Freddie Green and Eddie Durham

Periodical: Jazz Journal
Date: April 1987
Pages: 18 - 19
Author: Chris Sheridan

Editor's Preface: This article is an obituary for Eddie Durham and Freddie Green. The following excerpt is the Freddie Green portion. I have corrected several factual errors in the article.
- Michael Pettersen

The deaths within days of each other of Freddie Green and Eddie Durham rob us, not only of two stellar Basie-ites, but also of two underappreciated, yet nonetheless founding fathers of jazz guitar. Freddie Green invested rhythm guitar with such strength of personality as to elevate it to the level almost of solo work; no other jazz guitarist matched this.

There were two guitarists (Durham and Green) on the1938 Kansas City Six session, and it owes much of its sans pariel flow to the presence of Frederick William Green. His approach to music, in contrast to Durham's, was the more self-effacing, and he stuck to acoustic guitar his entire life.

A dignified man who considered interviews an unnecessary intrusion, he once went briefly on record: "A performance has what I call a rhythm wave, and the rhythm guitar can help to keep that wave smooth and accurate." He did that so consummately that, no matter how brash the arrangement, he always shown through.

To say that he took no solos, however, was only almost true. "On The Sentimental Side" being not only an exception that proved the rule, but also the provider of a glimpse of style showing that, like Durham, Green's approach to the guitar was bound in the instrument's essential nature. Otherwise, the generality was true - leaving Green simply the heartbeat of the finest rhythm section of its generation, and one at the center of music's then development. No mean achievement, and a standard he maintained for fifty years.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911, he began playing banjo at the age of 12. He got his first job locally with a band called the Nighthawks, then toured with the famous Jenkins Orphanage band, though Green himself was not a member of the school. By 1930, he was living in New York, ekeing out the depression years living with an aunt and working by day as an upholsterer. By night he freelanced, and it is certain that, by playing for dancers with stride men like Willie Gant, his unique abilities to judge tempo and create a supple rhythm were forged.

It was in late 1936 that John Hammond, then putting together Basie's first tour out of Kansas City, heard Green at the Black Cat and brought him to Roseland to audition for the Count. Although Basie already had Claude Williams - on guitar as well as violin - he put Freddie straight on to the strength. His first few weeks were unusual in that, although he travelled, he did not play, staying instead in the wings of the Chatterbox at Pittsburgh until Williams left.

From March 1937, and excepting a short hiatus after Basie's disbandment in 1950, he and Freddie were inseparable, and the jazz world gained immeasurably from their playing. In Green's case, there were three aspects to what might at first sight seem a simple matter.

  1. He freed the beat from metronomic clomping by creating a constantly-shifting variation on the chord structure.

  2. He afforded his playing quite subtle variations in dynamics by slight changes in [string] striking position.

  3. He meshed his playing very carefully with the drummer.

The mention of "On The Sentimental Side" illuminates another side of his story, for this was one of the many fine Billie Holiday recording he pivoted with Basie men. But Green's role in fact went further for a time - so much so that he was felt to be the best thing that happened to her, keeping the somewhat wayward singer straight for considerable periods. And, going back to the 1938 Commodore sessions, Green's vocal on "Them There Eyes" possesses qualities which clearly had not escaped Billie when she came to record the tune a year later.

Unlike the majority of his peers, Green did not leave a mighty legacy of solo work, nor even a long list of sessions under his own name. His first, for the Duke label in 1945 with Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, and Lucky Thompson, remains unissued; his second, for RCA in 1955, has been reissued on CD, as has a 1975 date for Concord Records which above all these, clearly demonstrated his powerful rhythmic gifts.

Herb Ellis once bemoaned the fact that Freddie never compiled a book on how to play rhythm guitar - in fact he wrote it every night for over fifty years.

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