The Legend of Freddie
By Dominique Périchon
Seeing is believing: with his serious air, his flannel suits, and the respect that he seemed to impose upon both the music and the musicians themselves, Freddie Green was truly a gentleman of importance. But the man was discreet, doing things in such a way as to attract as little notice as possible. He would have preferred to glide softly across one last chord that March 1, 1987 in Las Vegas, so as to interest people more in his work than in his obituary. A catalog of recordings (of Count Basie, as well as many other artists) abounds with the inevitable, indispensable beat of Freddie Green, underlining his obvious "presence." And history is indeed correct: among all the great creators of jazz, among all the famous people who made history, Freddie Green stands out as an obvious hero.
Freddie Green seemed to make discretion a way of life as well as a hallmark of his musical art. Far from the seductive imagery of the jazzman in a perpetually drugged or alcoholic state, a semi-revolting, semi-tragic pariah, Freddie traveled through his half century of rhythm guitar with the chic, cold, imperturbable eye of a dandy. A brief liaison with the singer Billie Holiday, then with Basie's orchestra, could have illuminated a romantic side of his life, but the adventure proved to be as modest as the man himself. To top it all off, the very distinguished Freddie "Esquire" Green chose as his voice the most effective, the most anonymous part of jazz, one that underlines the tempo and the orchestra, one that enhances the soloist: rhythm guitar.
All the dictionaries will tell you: Freddie is the best in his category, the "plectrum plus ultra" of guitar accompaniment. Other musicians, before and after him, have become famous in this pursuit that one can judge only as a spectator, however frustrating... However, in jazz there is a circle of gentlemen [rhythm guitarists], always in the service of swing, behind the athletes of the chorus:
John Truehart who stuck to the drums of Chick Webb with precision, but one could also hear him clearly, hand in hand with the drums of Bill Beason, on "It's a Blue World" with Ella Fitzgerald's voice and direction in 1940. [Live from the Roseland Ballroom; Jazz Anthology 550032]
Fred Guy with Duke Ellington: banjo until 1933, then guitar until 1947, then nothing...[Fred Guy retired from the music business after his stint with Duke Ellington.]
Lawrence Lucie, admirer of John Truehart, secured the tempo and the cohesion of the rhythm with Bennie Carter, Fletcher Henderson, and Lucky Millinder.
The meeting of Count Basie and Freddie Green took place under the sign of "musical" love at first sight. Although he didn't need a new guitarist, Basie, pushed by John Hammond (whom had never been truly satisfied Claude Williams' rhythm guitar playing) realized that Green's sound and manner of rhythm guitar was what he wanted to hear in his orchestra. On March 26, 1937, Freddie first recorded with Basie for Decca: "Exactly Like You", "Boo Hoo", "Glory of Love", and "Boogie Woogie". His contribution to the heart of the rhythm had asserted itself already. One only need listen to the first measures of "Honeysuckle Rose" from January 21, with Claude Williams, Jo Jones, Walter Page and Count Basie, and immediately after, the introduction of "Exactly Like You", to hear a much more solid, rejuvenated, elevated rhythm that assured a new swing. Freddie soon made friends with Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, and Lester Young who disposed of last names and rechristened him "Lady Green," and "Squire". Gray hair was in his future and Freddie would become "Pepperhead," or "Pep". [Another story about the origin of this nickname is that Freddie's head was shaped like a bell pepper or a pepper-shaker.]
Thus was born the All-American Rhythm Section ("A Cadillac with the force of a Mack truck", according to Dicky Wells) where Freddie secured the suspension, supporting the quarter note with the same intensity, giving rise to a veritable respiration in the rhythm section. Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums were followed by other pairs of bassist / drummer (Rodney Richardson / Shadow Wilson, Singleton Palmer / Butch Ballard, Eddie Jones / Sonny Payne), but it was really Freddie's guitar that made the link to the rhythm, giving it this unique sonority.
