Article: Freddie Green * Mr. Rhythm
Editor's Preface: This article contains multiple factual
errors. I have added comments in brackets [ ] to correct the errors
or clarify the text.
Freddie Green, the great guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra for fifty years, passed away on March 1, 1987, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The cause of death has been given in the media as an apparent heart attack. He lived, for 75 years, one of the most productive lives known to the world of jazz.
Mr. Green was born March 31, 1911, in Charleston, South Carolina. He made his first engagement, with Mr. Basie, at age 26 in March 1937. That long term relationship came to an end in April 1983 with the death of Basie. All in all, the Ides of March played an unusual role in the life of Frederick William Green.
The role of the guitarist is the large jazz/dance orchestra has too often been a limited one. It was Freddie Green who elevated the rhythm guitar to its great stature. No one else has gained the recognition that he did as he sat, night after night, with his unamplified guitar, bringing a type of uniqueness to the Basie band like no one else has to other similar units. That he brought fame to jazz with what he did, so consistently over the years, can be witnessed in the large number of announcements of his death in newspapers and trade publications.
Freddie Green, and the name has often been [incorrectly] spelled "Freddy" and "Greene", was obviously well liked by his peers and colleagues. He was supplied with a variety of nicknames and I wish I knew the origins. A few of the ones in public domain include "Pepperhead", "Pep", "Green Bay", "Bif", "The Claw", "Quiet Five", and "Esquire".
A great deal of information is scattered throughout the jazz literature about Freddie Green and it is hoped that, in time, a biographer will pull together his life and work. [Editor's note: We hope this web site has accomplished that goal.] I looked for interviews of Freddie and the closest I have come is one that Stanley Dance conducted with Basie and Freddie. Appropriately, it appears as the opener in the Dance treatise, "The World of Swing".
Bill Ramsey, in an interview with Jim Wilke on National Public Radio, said that Freddie would simply refuse to grant interviews. Ramsey thought that Freddie wanted his place in the band to be elevated no higher than any other contributing member of the group, and maybe after 50 years in the band, Freddie had said all that was needed to be uttered. Herein, then, is an effort to assemble some thoughts I have come across about Mr. Green that have been in print for some time. Hopefully, the whole story of this fascinating personality will ultimately be unveiled to those of us who know him only as a reserved, but public figure.
Published data on his personal life are almost non-existent. Samuel Walker was of help to Freddie when he began learning to play banjo at age twelve. Otherwise, he was self-taught. A close friend, Lonnie Simmons, is reputed to have been of assistance to Freddie in securing his first professional job with the Nighthawks. A tour with the Jenkins Orphanage Band, as a non-resident, brought Freddie out of the South. Trumpeter Cat Anderson was also in that band.
In 1930, Freddie came to New York City at age nineteen to complete his education; which type and where has not been mentioned. [Editor's note: The previous statement is not accurate. See the transcribed Freddie Green interview to read about his teenage years in New York.]
A series of events led Freddie to daytime employment as an upholsterer and in the evening he sat in or made gigs. The manager of the Yeah Man Club gave the advice that led Freddie from the banjo to the guitar. Working with pianist Willie Gant at the Excelsior Club followed. In 1936, good fortune led Freddie to get a job at the Black Cat Club in Greenwich Village. Here he joined with his friend Lonnie Simmons in a group that included the soon-to-be-famous drummer, Kenny Clarke. It was in this club that John Hammond heard the new and upcoming guitarist.
There is limited information on the family structure of Mr. Green. Leonard Feather listed a New York, Harlem, address for him. Another source listed his three children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He was a widower. Like many other jazz men, he protected the privacy of his family. A lot of terms and labels have been offered to allow us insight to his personality. These include: self-effacing, quiet, reserved, dignified, and according to Buck Clayton, "a nice cool gentleman".
It was in March 1985 that Mr. Green was profiled in the Sequel section of "People" magazine. When the article was called to my attention, I was pleasantly surprised. I did not understand how this modest and retiring man had been suddenly catapulted into being a public figure. The writer was Eric Levin. In a photo, there sat Freddie on the band gear, backstage in Wooster, Ohio. A second picture was of the fabulous "All-American Rhythm Section" taken in 1938. Count Basie, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, and Walter Page had been caught in an action shot. What a fascinating scene depicting four great men whose names will forever be in the forefront of the annals of jazz. Aaron Woodward, Basie's son, talked about the close relationship between Basie and Green, and the importance of Freddie to the band. He was described as one who eats lightly, neither drinks nor smokes, and who rises early to walk or play golf, a game he must have loved. For a sideman, such as Freddie, to achieve a degree of recognition by being showcased in a widely circulated magazine carries a symbol that should mean a lot to all involved in the jazz arena.
John Hammond, after raving over hearing the guitar of Freddie, eventually brought him to audition for Basie, who tells the story in "Good Morning Blues". Freddie was on the bus the next day heading for Pittsburgh. Another version of the entry of Freddie into the Basie fold is related to possibly how and why Claude "Fiddler" Williams was replaced by the new guitarist. Those who know Fiddler may feel that his side has not been fully heard. Fiddler is the remaining figure left in the changeover. What we know is jazz history. Freddie joined the band in March 1937 and left it from his final gig in March 1987. That is tenure in its best and most stable form.
What made Freddie Green so great as a rhythm guitarist? Why has he not been equaled? Why can't others play in his style? Why can't he be imitated? These questions are all in books on jazz, but there are no accompanying answers. There are educated guesses.
One explanation is related to how Freddie held the guitar. It was slanted at an angle that allowed him to strike the strings in an unusual manner. In the valuable tome, "The History Of The Guitar In Jazz", Norman Mongan writes, "Part of the secret of his sound is the way he holds the guitar. With the instrument tilted flat, [Editor's note: The actual angle was between 30 degrees and 45 degrees up from horizontal.] he can play deeper chords on the bass strings, voicing them essentially on the lower four strings, thus getting his distinctive full sound." [Editor's note: Freddie employed subsets of the lower four strings for his voicings. Rarely, if ever, did he use a chord voicing that employed all four lower strings as the chord's sound quality would be indistinct and "muddy".]
Some have felt that it was the type and quality of the guitar itself. In the 1930's, Freddie played a guitar from the maker, Stromberg. [Editor's note: Freddie played an Epiphone Emperor in the late 1930's and changed to a Stromberg in the early 1940's.] No exact model has ever been named but it sounds as if it were the Stromberg New York 400. [Editor's note: See Carl Severance's article of Freddie's guitar posted on this web site.]
Irving Ashby would have known since he hung around the shop of Stromberg and often set up the guitars for new owners of those fine instruments. Freddie Green is reported to have selected three of the Stromberg models. In later years, and I have not read just when [Editor's note: It was in the 1950's.] he turned to the Gretsch line. In both cases, he was involved with class, top of the line guitars.
Bill Ramsey told Jim Wilke that Freddie did not use a plectrum but combined his thumb, in some special way, with the index finger to design a special picking motion that would make partial use of the thumbnail. [Editor's note: Mr. Ramsey is incorrect. Freddie used a pick (plectrum). There are photos that prove this point. Several Green scholars have theorized that, in addition to the pick, he brushed the strings lightly with the fingernail of his right index finger.]
Freddie set the string action high [very high!] so that he could be heard better. In an interview conducted by Max Jones and quoted by Mongan, Freddie stated, "At first, when I joined Basie, I tried single string [soloing], but it didn't fit the band. Evidently they didn't want that, so naturally I dedicated myself to playing rhythm. It was tough for a time, but this being my first [big] band job, I played that way to satisfy them. That's how I became a rhythm guitarist, by accident really."
One other factor may relate to the manner in which Freddie constructed his chords, as well as how he voiced them. Several instructional manuals for the guitar mention the use of the last four strings 6,5,4,3 [E-A-D-G]. Others describe chord formations on strings 6, 4, 3. The strings 4, 3, 2 and 5, 3, 2 have been also been treated by the writers. I have seen no treatise by Mr. Green on his chordal style. [Editor's note: None has been discovered to date, thus the rationale for this educational web site.] He should have been encouraged to publish one. [Editor's note: In the late 1970's and early 1980's, I attempted several times to schedule an interview with Freddie Green on the subject of his guitar technique. My letters were never answered.] Bucky Pizzarelli wrote an instruction book that incorporates the Freddie Green style. The book is entitled "Power Guitar." Herb Ellis, and many others have written about the use of three string chords (on strings 6, 4, 3) as well as broader chord construction. I suspect, that in the final analysis, it is one's ear that decides where the chords are formed and how they was voiced. Freddie has been credited with having a great ear. Kenny Burrell reminds the student guitarists of the necessity to maintain a line and that Freddie Green was not just chord hopping all over the place. [Editor's note: AMEN!] Freddie was as musical as he was rhythmical.
Freddie Green recorded with Basie from 1937 until one week before his death. His last session was with Diane Schuur and the Basie band. [Editor's note: See the transcription of "Trav'lin' Light" from this recording session.]
