Jazz Monthly, May 1965
The following is extracted from an interview with
published in Jazz Monthly May 1965.
Talking about Charlie Christian:
"I don't know whether it was his melodic lines, his sound or his approach, but I hadn't heard anything like that before. He wasn't the first electric guitarist I'd heard because Les Paul was around at that time, but I didn't get much from him. Maybe Christian stuck out because he was so different.
He sounded so good and it sounded easy, so I said maybe the big thing of it is just to buy an instrument! I had a good job as a welder so I bought me a guitar and amplifier and said now I can't do nothing but play! But I found out it's not that easy. Really welding was my talent, I think, but I sort of
swished it aside!"
Wes and his brothers:
"Monk's real name is William Howard but he don't want you to call him that! He's been Monk ever since he was a kid. Well, I was the first to start
playing. Around 1945-46 we used to have jam sessions up to my mother's house in Indianapolis every Sunday, and there was a piano player used to
come by named Earl Grandee. He sounded like Tatum. He knew all about the piano, all about the chords and everything, and soon my brothers got
tired of watching and Monk went out and got him a bass and soon got to playing. Buddy started playing the piano and soon it got to a regular thing. We were all good friends and we used to do these little sessions."
Wes on his unorthodox playing technique:
"When I started I bought the whole works. I got a box of picks because I felt sure there would be the right one in there for me. I refused to play
unamplified, so I'm sitting in my house playing, you know - happy, but when I used my brand new amplifier I guess I didn't think about the neighbours.
Soon they started complaining pretty heavy. But I was enjoying myself because it wasn't noise to me, it was music. But after two months my wife came to the door and asked me would I kindly turn that 'thing' off. Well, 'thing'? It was a guitar and amplifier, you know? So I laid my pick down on the amplifier and just fiddled around with the thumb. I said is that better.? Oh yes, she says, that's better. So I said I'll play like this till I get ready to play out, and then I'll get me a pick. Well, that wasn't easy either because I found out that I had developed the thumb for playing so that when I got ready to work my first job I picked up a pick and I think I must have lost about fifteen of them! I just didn't realise that I had to develop my pick technique, too. So I said 'later' for the pick. I was just playing for my own amusement so it was great. See, I couldn't hear the difference in the sound as it is today, so I figured OK, I'll just use my thumb. Probably a thousand cats are using their thumbs - only they're not in Indianapolis! The more I learnt about it, I found out that less guys were using their thumbs and I began to get a little frightened!"
The first gigs:
"When I started playing, which I didn't consider professionally since I hadn't reached a certain level of listeners, I was doing a single. A club owner
happened to come down the street and he knocked on the door and asked who was that playing? I said me. He didn't believe it and I didn't believe he
was a club owner, either! - But we got together and he offered me a job in his club. Wow! Me working? And I'd only been playing a couple of months.
So I go to the club and I find that I'm featured. I'd come on and play just Charlie Christian solos from the records because at that time it was all I could play. Of course the other musicians knew this, but one day I got a hand so big they wouldn't let me off the stage. But I couldn't play nothing else! It was so embarrassing, so I said I've got to go back and start practising."
Wes felt his best playing was done around 1950:
"But who knew it? Nobody. People in Indianapolis knew it and I guess they still talk about it, but people out East were saying 'Yeah, man - where you
come from?' and I'd been around all the time."
On the blues:
"I sort of shot away from the blues. Some musicians feel like you can't play unless you can play the blues and I just don't agree with that. Now I admit that the blues is maybe the foundation of it all, and some people think that dixieland is, but all these things have their own distinct form. I always felt like, blues is fine, I mean it's here to stay, but I know a lot of blues players that can't play jazz. Everybody can't be a blues player and I feel that if I should go into blues I should try to play blues alone you know? I don't have nothing against it but I can't feel blues the way some people express it. Blues vary because you have many types. I even think there's an art in some of our modern blues. But there's so much in the form that's connected to something else that it's hard to separate it to the point of saying well, this is where it's at or this is where it's not at".
"This blues thing has been so blown up, especially by certain writers, that now you find all the coloured cats thinking that way, too. They think that if
you can play the blues you've got it made. But some white cats play with a lot of feeling, too".
"The ofay cat has a technical facility and the Negro has that feeling for jazz. But take an instrument like guitar. In every part of the world white cats
could pick it up five hundred or six hundred years ago and they had all that time to get ready. The Negro had to wait for it to be dropped in his lap fifty years ago but after a while he was playing it and getting a whole lot of feeling out of it. But he couldn't get that technical facility. And in fact, I've never heard a coloured guitar player who could come up to the technical standard of some of the great white guitarists. For that reason I don't bother too much about the technical side of guitar. I just concentrate on the feeling".
"There is only one coloured musician with that facility and that's Coltrane. I have listened to him a lot and I'm sure of it. I even took his album, Giant
Steps, and played it at 16 r.p.m. to study what he was doing and every note he hit was correct. I think he is greater than Charlie Parker in this respect because Bird died before he could finish what he was doing. But Trane has had the time and the opportunity and he is the only one with that facility."
Wes talking about the organ trio:
"Organ's too heavy to make two weeks here and two weeks there. I figured I must be jinxed, because take Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff or Jimmy
McGriff - all those cats. They never have any trouble. The minute they get in town about twenty or thirty cats just happen to be standing about, so two or three of them give 'em a hand and bam - they got it! But anytime I get in town, I don't care what time of day it is - no-one's in sight! So it's a jinx, really!"
Wes on avant-garde jazz:
"I really refuse to participate in something that I don't know what part I'm supposed to be playing. I don't think I quite understand it. If they say we're
gonna play and you just come in, well, they've got to tell me what to come in with! If a person likes abstract things he won't know how to explain it so he won't be able to tell me so where do you go...
"There's a lot of handicaps with guitar and if you get into some of the directions the guys are getting into now-whew! You're in trouble because of the way the instrument's made. But it's fun, I think, trying to do this. You have to use the philosophy that nothing's impossible, but look how much trouble you'd be in trying to make it possible.
"I heard Grant Green about two months ago and I won't actually say that he's into the New Thing, but maybe he's a little part of it. He was playing with a quartet and one of the sets he played was. done with the rhythm section for two choruses and then the bass and piano laid out and left just him and the drums. Yet his lines were still from the basic form.
"Me, I play the conventional way because I feel like I have to. I imagine a person can always change their trend of thought but I think you're supposed
to do more than just that, you should be sure of your trend so that when you do change you know why you're changing. Otherwise it's really nothing.
I've been asked a lot of times do I play classical style, which I don't because you need all five fingers. Now I don't play with nothing but my thumb so
that means the other four fingers will have to be developed and I figure if you're going to have control of the right hand that'll take about fifteen years! I figure before I start on anything else I have to clean this one up and that's got a long way to go. So there's no sense in me thinking about any other form - really!"
"Some things you have to leave for somebody else. Of all the good guitarists I've heard, they're either in one thing or another. But then I can imagine
how some of the public feel. They say, well, OK, I can hear how you're doing what you're doing - solid, but for some ungodly reason they'd like to see
how you'd do something else. And they don't realise what's involved for you to get into another thing. I keep trying to explain 'like, I'm up tight now!"