Freddie Green's life mingled with the history of Basie's big band, a life of bus tours across the United States, of concerts around the world between hotels; a life that one finds only a glittering trace of in the recordings. In smoky clubs where the orchestra crowded together on glamorous stages, Freddie immersed himself in his guitar to raise the chords of well-balanced beauty. When Basie temporarily dissolved his big band in 1950 for economic reasons, he put together a small orchestra without Freddie, but Freddie wasted little time re-integrating himself into the group, finding his place. The Count and his eminence Green were not finished with their enthusiasm for the music.
Numerous studio groups requested his presence. Pee Wee Russell gave him an opportunity to accompany James P. Johnson in 1938 [Archive of Jazz Byg Records 529.066]. Basie loaned him to Illinois Jacquet in 1946 ["She's Funny That Way", Illinois Jacquet, Vogue 500858], and in 1952 ["Lean Baby", Illinois Jacquet, on "The Best of Verve Sessions," Verve 521 644-2]. Lionel Hampton incorporated him in 1939 with Zutty Singleton and Artie Bernstein to bring some bounce and swing to Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins ["Dinah", "My Buddy", on "More Hampton Stuff," RCA 751.049, Black and White Series, Volume 58].
But it was with Basie's musicians that Freddie recorded the most often outside of the big band. Teddy Wilson was there at the beginning and conducted a number of sessions with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. At first alone ("I've Found A New Baby", in 1937, with Buster Bailey), then as a knight in waiting for Billie Holiday from January 25, 1937, Billie would also record with Freddie 15 years later ("The First Verve Sessions" Verve 2610 027).
In 1955, Freddie shared the authorship of a record, "Mr. Rhythm", with Al Cohn (re-issued on CD as Bluebird ND 86465), which was comprised largely of his own astute and delicate compositions, in particular, "Feed Bag" and "A Date With Ray", that evoked the compositions of Buck Clayton. Moreover, Freddie gave authority to several chords in the introduction of "Little Red". [Freddie plays a brief chordal introduction. A transcription is available at: http://www.freddiegreen.org/transcriptions/littlered.html]
Whether Freddie Green plays with the greats or with Pee Wee Russell, he remains the guarantor, not only of tempo, not only of swing, but also, as often has been emphasized, of the sound that he brings to the orchestra. Of course, he has the quarter note that he discharges seamlessly, but Freddie never contents himself with simply marking the measure. One must hear the recordings themselves for the evidence, to be conscious of the harmonic carpet that unfolds under his guitar (in the intro of "Basie's Bag", for example, on Count Basie "Get Together," Pablo 98.826). Each chord resonates while waiting for the one that follows.
Freddie Green is a technique. First the guitar. For a long time a Stromberg, then a Gretsch, the body up to 50 centimeters [19 1/2 inches) wide! This did not satisfy the artist. Freddie raised the strings very far away from the neck to get the maximum sound from the low notes. The instrument is almost flat on his knees, without amplification, perhaps just a microphone, and the pick having only to balance on the thumb and forefinger. Precious films and videos help us continue to learn this method. Here one sees his right hand enter deeply into the strings instead of skimming them, while the left hand seizes the neck on each measure, letting go and recapturing it again as though to let the chord breathe.
Rhythm, swing, beat, everything one could want. But it is behind soloists that Freddie reveals a little more of the secret sound of the accompanist. In "Ghost Of A Chance" or "Blue Lester" in 1944 (Savoy Recordings WL 70505), the guitar goes beyond the quarter note time of the tightrope-walking tenor of Lester Young's with harmonies that always drive the melody of Prez. With Freddie Green, there is always a perceptible melodic thread (more or less), a sort of subterranean solo where one feels that he is long on the art of listening to the improviser, an art of caring and of good taste.
