This is my favorite jazz guitar piece. It has endured as such for some 55 years, since the first time I heard it, lying on my cot in a hot and humid tent in Quant Tri, Vietnam, in 1968. It is done by a man by the name of Wes Montgomery.
Montgomery was a self-taught guitarist. He strummed the guitar with only his thumb but could tickle out some of the mellowest, most moving jazz sounds in the entire genre.
I had never heard of him before, and his music was of a kind that most 20-year-olds in 1968 would not have had much familiarity with. Jazz was a sophisticated kind of music, not the usual rock ‘n’ roll, or rhythm and blues, folk music, or even the Motown sounds that were being listened to by my fellow Marines. I was introduced to jazz through this man’s music, but through this piece in particular. It is called “Bumpin’ on Sunset.”
I had survived the siege at Khe Sanh a few months earlier and was now doing regular recon patrols with my recon team out of the Marine Base at Quang Tri, where the whole 3rd Recon Battalion was now staged. Between patrols, we rested and indulged ourselves in what little entertainment there was provided in that place.
For example, we used to be able to watch current movies projected onto a large bed sheet in an open area of our compound. I remember watching the John Wayne movie Green Beret there. As we watched it, we howled with laughter and booed at it, because it was such an absurd portrayal of the reality we were all enduring there in Vietnam.
It was there, too, that, while watching the spaghetti western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, I came down with the early symptoms of malaria that would put me out of the field and on the hospital ship USS Sanctuary for 21 days.
It was when I was back in our Bravo Co. 3rd Recon area at Quant Tri that I would hear the piece that is attached here. One of my team members had come back from R&R toting an 8-Track tape deck with a number of different tapes, one of which contained several tracks of Wes Montgomery’s guitar pieces. This was the first one I heard, and, I don’t know why, but it captured my imagination and my appreciation instantly.
It may be that this simple piece of music was such a contrast to the place we were in at the time. It was so peaceful, so mellow, so calming. I did not have the words to describe what it meant to me then, but while it was playing, it took me so far away from the terrors, the sounds, and the reality of war that, for those brief moments, I could feel some sense of peace, I could escape the heavy sense of heat and the dirt and constant feeling of imminent danger, if but for a very brief few moments. It was not until years later that I finally came to an understanding of what it did for me.
My realization came to me when I read a line from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book The Idiot. The line is spoken by his character Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin: “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” Now I think I understand what this piece meant to me back then in that dangerous and deadly place…and still does.
Music has a way of becoming very personal of course. What we like, or are moved by, is not necessarily what others are touched and moved by, for lots of different reasons. But I share this with you as something like a familiar experience to all of us. All of us have pieces of music from “our time” that have important, even life-changing, memories attached to them. This is one of mine. And it still means what it meant those five and a half decades ago. Enjoy.Whizzco