgomery,” said David Allee, director of the Indy Jazz Fest. “His sound, his appeal, he was really able to balance a great technique and new innovations.”
The festival starts today with a stage of performers at the Penrod Arts Fair. For the next two weeks, the festival will move to small clubs and big theaters around the community, bringing in national names such as Norman Brown, Ravi Coltrane and Sullivan Fortner as well as giving local jazz musicians a chance to grow their fanbase.
“We’re really big on the local scene as well. We feel like we have world-class musicians here in town, and a lot of up-and-comers deserving of a bigger stage,” Allee said. “Once this fest is over, we want these musicians to have built an audience for the rest of the year.”
But no event is garnering more attention than the tribute to Montgomery.
Since it was founded in 1999, the Indy Jazz Fest has been dedicated to promoting jazz and music education throughout central Indiana. Indianapolis has its own noteworthy jazz heritage, when the Indiana Avenue neighborhood served as an incubator of great musicians on the same level of Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans.
In this vein, the jazz festival has tried to celebrate one performer each year who contributed to Indiana jazz. In past years, musicians have honored well-known trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and trombonist J.J. Johnson.
“Part of our mission is to celebrate the legacy and keep it alive. But Wes, we’re making a bigger deal because he’s had the most world-wide and widely acknowledged impact,” Allee said.
Montgomery grew up in Indianapolis, taught himself to play guitar and emerged as a solo artist in the early 1950s after having toured with his brothers and other big-band stars.
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.
His signature sound came from a unique way of playing with his thumb.
“Guys like Freddie Hubbard and J.J. Johnson, they were influential and trendsetting and prolific, but mainly within jazz. Whereas Wes Montgomery, you could credit him with creating instrumental pop or contemporary jazz. He had an album of all Beatles classics,” Allee said. “His career went from straight ahead to in the later years being a household name and transcended the jazz genre.”
World-renowned guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Slash and Pete Townshend have credited Montgomery as a major influence on their careers.
“He had that gorgeous sound, the way he played with his thumbs, his melodic phrasing; he’s absolutely one of the greatest guitar players of all time,” said Dave Stryker, a renowned jazz guitarist who teaches at Indiana University. “In his time, he really changed the way jazz guitarists played.”
Stryker will be one of the many guitarists coming together to pay tribute during the Indy Jazz Fest. Though originally drawn toward rock guitar, he was introduced to jazz after a jam session in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
From there, it wasn’t long before he discovered Montgomery.
“Expressing what’s in your soul and in your heart, that’s what he was really all about,” he said.
The festival will include performances on four different stages in the IUPUI Campus Center, they’ll led their own spin to Montgomery’s music and serve as living embodiments of the legacy he’s left behind.
Musicians such as Pat Martino, Russell Malone, Henry Johnson and Fareed Haque — some of the top jazz guitarists in the world — will be on hand.
“I’m not saying this is all of the greatest living jazz guitar players right now, but it’s certainly a bunch of them,” Stryker said. “If you’re a jazz guitar aficionado, or someone who loves good music, or a Wes Montgomery fan, you have to see this.”
Local performers such as Hot Horns, the Indiana University Jazz Ensemble and Charlie Ballantine will play on free stages for the public.
Ballantine remembers first hearing Montgomery’s music when he was a teenager, listening to the seminal live album “Smokin at the Half Note.”
“That was the point for me when I said that’s what wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said. “Something about the energy of that album draws you in.”
Other events in the tribute include panel discussions on the music of Indiana Avenue, a book signing by Indiana Avenue expert and historian David Williams and a photography exhibition by Mark Sheldon on “Indiana Jazz Legends.”
“It’s a great community day, a great introduction day to jazz. There’s going to be a lot of high-level playing, but it’s going to be very accessible,” Allee said.
One of the more intriguing events of the Indy Jazz Fest’s tribute will be a day-long presentation by Feldman and Montgomery’s son, Robert. The two will be sharing some of the Montgomery music that is still being mastered and prepared for release in 2017.
Sessions of Montgomery with the Wynton Kelly Trio recorded in the 1960s and a live show taped in Paris will be previewed.
Fans will get to hear him perform in a way only a handful of people ever have.
Robert Montgomery will talk about his father and share memorabilia and photographs during the session.
“We’re really trying to draw in with the community in Wes’ native state in hopes of really celebrating him. We want to gather the best elements and ways to do that,” Feldman said.
Feldman has focused his career at Resonance on unearthing previously unknown music by some of the legends of jazz. Of particular focus has been the titans of Indiana Avenue, mostly Montgomery. Titles such as “Echoes of Indiana Avenue” and “In the Beginning” captures the raw sound that flowed from the Indiana jazz scene for much of the early 20th century.
“One Night in Indy” was a set recorded live at the Indianapolis Jazz Club in 1959.
Like a musical Indiana Jones, Feldman has worked with family members to discover these recordings thought to be lost.
“In the Beginning” came to light through a source within the Montgomery family. A Montgomery session taken from 1959, before his first big record contract, came from noted photojournalist and jazz historian Dunacan Sheet.
