Wes Montgomery and the Indy Jazz Fest

Indy Jazz Fest

West of downtown Indianapolis, surrounded by what is now the IUPUI campus, sits the historic district known as Indiana Avenue. Once decorated with a menagerie of local jazz clubs and African-American owned businesses, this neighborhood was a mecca for countless jazz performers during the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Here, innovators would perfect their playing skills and eventually go on to redefine the music, setting the platform for future jazz artists. Unfortunately, except for the Madame Walker Theatre, few buildings remain from the Golden Age of Jazz on Indiana Avenue. What does continue is the music these inventors created, and through Indy Jazz Fest, their legacy is being kept alive.

“When you think about us compared to New York or New Orleans, which we all consider to be the birthplace of jazz, Indianapolis is no slouch,” said David Allee, owner of The Jazz Kitchen and Director of Indy Jazz Fest. “We’re in the same breath as those cities as far as innovators. When I get bands in here at The Jazz Kitchen, they’ll say, ‘Indianapolis – the land of Wes Montgomery, the land of Freddie Hubbard, the land of JJ Johnson’. They know their history.”  

History of Jazz in Indy

Indiana Avenue once hosted a multitude of traveling musicians, while also serving as a springboard to launch the careers of local artists. Perhaps the biggest jazz innovator who arose from the Indianapolis scene during this time was Wes Montgomery. He was one of three guitarists, who along with Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian are widely credited with establishing the sound of jazz guitar.

“Almost every accomplished guitar player that is living will tell you that same thing,” said Allee. “That’s the stock answer because that’s the lineage. I won’t say there haven’t been innovations since then, there certainly have, but they redefined jazz guitar and set the tone that is still the benchmark today.”

This year’s festival will pay tribute to the legendary music of Wes Montgomery. Roughly 20-25 jazz guitarists and over 100+ performers will be playing on the IUPUI Campus for a “Wes Montgomery Tribute Day” on Saturday, September 17. This will include everyone from top ‘Wes Disciples’ to local guitarists and performers. The event will have panel discussions and workshops to learn more about the man who redefined jazz guitar.

Who was Wes Montgomery?

Between the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, no other jazz musician had as big of an influence as a true innovator than guitarist Wes Montgomery. Nearly fifty years after his death, he continues to maintain a huge impact on musicians. Guitar players from George Benson to Joe Satriani to Jimi Hendrix have cited Montgomery as providing a deep influence on their playing.

“Wes Montgomery is a shining example of Indianapolis’ rich musical legacy,” Allee said. “Along with his talented family and the community of Indiana Avenue musicians, their music brought forth a revolutionary sound that is emulated and celebrated worldwide to this day.”

John Lesley “Wes” Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana. A self-taught musician, at age nineteen he started playing guitar by learning the solos of his hero, Charlie Christian. Tasked with raising seven children, Montgomery worked eight hour shifts at a radio parts factory. After his shift ended, he had enough time for a quick nap before rushing off to play until 2am at a club called Turf Bar. He would conclude his day by playing an all-night session at the Missile Room. Leaving barely enough time to shower before heading off to the 7am shift at the factory, he would repeat the same grueling schedule the following day.  

Montgomery perfected his skills during this time and along with his brothers Monk and Buddy, released recordings that would shape the ‘Indianapolis Sound’ and redefine jazz guitar.

Three Ways Wes Montgomery redefined Jazz Guitar

Use of Thumb. While most guitar players use a pick, Montgomery used his thumb to create a much warmer and smoother tone.

Use of Melody. His soloing was impeccable, along with his chord extensions. His solos would swell into block chords, and he could learn complex melodies and riffs by ear.

Use of Octaves. By playing the same note on two strings, usually an octave apart, he developed a style that later would be known as the ‘Naptown Sound’.

“People around here don’t realize how influential Wes Montgomery was,” Allee said. “The fact that all of these guys, fifty years after his passing are all but giddy to come to Indy Jazz Fest and pay tribute to their god says a lot. It’s the guy they learned all their stuff from. You’ll see Wes followers worldwide and especially throughout Europe and Asia. Wes Montgomery is, in a lot of respects, more revered there than he is in The States. It’s a testament to his sound and his creations.”

Five Must Have Wes Montgomery Recordings

  • The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, 1960
  • So Much Guitar!, 1961
  • Full House, 1962
  • Movin’ Wes, 1964
  • Smokin’ at the Half Note, 1966

Tragically, at the height of his career his life was cut short. Wes Montgomery died on June 15, 1968 of a massive heart attack at the age of forty-five. Even though Montgomery was an innovator and a juggernaut as far as carrying the torch of jazz, he certainly didn’t do it alone, but in tandem with all the other great musicians in Indianapolis. Along with paying tribute to Wes Montgomery, Indy Jazz Fest designed its programming to honor the supporting cast on Indiana Avenue. Those who were not as commercially successful as Wes Montgomery, but still played a significant role in the jazz scene.

About Indy Jazz Fest / The Jazz Foundation

The Indianapolis Jazz Foundation aims to provide education and performance opportunities in order to introduce the jazz legacy to the next generation of musicians. This includes commissions to professionals in order to inspire them to write new compositions, and by giving local musicians places to play around town. Led by Artistic Director Rob Dixon, the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation has a program called The Jazz Futures, which is about fifteen students who meet on Sundays for forty weeks a year at IUPUI. They work on new material, study the classics, and are given real world performance exposure. The Jazz Futures will be performing at the Penrod Art Fair during Indy Jazz Fest, and will be one of the acts at the September 17th “Wes Montgomery Tribute Day” held at the IUPUI Campus Center.

The Jazz Fest leadership team, which is composed of Allee, Dixon, Managing Director, Lin Frauenhoff and supported by a cast of volunteers, set out to create more community involvement around this year’s festival. The goal was to keep ticket prices reasonable, including many free events and all-ages concerts in order to expose more people to jazz. The hope is that audiences will become jazz fans and continue to attend concerts after the conclusion of Indy Jazz Fest.

“We try to wrap ourselves into as many things as we can,” said Allee. “We’re a cultural tourism vehicle. We attract people from Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and Dayton, so we are drawing people from the region to attend these shows.”

Indy Jazz Fest kicks off on Thursday, September 15 with the “Let’s Get Excited” Party at Indiana Landmarks Center. Over the next ten days, concerts will be held at various locations across the city with artists such as Norman Brown, Ravi Coltrane, Pat Martino, Russell Malone, and Chuck Loeb performing, and various styles will be featured including smooth jazz, Dominican-Jazz and Afro-Caribbean music.

This year’s festival wraps up on Saturday, September 24 at the Jazz Kitchen. The final “Block Party” will have indoor and outdoor stages where eleven local bands will play over a twelve hour period. The Jazz Kitchen and David Allee maintain a loyalty to central Indiana artists.

“These are local musicians. The committee wants to make sure that while we stay committed to having the big national and international stars, if it’s at a detriment to having our own local guys featured and not being a part of what we’re doing, then the equation really doesn’t work.”

For more information, ticket purchasing, and to see this year’s schedule, visit www.indyjazzfest.com.