November 30, 2012

Wes Montgomery: Indiana Tapes


Bebop And Beyond

By Armand Lewis


efore the advent of digital recording and file sharing, if musicians wanted to be signed by record labels, they would go to a studio and record what was known as a demo tape, which would then be played for interested producers. This way, record companies could hear what an artist would sound like on record before actually signing them to a contract. Once the musician is signed, the demo tapes were usually filed away and forgotten after the release of the artist’s first professionally produced recordings.

Though it’s hard to believe, at one point guitar legend Wes Montgomery felt the need to make demo tapes in the hopes of obtaining a record contract. These tapes turned out to be entirely unnecessary, but now that they have been discovered and released, they show not only Montgomery’s ability and style, but also other directions that he might have taken.


With his trademark thumb picking… he could have been a major blues guitarist had he chosen that path. 

Though the Midwestern United States is not noted for jazz, Indianapolis, Indiana once had a thriving jazz scene. During the 1950s, Wes Montgomery was a rising star on the local club circuit, but there were no record companies in Indiana to notice him. With this in mind, Montgomery had some tapes made sometime in 1957 or ’58.

During 1959, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley heard the guitarist at a local Indianapolis club and immediately called his producer at Riverside Records in New York. Over the phone, producer Orrin Keepnews offered to sign Montgomery on the spot, but incredibly, Montgomery declined — insisting Keepnews come to Indiana and hear him play first “just to be sure.”

Wes-Montgomery-coverKeepnews was definitely satisfied and signed Wes Montgomery to a contract. It’s not known if he ever even heard Montgomery’s demo tapes, but that first Riverside album The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery lead to an extremely successful series of albums for both Riverside and later Verve Records.

Montgomery’s lost demo tapes surfaced some years ago on the Internet and have now been restored and released as Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue (Resonance HCD-2011).

If there were any questions about Montgomery’s abilities, the first track, “Diablo’s Dance,” would have answered them com-pletely. A propulsive up-tempo Latin based tune, the opening bars alone would have insured a record deal with Montgomery’s solo practically exploding over Melvin Rhyne’s piano.

Rhyne, who is better known as an organist, switches to Hammond B-3 for “Round Mid-night.” Montgomery would re-
lease other versions of the Thelonious Monk classic, but the rendition here is no mere demonstration. With the mood set by Rhyne, Montgomery’s intricate explorations of the haunting melody are every bit equal to the version they would record for Riverside Records several years later.

Other standout tracks include Billy Strayhorn’s famous “Take the A-Train” and Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” which Montgomery surprisingly never recorded for LP. Though Silver’s compositions were perfect for both Montgomery’s sound and preferred up-tempo approach, this is Montgomery’s only recording of this particular classic.

The most surprising track of the album is a previously unknown privately made tape titled “After Hours Blues” in which Montgomery plays a slow blues worthy of Muddy Waters. With his trademark thumb picking, the six-minute track shows that he could have been a major blues guitarist had he chosen that path. It’s his only known blues performance, and while it’s very different from what one expects from a Wes Montgomery album, it is a fascinating and very important addition to Montgomery’s legacy.

Wes Montgomery’s signature style would influence and inspire subsequent generations of guitarists from Pat Martino to George Benson and Emily Remler. Echoes of Indiana Avenue offers a unique look at where it all began.


Armand Lewis buys and sells rare jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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