The Guitar started out in jazz as a rhythm section instrument. It only really came to the fore as a standalone item when Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman sextet and started to use amplification; he can’t really be said to be a founding father of be bop but he was instrumental in the run up to that period.
He came from a musical family and he and his two brothers plus the father busked for a living. He originally wanted to play the tenor sax, but was dissuaded in favour of the trumpet, which he declined.
He had no real influences but was himself influential to most of those early be boppers Gillespie, Davis et al. He ruled the Downbeat and Metronome polls for years after his 1940 debut with Goodman. He unfortunately contracted TB at an early age and it returned later and he died in 1942 aged just 25. Partly because of his age and his relatively short time in the spotlight he never recorded as a leader of his own group, so all his recordings are with others or compilations.
This is “Stompin' at the Savoy”, recorded live at Minton's in ‘41. It gives Christian more room to expand his playing than when within the confines of Goodmans sextet:
Within the jazz context I have no hesitation about naming Wes Montgomery as my favorite guitarist. the first guitar album I purchased was his with his brothers, who were also jazz musicians: The Montgomery Brothers “Groove Yard” - not his first but my first introduction to him. He also played on another of my collection, “Work Song” with Nat Adderley, Cannonball Adderley's cornet-playing brother - a lot of brothers involved here !
Born in 1923 he learnt to play the six string guitar by listening to Charlie Christian records. He never learnt to read music and all his playing was by ear; it was that ability to play Christian note for note that got him noticed by Lionel Hampton whom he joined. These were hard times for him and his family of eight back home and he supplemented his income by working shifts in a factory. His career took off when he was “discovered by Cannonball Adderley in ‘59. His first album on Riverside followed a year later: “Far Wes”. he moved to Verve records in ‘64 and his album with Wynton Kelly “Smokin at the Half Note” along with his earlier “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery” on Riverside are probably his best work in the jazz genre and arguably the best jazz guitar albums full stop; the latter won the Down Beat poll for best jazz guitar alum six years running from ‘60 - ‘67.
Sadly he was another whose career was cut short by ill health: he died after a heart attack in 1968.
He was summed up rather well by Joe Pass, himself no slouch with the instrument:
“To me there have been just three real innovators on the guitar: Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.”
Here is the man with the “bionic” thumb playing Round Midnight in 1965:
And this number I have on some authority was the equivalent of a war anthem for the coloured troops in Vietnam - his own composition, “Bumpin’ on Sunset”:
Joe Pass, here playing “Satin Doll” -
- was of Sicilian descent and started playing at nine and by fourteen was getting work. he moved from Pennsylvania to NY City and soon in his early twenties developed a heroin addiction, spending most of the fifties in prison. After a two and a half year stay in a rehab center he emerged clean; as he said, ” I didn’t play a lot during that time”. During the sixties he worked with many artists and musicians and produced several albums. He also worked as a sideman for Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he did six albums, and many other singers including Frank Sinatra. During much of this period he worked in and around the LA area in films and TV including the Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Steve Allen shows.
In 1970 he signed for Norman Granz Pablo records and produced his finest work, the solo album Virtuoso.
Herb Ellis is best known for his many years with the Oscar Peterson Trio so his solo work is slightly less than would expect from such a distinguished guitarist.
This is “Blues for Everyone”:
Charlie Byrd is best known for his Brazilian-based music and bringing jazz samba to the fore with Stan Getz. Jazz Samba was also the name of the album that with Getz introduced bossa nova to the public and was a long running success. Byrd never strayed far from his Latin theme and unlike many contemporaries finger he plucked a classical guitar; he was classically trained and spent some time studying under Andres Segovia in Italy. Here he is playing Antonio Carlos Jobin’s “Corcovado”:
I always enjoyed Byrd; he was a quiet, gentle antidote to the mad world outside.
In honesty my guitar album collection is not large apart from work by those above and I do not like to comment on musicians that I have heard little of, the likes of Grant Green, Jim Hall and George Benson or nothing at all. It is an area of jazz that I have never given proper time to explore, and that applies to most of the more contemporary players of latter years; it’s partly because many are cross-over artists even based mainly on rock and those whom I have heard in that role I prefer to enjoy as rock guitarists. John McLaughlin is in that category: when he plays “jazz” there is really not much difference to his rock work and the music of Pat Matheney for me falls into the same group. Listening blind you could be forgiven for thinking Pink Floyd had released another album, which in itself is not a bad thing, but is it jazz ? I leave you to judge: