Freddie Green - Mr. Rhythm Remembered

Author: Jim Ferguson

Source: Guitar Player Magazine
Issue: August 1987

While jazz legends Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie boast extended careers, in terms of longevity in the idiom they don't hold a candle to Freddie Green, rhythm guitarist par excellence. From 1937 until his death at seventy-five this past March he occupied the rhythm guitar chair in various ensembles led by pianist Count Basie, backing celebrated players such as saxophonist Lester Young, clarinetist Benny Goodman, and vocalist Billie Holiday, to name a few. In the world of guitar, the sheer length of his career is second only to that of maestro Andres Segovia, who gave his first public recital in 1909 and was still touring earlier this year at the age of ninety-four.

But rest assured that achievement in jazz is no mere endurance record because during his fifty year career, he set the standard for traditional four-to-the-bar rhythm guitar influencing players the caliber of Allan Reuss, George Van Eps, Allan Hanlon and Al Hendrickson. While his acoustic-based sound was sometimes felt more than heard in the midst of Basie's larger ensembles, they wouldn't have been the same without it. Green's flawless timekeeping abilities, along with his knack for weaving seamless foundations of three- and four-note chord voicings, was the basis of a kinetic accompaniment approach that was an integral part of some of the most vibrant jazz ever recorded.

Green was an essential cog in what is generally considered to be the best rhythm section in the history of big band jazz and what bandleader Paul Whiteman dubbed the All-American Rhythm Section, which featured Basie, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Jo Jones. It remained essentially intact from their first encounter in 1937 until Jones' departure in the late 1940s. From the start Green earned a reputation as a stylist without equal, fans and fellow players referred to him as Mr. Rhythm with the utmost respect.

Freddie's heyday was jazz's Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, when small groups proliferated but the emphasis was on the incredibly popular big bands that combined spirited jazz with danceable rhythms. From the early 1930s to the early 1940s the acoustic archtop was the instrument of choice among rhythm guitarists due to its "cutting power", the ability to be heard in a large ensemble setting. However, as the Forties unfolded, it was used less and less, as players gravitated toward amplified instruments. (Charlie Christian, an influential electric guitarist with Benny Goodman's immensely popular orchestra of the late 1930s and early 1940s, was largely responsible for this trend.)

Despite the move toward amplification, Green persisted in employing a totally acoustic instrument (although he briefly experimented with a pickup and amp in the late 1940s), apparently feeling secure with Basie and under no pressure to change. In the hands of a lesser player, an acoustic archtop would have seemed like an anachronism after the late 1940s, when the popularity of the big bands waned; however Green played with such finesse, commitment, and class that his music had a vital, timeless quality. While amplification gave guitarists a chance to step into the spotlight as soloists, Green chose to remain behind the scenes in a supportive capacity. Whatever his reasons for choosing such a self-effacing role, he came to be universally recognized as the premier backup guitarist. While aficionados will forever debate the various merits of most other players, there is only one Mr. Rhythm.

Frederick William Green was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911. Before his teenage years, he picked up the banjo. Trumpeter Sam Walker, the father of one of Freddie's friends, taught him how to read music and encouraged him to play the guitar. Walker was an organizer for Charleston's respected Jenkins Orphanage Band, and he allowed Freddie to perform with the group, which also included a young Cat Anderson, who went on to play trumpet with pianist Duke Ellington and others. Green toured with the Jenkins band as far north as Maine.

After Freddie's parents died when he was in his early teens, he went to New York to live with his aunt and finishing his schooling. Eventually he began to play rent parties and in New York clubs such as the Yeah Man in Harlem and Greenwich Village's Black Cat. Tenor Saxophonist Lonnie Simmons got him one of his first jobs, working with the Night Hawks at the Black Cat. While at the club in 1937, Green was noticed by jazz talent scout John Hammond, who ultimately introduced him to Basie.