To ferret out the solos of Freddie Green is to bring up heresy. To be persuaded that he played the guitar well, (as if full-time rhythm guitarist is something other than a job), one has a tendency to look for the least little half-measure where he played a solo. Examples are the chord solos on "Dinah" in 1938, and on "Who?" in 1939, with the spontaneous organist Glenn Hardman and Lester Young (Lester Young, "The Complementary Works," Vol. 1, Masters of Jazz MJCD 46). One can hear him on "Super Chief" in 1940 (Count Basie, CBS Jazzotheque 88668) and one also hears Freddie play the bridge of "Time Out" in 1960 (Count Basie, Roulette 400525). He romps on the first measures of "Cute", before shattering the regularity of his chords on "Blues No. 3" (Count Basie, "The Soloist," 1941/1959, Jazz Anthology 550002). And do not forget the arpeggios of "Lil' Darlin'" in 1957 (CD entitled "Atomic Basie") that are completely indispensable to the piece. All the versions of "Lil' Darlin'" without Freddie are unsteady and wobbly. One finds him again with Joe Williams and Count Basie in 1958 ("Memories Ad Lib," Roulette Basie 4) where he solos for thirty-two measures using chords and single notes on "The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else", takes timid flights on "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Sweet Sue", "Call Me Darling", and introduces "Honeysuckle Rose" with riffs of "Sent For You Yesterday". He also plays an introduction with single notes on the two versions of "I'm Fer It Too " with Dicky Wells in 1943 ("Saxophone Giants," RCA FXM3 7324) and a chordal introduction on "She's Just My Size" in 1954 (Basie, "Sixteen Men Swinging", Verve 2610 040). There are also two superb examples of counter-melodies. One example is with Billie Holiday in 1938 on "On The Sentimental Side" ("The Quintessential Billie Holiday", Vol. 5, CBS Jazz Masterpieces 465190 4). The other is with the singer Brother John Sellers in 1954 on "Boll Weevil" (Vanguard VRS 8005) where Freddie improvises with great variety in the style and effects he uses. Finally, one can hear Freddie singing "Them There Eyes" with the Kansas City Six in 1938.
Speaking of Freddie's presence, let it be understood: when Freddie is not there, it is noticeable. In the series of jam sessions organized by Buck Clayton in the 1950's, Freddie Green occasionally played the guitar ("The Huckle-Buck", "Robbins Nest", "Lean Baby", in 1953, edited at CBS). It's enough to listen to "All The Cats Join In", still in the same spirit, comprised of practically the same soloists, but with Steve Jordan on the guitar. One hears the rhythm stressed on each measure, much harder than on the tunes where Freddie appeared and brought his more relaxed style. In the Count Basie Orchestra's recording of "The Legend," arranged by Benny Carter (Vogue 500021), it is Sam Herman who replaces the vacationing Freddie Green. The same evidence jumps out at the ears: Freddie is not there! It's something else that one hears.
When he was not occupied playing quarter notes, Freddie passed the time playing games, as he revealed in the titles of his best known compositions: "Down for Double" ("double the bet" in cards or at dice) and "Corner Pocket" (a billiard or "pool" term). Also, Freddie was an excellent golfer (logical when one is named Green and when one practices one's swing) according to Eddie Lockjaw Davis in "The World of Count Basie" by Stanley Dance.
Very serious under his moustache (it's necessary to search in the "soundies" [films of the Count Basie Band performing] of the 1940's to see him smile, being at the mercy of a production that imposed a forced grin on musicians), Freddie searched a long time for his geographic place in the orchestra. In 1939, at the Apollo Theater, one finds him behind the saxophone section, darting chords into the back of Herschel Evans. One will often see him in the line-up of trombones, or again with his head near the high hat of drummer Sonny Payne, or finally dropping anchor (wearing a captain's hat like Basie) during the 1970's in the hollow of the piano, nice and warm, almost in the limelight.
An impressive number of records by Freddie Green exist, under the name of others, but in his hands as the guitarist. We are also left with images of him, where one sees the Count dropping several notes of introduction, rejoined by the bass, then by the drummer, and then by Freddie, who at the end of the 7th or 8th chorus, deciding that the right tempo is there, gives the sign to his pianist that the orchestra can enter. Finally, it remains that each time one evokes the thought of Count Basie, one will also add the memory of a gray musician behind his beige guitar, who struck his chords with an air of nothingness and who was the air of Jazz. Obviously!