‘I never practice my guitar – – from time to time I just open the case and throw some meat in.’
Today would have been my Uncle Mel’s 88th birthday. I liked my Uncle Mel a lot. Indirectly, he was the one responsible for introducing me to the guitar, as a ‘Spanish guitar’ he had bought whilst in the Navy had been handed down to my cousin John, who taught me my first 8 chords on the guitar on that Sunday evening so many years ago. This piece is inspired by Uncle Mel- it is, of course, pure fantasy but it could have been true. It’s how I remember my Uncle Mel – with a glint in his eye.
And yes- I do I remember it, as if it was yesterday. Ronnie Scott’s when it was in Gerrard Street and he was alive, and so was Wes. It was 5th April 1965. The day I saw Wes Montgomery.
I was fourteen years old, a shy kid with a stammer. I spent hours with my Uncle Mel who played guitar and introduced me to jazz. Mel played in a quartet with Clive Thomas on piano, his brother Dai on bass and Big Jack Davies on drums. What a beautiful sound! A fitter by day but at night in the Moulders Arms, my Uncle Mel was a legend. My parents thought I was going for a guitar lesson with Mel….. which, in a sense, I was …it was just the venue of the lesson which was a well-kept secret. That was my first jazz gig……but Ronnie Scott’s! This was something different, this was a real jazz club. And in London.
My mother’s parting words: “Take care, and YOU look after him, Mel!” followed by Mel’s conspiratorial wink to me, set the tone for the day: the feeling of some illicit activity in the offing: which I suppose it was. Being brought up in a Welsh Chapel family, where music had to be classical or religious and preferably both, and drink only referred to Typhoo tea, Ovaltine or pop, a visit to a jazz club in London, was indeed, a little unusual, if not quite illicit.
On the train journey to Paddington, Mel talked to me of his Navy days, and gigging in the Far East. I imagined how he might have been adored by beautiful exotic women, revered by other musicians, and, probably best of all, be a completely Bohemian mystery to followers of convention. Then we talked about Wes: the feel of his music, the fact that he was unable to read a note of music and yet could play like an angel, we discussed our favourite solos, sang our favourite licks, BOO DO BOO DO BOO DO BOO DO. This was foreplay for the ecstasy to come.
Scott’s was dark and smoky, and though they didn’t seemed convinced that I was old enough to go in, Mel charmed the bouncers, in his inimitable way. The club smelled of drink and was filled with excited conversation. Mel went to the bar and bought himself a pint of bitter at a price three times the cost of dark mild at the Moulders AND brought me a half a bitter: the conspiratorial wink again. I was in a different world….an adult world doing adult things….and, yes…in a world of which my parents would no doubt strongly disapprove.
Ronnie Scott came on and told a few jokes, some he was still probably telling ’til the day he died. Then on came the band. Rick Laird and Ronnie Stephenson, on bass and drums. On piano, Stan Tracey, the genius who had the audacity to want to turn Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece about Llareggub into music…. and succeeded, only a month after that very night. And finally The Man himself ‘John Wesley Montgomery’; ‘The Thumb’; ‘Wes’ He slowly sat down, checked the tuning on his Gibson L5 CES, adjusted the settings on his Standel amplifier, then they were off. Oh God, did they swing. Stephenson’s cymbals flashing. Rick Laird swaying as he pounded away, Stan Tracey hunched over the Steinway grand. But most of all Wes; serene and calm. No look of concentration, no conscious thought process; pure musical emotion. I’ve listened to Wes a million times since then. I know every flattened 5th; every sharpened 9th; every octave run: but what I’ll never forget is Wes’ face: totally relaxed, just looking at the audience, music pouring straight from his heart and out through his guitar. And that was it really: that was when my affair with the guitar really started. After that, nothing else counted for very much.