The Dean of Rhythm Guitarists: Freddie Green

by Alexander Schmitz

"After all, I do have the world's best rhythm section" was Count Basie's laconic answer when asked why his pianist fingers used to dwell in crisp pling-pling trebles. And thinking of that rhythm section – Jo Jones and Walter Page – proves him right. Jones, Page, and Freddie Green (baptized Frederic William Green) were the "All American Rhythm Section". Green was the man "with the cannon of a guitar", which he used to hold almost flat on his lap. He was the dean of rhythm guitarists in a world of neurotic players longing to be up front. He was the Count's partner from their very first shared experiences until the Count's death.

Freddie Green: born on March 31, 1911 in Charleston, South Carolina; died on March 1, 1987.

Basie's "left hand", as this humble rhythm player was dubbed time and again, the "fourth wheel on the Basie band wagon", a phenomenon only noticed when rarely missing. Freddie Green's rhythm work was immaculate, pure, elastic and bouncingly light, unlike any other. His commitment to rhythm guitar misled lesser guitarists to take Green's strict confinement to rhythm work for the mark of a second-rate player.

On the contrary, Green's rhythm work was high art, albeit much earlier than the sparsely accentuated comping style of recent guitarists like Herb Ellis (who, like all his peers, owes much to Freddie Green and Allan Reuss). Only those who started as banjo players, like Green himself and seven-string guitar player George vanEps mastered this style of big band rhythm guitar. Green advised listening to Clarence White, Jack Elliott, and even to Doc Watson, and also to older masters, like Ellington veteran Fred Guy.

"I don't know how Green actually did it" said 1946-born Duke Ellington grandson, Edward Ellington II (a fellow rhythm guitarist), "but I think it is simply because he knew what he's doing."

And basically – apart from the legendary time feel so rare among guitarists – there were two things: 1) a full command of the whole fingerboard providing ways to play chord melody, where the top notes often echoed or even followed the bass player's lines. 2) An early insight that not all of the six strings had to be strummed at all times. True "Jazz", harmonic events, were produced on the top four strings, first by Freddie Green, and later by nearly all other compers, while the fifth string was neglected and the sixth string, (frequently left thumb-fingered if played at all) supported the bass part. Thus Freddie acknowledged the Count's view: the bottom end was provided by the double bass, leaving the guitarist with the job of plowing the top four string field, similar to Tiny Grimes who, like Eddie Condon, never played anything but four string guitar.

Green did use a pick. Anyone watching him could see that Green's playing invariably looked like he used his right thumb to strum. He always sounded as if using a felt pick, or at least a rubber pick. This impression was as wrong as thinking he strummed forcefully. "You always hear him, no matter where you sit" was Edward Ellington II's praise. It was far from power playing, but rather fueled by Green's unfaltering swing, which never withered even under massive brass riff attacks.

In 1938 something unique happened: Green was persuaded to make history when, with PeeWee Russell's Rhythm Makers, he played a sixteen-bar solo in "Dinah", a moment in time never to be repeated. [Editor's note: This is not true. Green played several solos on the late 1950's album entitled "Memories Ad Lib". - Michael Pettersen] And indeed, what an accomplishment for a man who, since 1923 when he was just twelve, had seen his noblest task to be supporting the background! In the mid-1930's, an ever active John Hammond, after hearing Green just once in a Greenwich Village club, introduced the young man to Count Basie.

And many great players also requested Green's musical services: including Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Benny Goodman who was notorious for recruiting rhythm guitarists.

There is a recording from the mid-1970's, which will be a revelation even to the most stubborn critic of rhythm-playing. Arranged by guitar fan Carl Jefferson, founder of California's Concord label, Freddie Green teamed with Herb Ellis, piano, bass, and drums, for the recording "Rhythm Willie" (CJ-10), a unique amalgam of electric guitar solo playing and strictly acoustic guitar rhythm work.

Freddie Green has now followed Count Basie and we are hardly astonished as we are reminded of the many widowers that soon follow their spouses that died before them.

Like in Basie's orchestra, things in this world are under orders from on high.

Alexander Schmitz

English translation from German by Michael Daimler, Aachen, 2001
Edited by Michael Pettersen, Evanston, 2001

This article was published in the German jazz magazine 'Jazzpodium' ( Nr.4/XXXVI April 1987. Many thanks to Gudrun Endress, Chief Editor of Jazzpodium, for permission to use it.

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