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The life and legacy of Indy Jazz great Wes Montgomery explored in new documentary set to premiere in February

Guitar virtuoso. Jazz luminary. Grammy winner. Indy native.
Wes Montgomery.JPEG
Posted at 12:58 AM, Feb 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-17 00:58:18-05

Wes Montgomery is often regarded as the greatest jazz guitarist of all time.

A new documentary set to premiere Feb. 26 explains why.

“Nobody’d ever done a film documentary on Wes Montgomery? You’ve got to be kidding! It almost became a crusade — somebody’s got to do this!” Kevin Finch of Jukeboxer Productions said.

Finch wrote, produced and directed the first film documentary on the legendary Hoosier called Wes Bound: The Genius of Wes Montgomery.

The documentary pulls from hours of interviews with the Montgomery family, historians, and experts on the scene.

“He let the music do the talking...There was this thing — an amazing ear of his and this memory that he had to translate from here to here," he said.

Montgomery wasn’t your typical musical genius — he got a late start to the craft.

When he was a newly married man, taught himself to play guitar by ear, listening to Charlie Christian records on repeat.

“Picking up the needle, putting it down. Listening to Charlie Christian. Kinda figuring out. Picking up the needle, putting it down, again and again and again."

Montgomery had a signature way of playing.

He used his thumb instead of a plectrum, or pick, which created a mellower, less aggressive sound.

He innovated the art form by playing with octaves, which sounded like chords when he soloed.

Like many jazz greats of the time, he got his start on Indiana Avenue — a booming business district in the day and the epicenter of music in the Midwest in the night.

“He gets more gigs and gets more gigs and he starts building confidence, starts stretching out. He starts to form his own sound and all that takes place on Indiana Avenue," Finch said.

Big names like Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald all came to play the Avenue.

“It was like its own school, the 'University of Indiana Avenue.' That’s where you went and learned music.”

Throughout Montgomery's career he recorded many award-winning albums, but for his son Robert, the best is A Day in the Life.

“At the end, you hear Wes still playing. Even though all this music is going around him, Wes is still playing," Robert Montgomery Sr. said.

He describes his father as kind, thoughtful, mild, funny and meek. Someone as beautiful as his music.

But it wasn’t until well after his death that Robert became a true fan of his father, the musician.

“I remember listening to him and looking up at that picture and saying ‘dang you’re really good.’ So I asked my mother and said ‘you know, mom he was really good, wasn’t he?’ And she said ‘you blockhead, of course he was.”

Saxophonist Rob Dixon says the breadth of Montgomery's influence has no boundaries. He says Jazz is the blue print for many other genres of music.

“It’s one of the true American art forms," the Indy Jazz Fest Artistic Director said. "Western, European harmony combined with African rhythms. That was the incubus or beginning stages. Then it developed onwards Our style of playing music, jazz, that American style of playing westernized music it developed into the blues, rock and roll, hip-hop and all the music that you have today," Dixon said.

That music is still alive and well in Indianapolis today.

“The music scene is so vibrant. Not only did we have a great legacy to hang on and add on — Indiana Avenue and all the great musicians and music that came out of Indianapolis, but there’s so many musicians that exist around Indianapolis today that are just really at a high level," he said.

Wes Bound premieres February 26 at 8 p.m. on WTIU-TV and will ee-air on March 6 — Montgomery's 100th birthday.