Hammond described his first impressions of Green in his autobiography John Hammond on Record [1977, Ridge Press/Summit Book]: "One of my favorite clubs was the Black Cat, a mob-owned joint. The band included two cousins, the drummer Kenny Clarke and the bass player Frank Clarke, but it was the guitarist that interested me the most. His name was Freddie Green, and I thought he was the greatest I had ever heard. He had unusually long fingers, a steady stroke, and unobtrusively held the whole rhythm section together. He was the antithesis of the sort of stiff, chugging guitarist Benny Goodman liked. Freddie was closer to the incomparable Eddie Lang than any guitar player I'd ever heard. He was perhaps not the soloist that Lang was, but he had a beat."

Count Basie had just come from Kansas City to New York and was debuting at the famed Roseland Ballroom. Soon after discovering Green, Hammond took Basie, Lester Young, Walter Page, Jo Jones, trumpeter Buck Clayton, and Benny Goodman to hear Freddie at the Black Cat. Although Basie liked his current guitarist, Claude Williams, he let him go in favor of Green, who joined the band after the Roseland engagement. Green cut his first sides with Count Basie and his Orchestra (featuring Page and Jones) for Decca on March 26, 1937, playing rhythm on "Honeysuckle Rose", "Pennies From Heaven", "Swinging At The Daisy Chain", and "Roseland Shuffle".

Green and Basie participated in Hammond's historic 1938 and 1939 Spirituals to Swing concerts, which featured a wide variety of jazz and blues artists (the second event paired Lester Young with Charlie Christian). For the next few years, Green propelled Basie's ensembles, recording for Columbia and RCA, and backing up players such as saxophonists Buddy Tate, Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas, Paul Gonsalves, trumpeter Emmett Berry, trombonist J.J. Johnson, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, and many others. In addition to recording with Count Basie and his Orchestra during that period, Green also participated in small groups led by Basie, including Count Basie and his Kansas City Seven, and Count Basie and his All-American Rhythm Section.

In 1945 Green recorded four spirited sides ("I'm In The Mood For Love", "Sugar Hips", "Get Lucky", and "I'll Never Be The Same") on the Duke label under the name Freddie Green and his Kansas City Seven. For the most part, Green used members from the Basie band, including trumpeter Buck Clayton, trombonist Dickie Wells, saxophonist Lucky Thompson, and drummer Shadow Wilson, who was filling in for Jo Jones while he was in the armed service. The ensemble also featured bassist Al Hall, vocalist Sylvia Simms, and pianist Sammy Benskin. When Jones finally quit Basie in 1948, he was permanently replaced by Wilson, which marked an end to the All-American Rhythm Section's reign.

As bebop gained momentum in the late 1940s and the emphasis shifted to small group jazz, many big bands fell on hard times. Count Basie was no exception, and in the summer of 1950 he pared the orchestra down to a handful of players. Green found himself unemployed for the first time in 13 years. According to his son, Al, the situation didn't last for long. Shortly after being let go, Freddie showed up with his guitar at one of Basie's gigs insisting he was back in the group. From that moment on, the relationship between Basie and Green was cemented. The unit soon swelled to a septet that included clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and trumpeter Clark Terry.

In 1952 Basie was back with another big band, which eventually recorded memorable sessions represented on the reissue album Sixteen Men Swinging. Three years later, Freddie cut the classic Mr. Rhythm under the name Freddie Green and his Orchestra with trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonist Henry Coker, saxophonist Al Cohn, pianist Nat Pierce, drummers Osie Johnson and Jo Jones, and bassist Milt Hinton. The session was a neat blend of rhythmic swing and more bebop-oriented soloing, and much of the material was penned by Green, including "Back And Forth", "Feed Bag", "Little Red", "Free And Easy", and "Swingin' Back".

From the late 1950s into the 1960s the band accompanied such notable vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr., and Judy Garland. In 1962, Green, Basie, bassist Ed Jones, and drummer Sonny Payne recorded the remarkable Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven, with cuts featuring flutists Frank Wess and Eric Dixon. The mid 1960s and 1970s brought numerous personnel changes to the aggregation; however, it mainly stayed with the Kansas City style swing it did best, despite brief flirtations with more contemporary material such as Beatles' songs and James Bond themes. Although big band jazz had long been a thing of the past, the group continued to record and tour extensively. For instance, in March 1965, Count Basie played 27 one-night stands, criss-crossing the country from Florida to New Jersey to Ohio to New York to Missouri to North Dakota to Illinois.

