The Jazz Originators

We’re kicking of our Jazz Guitar week with the Big Three: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery.

We’re kicking off our Jazz Guitar week with the Big Three, as probably no-one has ever known them, but certainly should.  Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery.  Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the “greatest guitar innovators”.  These three were the start of everything.

Wes Montgomery

John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born in 1923 in Indianapolis of a musical family.  His brothers Monk and buddy were also Jazz musicians, and the three of them relased a number of records together.  Montgomery learnt much of his playing listening to his hero Charlie Christian.  Montgomery was responsible, along with the likes of Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel for putting guitar on the bop-jazz map.  He was and remains hugely influential with his truly innovative playing.

This from Wikipedia, which I’m certainly not clever enough to have worked out for myself, but if you listen you’ll spot it: “According to jazz guitar educator Wolf Marshall, Montgomery often approached solos in a three-tiered manner: he would begin a repeating progression with single note lines, derived from scales or modes; after a fitting number of sequences, he would play octaves for a few more sequences, finally culminating with block chords. He used mostly superimposed triads and arpeggios as the main source for his soloing ideas and sounds.” (source:

Charlie Christian

Before Wes came Charlie.  Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the greatest innovators of electric guitar – this is your man.  Born in 1016, in Texas, he and his brothers were taught music by their father.  When their father became ill and blind, they busked to earn money to feed the family.  As a child he showed great promise as a musician, but he gave it all up for a while to become an excellent baseball player.

In 1939, after some years sessioning and jamming with big names, he landed a job with Benny Goodman who was eager to get ahead of the jazz guitar game.  He was 23 years old.  Of course by this time there had been other electric guitar soloists, but Christian paved the way for the new modern sound.

Just 3 years later, at the age of 25,  Christian contracted TB and died.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham Texas.

His international exposure during his short tenure with Goodman saw his influence spread far and wide. T-Bone Walker, Eddie Cochran, Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, Franny Beecher, BB King, Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, all influenced by him.  And for that reason, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Django Reinhardt

But before all them them, came Django.  Belgian born, French Romani, he is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists ever, and the first European jazz talent.

If you look closely at pictures of him, you’ll notice two of his left hand fingers are somewhat unusual, having been injured in a fire as a young man.  And yet, he managed to invent an entirely new style of jazz guitar.  As well as being an innovator and highly original player, he was also a prolific composer.  Many of his compositions have become jazz standards.

Reinhardt learnt guitar, banjo and violin living in Romani communities with his family.  By the time he was 15 he was able to earn money playing.  He was able to put the guitar at the front of a jazz combo before amplification took off.  In 1934, he got together with fellow European jazz great to form the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.  It quickly became an international sensation.

Django’s playing was run through with Gypsy flamenco and traditional French folk music.  His virtuosity was admired by his fellow Gypsy guitarists, but also by musicians from much further afield.  A certain young man called Les Paul learned his licks listening to Django.  It’s said that B B King was inspired to take up music full time after hearing a record.  And even the great Andres Segovia was an admirer.