The recorded output of the Basie band was prolific. In addition, Freddie recorded with the following and more: Mildred Bailey, Emmett Berry, Kenny Burrell, Benny Carter, Buck Clayton, Al Cohn, Herb Ellis, Karl George, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, Joe Newman, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, John Sellers, Sonny Stitt, Joe Sullivan, Jack Teagarden, Joe Turner, Earl Warren, Dicky Wells, Teddy Wilson, and Lester Young.
While Rufus Jones was with the Basie band, he told me that Freddie Green was quite sought after for recording sessions. So, I suppose that the list given above could be vastly expanded were one to have access to the log book, or Freddie's records of his recording dates. [Editor's note: I can add: Ruby Braff, Harry Edison, Woody Herman, Paul Quinichette, Marshal Royal, Sir Charles Thompson, Frank Wess, and Snooky Young.]
Fifty years is a long time to have a constant relationship with one group and forty-seven years with one leader is something short of a miracle. What did it all mean? Thad Jones said, "I don't think it's possible to speak of the Basie band without Freddie Green. He's the link that keeps the tradition alive."
The tribute that Freddie gave at the Basie funeral is an often quoted one. He expressed his feelings toward his long term friend by saying, "I've been with the band since 1937, what am I to do now?" That, to me, is a definitive definition of closeness and friendship.
Freddie was a composer along with being an instrumentalist. His song, "Corner Pocket" aka "Until I Met You", will probably become one of the all time jazz classics. The 1941 composition, "Down For Double", has been recorded by Basie several times. He wrote "Free Eats" with Snooky Young. Another of his recorded works was "Right On". There may be many more. [Editor's note: There are: "The Daly Jump", "Up In The Blues", "Back And Forth", "Free And Easy", "Feed Bag", "Little Red", "Swinging Back", "A Date With Ray", and "Freddie's Tune".]
Jo Jones and Freddie put words to about twenty Duke Ellington compositions. Where are these tunes? What will be done to them? Many friends, colleagues, and companions from the band have been quoted in the past with reference to Mr. Green. Some of the selected ones are presented here:
Harry "Sweets" Edison: "Freddie Green is about the closest friend I have."
Preston Love: "Freddie was right at home on the sea coast with crabbing basket in hand. He was also a master swimmer."
Gene Ramey: "Freddie Green, that famous guitarist in Basie's band, does not flirt with the chords. Chords can follow progressions. Or chords can just stay on rudiments, and that way people know where you are and don't have to clash with you. Why Freddie is so great is that he plays the fundamental chord and doesn't get in the way of the piano."
Eddie Barefield: "Walter Page on bass was the making of Freddie Green."
Lawrence Lucie: "A guy like Freddie Green, with Count Basie, liked rhythm and felt rhythm."
Dennis Wilson: "It's as if in the Bible they said 'Let there be time' and Freddie started playing."
Eric Dixon: "People could imitate Basie for a couple of seconds, but not longer. You can't imitate that unique touch. It's the same with Freddie."
John Lewis: ""Freddie develops little melodic lines when he plays behind someone, and you have to listen closely or you'll miss them."
Bill Ramsey felt that Freddie could have been a big star and made a lot of money had he formed a quintet or sextet and traveled, especially in Europe. Freddie had the opportunities, according to Ramsey, but remained with the Basie band, as he was not one to seek accolades or stardom. Freddie liked the fellowship within the band and it was his family as well.
Leigh Kamman, on Minnesota Public Radio, gave an extensive eulogy the day of Mr. Green's funeral. Leigh played a lot of little known recordings in which Freddie participated during the early years, especially those on which he backed Billie Holiday, and swung so hard with Lester Young, who initiated that light, fluid beat in a small group setting.
The reader may gather that I lionize Freddie Green; I do. I have followed his career, from a distance, since he joined Basie. I was in high school in those years. In my college years, I became a rhythm guitarist although I failed, then, to take it as seriously as I should have. In the past 25 years, however, I have made a complete switch. I play whenever I can at the local level. I do not know Mr. Green. I did speak with him on two occasions, for a possible total of two minutes. I was thrilled. In 1985, the band played a small town in western Minnesota, Perham, on a mid-week night. It was an outdoor place and we expected the worst, just as we were surprised to see him there. We heard the best. The band, under Eric Dixon, roared and romped. Freddie never let up. The performance was spectacular. I met Mr. Green at the refreshment stand. I bought him a hot dog and a soft drink, and parted from him feeling as if I had just spoken with as fine a person as I have ever met. He was.
Freddie has now rejoined his friend, Count Basie. We enjoyed both of them for a lot of musical years. Bill Ramsey felt that the band may not try to replace him.
Sonny Cohn, in 1985, made a very prophetic statement when he remarked, "The most important part of your body is your heart. It keeps everything else going. That's what Freddie does."
Freddie's heart stopped. It lost its rhythm.