In 1975, Green teamed with Herb Ellis for the album Rhythm Willie, with bassist Ray Brown, drummer Jake Hanna, and pianist Ross Tompkins. Led by Ellis' brilliant blues-tinged single string work and backed by an expert rhythm section, the group cut a swinging mix of tunes, including "It Had To Be You", the title track, and Charlie Christian's "A Smooth One". Unlike some previous recordings with Basie, Green's masterful work was extremely well recorded and in perfect balance with the rest of the ensemble.

Count Basie's death in 1984 closed a rich chapter in big band jazz. He and Green had been good friends onstage and off, and Freddie assumed the helm of the 19 piece group. On March 1, 1987, Freddie Green died of a heart attack after playing a show in Las Vegas. The sad event marked the end of an era in the history of jazz guitar. In Los Angeles, what was intended to be a surprise tribute to Green organized by jazz critic Leonard Feather was turned into a memorial that featured the Basie band, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley declared March 19 Freddie Green Day. Various honors Green garnered over his colorful career include his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame, a 1958 Down Beat Critics Poll award, and a 1986 Grammy nomination for the album Swing Reunion, with pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Louis Bellson, guitarist Remo Palmier, vibraphonist Red Norvo, and bassist George Duvivier.

All jazz fans - and especially guitarists - owe a debt to Green, who helped to keep alive one of the most vital styles in music. In the May 1983 issue of Guitar Player, Jim Hall declares: "If you pruned the tree of jazz, Freddie Green would be the only person left. If you have to listen to only one guitarist, study the way he plays rhythm with Count Basie." Green, who undoubtedly played more bars of straight 4/4 than any other guitarist in the history of jazz, had the uncanny knack to keep things continually interesting, mainly through his use of three- and four- note chord forms, which he connected into smooth, air-tight accompaniments. The following example - essentially a I, IV, I progression - shows how he used open voicings to create movement between the upper voice of the chord and the bass note (the fifth, second, and first strings should be damped by the left hand):

He continually avoided the limelight, content to play a supportive role. In Norman Mongan's The History of the Guitar in Jazz [1983; Oak Publications, New York], Green explained how he became a rhythm specialist: "At first when I joined Basie, I experimented with a couple of single string things, but people started looking at me as if to say, 'What's happening?' So that was the last of that. Rhythm holds the whole thing together."

Despite Green's commitment to rhythm, he played a number of single string solos over the years that frequently recalled Eddie Lang's work in the early 1930s. On "The Boll Weevil Song" from the album Brother John Sellers (recorded by an evangelist singer in 1954), he contributed an inspired bluesy solo. The small group recording Memories Ad-Lib [Roulette LP SR-59037], with Joe Williams and Count Basie, has several notable single string outings.

Just as Freddie occasionally deviated from playing rhythm on record, he also experimented with amplification for a short while in the late 1940's, equipping his large Stromberg Master 400 archtop with a DeArmond pickup, which he ran through a Gibson amp (Al Green recalls the amp gathering dust in a corner of his father's New York apartment). Prior to using the Stromberg, Green played an Epiphone Emperor. According to Al, the Stromberg became too valuable to take on the road, so Freddie switched to a blonde Gretsch Eldorado custom.

In the early 1950s, Al Green spent an unforgettable summer traveling with his father and Count Basie's band: "The camaraderie was great, even though moving the equipment was a hassle. One evening at a dance they were playing, Marshall Royal (sax) was soloing, and I glanced over at Dad doing his thing in his very unassuming kind of way. I remember thinking 'Gee, why doesn't he play the saxophone, so he could get some recognition like Marshall Royal?' But what does a 12 year old kid understand about someone who is so dedicated to his art? It took a lot of time, but he finally got the recognition he deserved." Mr. Rhythm, rest in peace.

Note: This article included four photos now included in our photo pages.

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