The French governmental agency INA, through their radio archives, helped reveal concerts taped in Paris from his 1965 European tour. Feldman found a studio album from piano legend Bill Evans inside a family vault in the Black Forest in Germany.
“We’re on the hunt for things here at this company,” Feldman said. “Our company is devoted to preserving jazz music, and it’s been incredible.”
Resonance is already planning four more releases of Indiana jazz by next spring.
“This is for the love of Wes,” Feldman said. “I just admire this guy so much, and we’re going to celebrate him.”
Wes Montgomery Tribute Day Indy Jazz Fest
When: 1 to 8 p.m. Sept. 17
Where: IUPUI Campus Center, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis
What: A day-long celebration of legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who grew up in Indianapolis before going on to worldwide fame.
Main performances: $25 for adults, $10 for students
Lobby concerts, exhibits and discussions: Free
Sunset Terrace Ballroom, main stage (ticketed)
- 2-4 p.m.: Pat Martino Trio with Bobby Broom, Royce Campbell, Peter Bernstein
- 4:30-5:30 p.m.: Young Lions featuring Tony Davis and Joel Tucker
- 6-8 p.m.: Russell Malone Trio with Chuck Loeb, Henry Johnson, Fareed Haque
The Cotton Club, lower level (ticketed)
- 1:30-2:30 p.m.: Will Matthews with Bobby Floyd and Kenny Phelps
- 3-4 p.m.:Dave Stryker, Fareed Haque, Bobby Floyd and Kenny Phelps
- 5-7 p.m.: Indy Guitar Summit with Bill Lancton, Steve Weakley, Sandy Williams and Frank Steans
Al’s British Lounge, first floor (free)
- 1-1:45 p.m.: Patrick Wright Trio
- 2-2:45 p.m.: Tucker Brothers Quartet
- 3-3:45 p.m.: IUPUI Jazz Ensemble
- 4-4:45 p.m.: DJ Kyle Long and Ryan Taylor Trio
- 5-5:45 p.m.: Hot Horns
- 6-6:45 p.m.: Charlie Ballantine Quartet
Club 440, first floor (free)
- 12:45-1:30 p.m.: Chris Parker Trio
- 1:45-2:30 p.m.: Indy Jazz Fest – Jazz Futures
- 2:45-3:15 p.m.: Carmel High School Jazz Combo
- 3:30-4:15 p.m.: Butler Youth Jazz Ensemble
- 4:30-5:15 p.m.: Butler College Jazz Ensemble
- 5:30-6:15 p.m.: IU Jazz Ensemble
Missile Room, Room 405 (free)
1 to 6:30 p.m.: Zev Feldman of Resonance Records and Robert Montgomery, Wes’ son, provide insights, “lost” tapes and other Wes related coolness.
The Hug Bub, Room 409 (free)
1 to 6:30 p.m. Panel discussions with performers and Indiana Avenue legends; meet and greets; musician presentations
While the Wes Montgomery event is the centerpiece of this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, organizers have planned plenty of other events and performances to pique your interest. Here’s some of what’s planned:
- Thursday: “Let’s Get Excited” Party, 5 to 8 p.m., a kick-off party featuring live music tributes; $20; Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 N. Central Ave., Indianapolis.
- Friday: Jazz En Dominicana with Yasser Tejeda & Palotré, a Dominican fusion band, 7:30 and 10 p.m.; $20 ($30 for front row); The Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave., Indianapolis
- Friday: Norman Brown, Grammy Award winner and jazz guitar icon, 8 p.m.; tickets range from $20 to $85; Madame Walker Theatre, 617 Indiana Ave., Indianapolis
- Sept. 18: Russel Malone Quartet, guitarist for Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr., 6:30 and 8 p.m.; $25 ($35 for front row); The Jazz Kitchen
- Sept. 19: Directors Jazz Orchestra & Phil Ranelin; 6 and 8 p.m.; $15; The Jazz Kitchen
- Sept. 21: Ravi Coltrane Quartet, son of jazz legend John Contrane, 7 and 9:30 p.m.; $30 ($40 for front row); The Jazz Kitchen
- Sept. 22: Indy Jazz Fest Band presents “The Indianapolis Sound,” 7 p.m.; free; Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, 1400 E. Hanna Ave., Indianapolis.
- Sept. 23: Jazz in Speedway, 6 to 10 p.m.; free; Main Street Speedway
- Sept. 23: Sullivan Fortner Trio, 2015 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz; $30 for 7 p.m. show, $20 for the 9:30 p.m. show; The Jazz Kitchen.
- Sept. 23 and 24: Allan Harris, noted jazz vocalist; 8 p.m. Sept. 23, 7 p.m. Sept. 24; tickets range from $35 to $65, with a $12 food or beverage minimum; The Cabaret at the Columbia Club, 121 Monument Circle, Suite 516, Indianapolis
- Sept. 24: Indy Jazz Fest Block Party, 11 bands on two stages, 3 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; $20, or $10 after 9:30 p.m. (at the door only); 54th Street and College Avenue, Indianapolis.