Book Excerpt: The Sweet Hell Inside

Author: Edward Ball
Copyright: 2001
Publisher: William Morrow/Harper Collins, New York
ISBN: 0-688-16840-X

page 314 - 315
Rhythm guitarist Frederick William "Freddie" Green was born March 31, 1911, in Charleston [South Carolina]. Freddie Green wasn't an inmate at the [Jenkins] orphanage; an organizer for one of the bands befriended the boy and taught him to read music. The bandleader saw Green's talent, so he agreed to let Green in the orphanage to play, starting him out on banjo. Freddie Green was a slight, handsome man with a quiet manner and low-key presence. In an interview late in life, he remembered the scene on Charleston streets:

"I used to stop whatever I was doing and follow the Jenkins band all over the city. I figured if I could get away - I knew I wouldn't be able to make it in Charleston, not playing music. I had to get away. And because of the fact I had been to New York - I had been there, and I had seen, and I had heard, and I knew whatever it was, it had to come from New York. And I went with the Jenkins band, we stopped in New York, and I just stayed in New York and I didn't go back."

Green lived with an aunt in New York, finished high school, and taught himself to play rhythm guitar. At first he played rent parties, but beginning about 1933, a bandleader named Lonnie Simmons gave Green a real job. Simmons and Green played at a nightclub called the Yeah Man, which they soon left for a competing job at the Exclusive Club. From there they leaped to a jazz club in Greenwich Village called the Black Cat. There, a music producer named John Hammond heard Green on guitar and introduced him to Count Basie, a bandleader Hammond had been working with. In March 1937, Freddie Green joined the Basie band.

page 315 - 317
Freddie Green became Basie's guitarist. In 1930s jazz, guitarists were not soloists, but rhythm specialists who kept the band swinging four beats to the bar, strumming reliable chord changes on their unamplified instruments. The stars given solos were the players in the horn and reed sections. Count Basie was known for his smooth but relentless beat, which was held together by just four musicians. In the jazz press they were called the "All-American Rhythm Section": Count Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, and Freddie Green on guitar. Green's rhythm guitar was like the metronome of the band, a sound whose flavor gave him the nickname "Pepper."
[Editor's note: Yet another theory on the origin of Freddie's nicknames of "Pepper", "Pepperhead", and "Pep."]

In the late 1930s, the amplified guitar was invented, and jazz guitar began to break away from its traditional place at the back of the bandstand. The pioneer of the guitar solo was Charlie Christian, a twenty-three-year-old black guitarist with Benny Goodman, who plugged in his instrument and started playing light and showy solos like those usually heard on clarinet. In January 1938, when Count Basie recorded a song called "On The Sentimental Side", Freddie Green allowed himself a few solo phrases, an unusual move. According to one of Freddie Green's band mates, Green could have been a soloist like Charlie Christian, but the All-American Rhythm Section fell apart whenever Green took a solo.

There is a story connected to Green's short-lived experiment with solo guitar. At some point, Charlie Christian gave Freddie Green an amplifier, which he plugged in and used for several rehearsals. Others in the Basie band didn't want a louder guitar, so one night somebody removed a tube from the amplifier. Green had it repaired. A second night, the plug disappeared. Green replaced it. Finally, other players took out all the insides of the amplifier. When Green arrived at the session, he plugged his guitar into an empty box. Green was angry, but he agreed not to take any more solo breaks.

Solo or none, the job with Count Basie was nearly perfect for Green. A year after he joined, the guitarist appeared with the Basie band in a Hollywood film called "Policy Man." The Basie contract paid well, though it didn't make him rich. For the year 1940, Freddie Green's tax returns put his income from the Basie orchestra at $3,277, a middle-class salary for that time.

More than money and recognition, the Count Basie job allowed Green to surround himself with unusual people. When they were on the road, the Basie band traveled in a bus that musicians nicknamed the "Blue Goose." At the end of the 1930s, a sometime singer with the Basie orchestra was a sad-eyed twenty-five-year-old from Baltimore named Billie Holiday. Holiday was the only woman on the Blue Goose. The men had given her the sobriquet "Lady Day". After some weeks of crisscrossing the highways together in a bus, Billie Holiday and Freddie Green began an affair.

The lovers stayed together off and on for years. When they were both with Basie, Freddie Green would check into hotels with Billie Holiday. When Lady Day went off to sing with other acts, as she did with the white Artie Shaw band, she would make a point of finding Green when he was in the same city. Freddie Green's papers and memorabilia contains little evidence that would explain what he had that appealed to the great jazz vocalist. In fact, other musicians in the Basie band complained that Holiday and Green often fought in the Blue Goose. But whatever his charm, Freddie Green is said to have been the only musician in the band with whom Holiday ever got involved.

In 1941, Billie Holiday got married (to someone other than Green) and the lovers stopped their affair, though it resumed soon after. In 1947, she was arrested in Philadelphia for heroin possession, and sentenced to a year and a day at the Alderson Reformatory in West Virginia, neatly halting both her jazz career and her love affair with Freddie Green.

page 348
Guitarist Freddie Green had what music critics have called "the longest job in jazz history." He was part of the Count Basie band, with only a short interruption, for fifty years, from March 1937 until March 1987. Green played with Basie at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball in 1961, and in 1981, President Reagan honored Green (as a member of the Basie band) for achievement in the performing arts. Freddie Green died in Las Vegas in 1987, after walking off a stage where the Basie orchestra was finishing its second show of the night. He was seventy-five years old.
[Editor's note: Freddie died in his hotel room of a stroke. He had gone to his room to watch TV and relax before the band's final show of the night.]

The Style | Recordings | Biographical Info | Photos | Additional Info | Contact Us | Post Comments | Home Page