Wes Montgomery's recordings for the Verve label between 1964 and 1966 are significant for several reasons: First, the guitarist was able to work with large orchestras and leading arrangers of the day, including Johnny Pate, Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky. Second, producer Creed Taylor was able to turn Montgomery into a major force and extend jazz's reach at a crucial time in the music's development. And third, with Montgomery, Creed found a seductive way to leverage the music of pop-rock and soul—a model Creed would use with enormous success at A&M in the late '60s and CTI in the '70s. As a result, Montgomery's two-year stint at Verve can be called "Birth of the Mod." [Photo at top by Chuck Stewart]
The full evolution of Montgomery at Verve is now documented in one place on the newly released Wes Montgomery: Movin', The Complete Verve Recordings (Universal). Listening to these remastered recordings in chronological order tells a fascinating story about the development of jazz-pop and Montgomery's swinging role. First, full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes to this set, and I don't make a dime off of sales.
Some history: In 1959, Wes Montgomery was in need of money. But to make the kind of money necessary to care for his wife and seven children, he had to leave Indianapolis, where he was comfortable working by day at a radio-parts factory and playing by night in clubs like the Missile Room. Cannonball Adderley [pictured], who visited the city often on tour, repeatedly told Montgomery over the years there was money to be made in New York and that he could hook him up with producer Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records when he was ready.
In 1959, Montgomery finally was ready and agreed to take a chance. But over the years that followed, his Riverside LPs weren't big sellers. To supplement his recording income, the guitarist had to work extensively on the road. Then in 1964, Riverside went bust following the death in late 1963 of Bill Grauer, the label's co-founder and business manager. In the wake of the label's collapse, Montgomery was left feeling financially insecure and enormously homesick.
Enter John Levy, Cannonball Adderley's manager. John [pictured] had been a prominent bassist in Chicago and New York—he was one of the founding members of the George Shearing Quintet. But John crossed over to management in the early '50s when George Shearing needed a savvy business mind looking after the quintet's interests on record deals and in clubs. Throughout the decade, John assembled a strong roster of jazz stars, including Shearing, Adderley, Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton and others.
In 1964, John knew that producer Creed Taylor [pictured] was looking for talent at Verve. Creed had worked as a producer at Bethlehem in the mid-'50s and then at ABC Paramount, where he started Impulse Records in 1960. In 1961 he negotiated a deal to become the top jazz producer at Verve after Norman Granz sold the label to MGM.
Creed already was a big fan of Montgomery's and saw in the guitarist a soloist who could swing both the jazz and pop markets with ease. Creed signed Montgomery, and in November 1964, Montgomery recorded Movin' Wes, his first album for the label, arranged by Johnny Pate.
Over the months that followed, Montgomery and Creed experimented until Creed landed on Goin' Out of My Head after hearing the hit by Little Anthony and the Imperials. Montgomery at first balked, viewing pop as too foreign and simplistic. But once he heard Oliver Nelson's arrangement for the song, Montgomery gave it a try. The result was a powerful seller for Verve, and more jazz interpretations of pop hits would follow.
Montgomery and Creed weren't the first to apply jazz's swing to pop-rock hits. But they were the first to find the right combination to make such a merger smart and rewarding. With jazz drifting increasingly toward art music in the mid-'60s, the audience for the music was shrinking. Jazz had little meaning to white and black teenage record-buyers, and adult jazz fans were being disenfranchised by the increasingly intensive and cerebral music of artists who favored extensive and at times rambling solos.
Through his experiments with Montgomery, Creed discovered an emerging adult-contemporary market that was not being addressed. What's fascinating about Montgomery's eight-LP output for Verve is that he never sold out. Instead, he always took the chosen songs to a more sophisticated, hipper place, hugging the melody line initially before finding fascinating and complex variations and harmonies.
By 1966, Creed was on the verge of an even bigger job at A&M records in Los Angeles, which allowed him to remain in New York and start CTI, his own imprint. Creed didn't forget his favorite guitarist. The first album he produced at A&M was A Day in the Life with Wes Montgomery—just days after the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper in June 1967.
Though Montgomery died in 1968, his work at Verve for Creed Taylor helped carve out a new jazz-pop category. As he proved, contemporary music could be adapted in a sophisticated way by the right jazz artist and, in the process, find mass appeal. In this regard, these recordings helped sustain jazz into the '70s and beyond by paving a new path that offered listeners an alternative. [Photo of Creed Taylor by Chuck Stewart]
JazzWax tracks: Wes Montgomery: Movin', The Complete Verve Recordings (Universal) is a five-CD, 82-track remastered set that includes a 76-page hardback book of liner notes and discographical information. You'll find the set here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Wes Montgomery playing Four on Six during his Verve years...