Book Excerpt: The Jazz Guitarists

Book: The Jazz Guitarists
Author: Stan Britt
Copyright: 1984
Publisher: Blandford Press Ltd. - Poole, Dorset, England
Pages: 39 - 40

Chapter on Freddie Green

Frederick William Green: Born Charleston, South Carolina, 1911. Began professional gigs during mid-1930's, and it was while appearing at Black Cat Cafe, Greenwich Village, that noted impressario John Hammond heard him and in turn passed on a recommendation to Count Basie. Basie, obviously impressed, asked Green to join his up-and-coming big band. Green, given an offer he obviously could not refuse, said yes, made his first gig with Basie in March 1937, and has been an integral, irreplaceable part of Basie aggregations - mostly large, but sometimes small - ever since.
Irving Ashby, one of that select group of rhythm guitar players with out-of-the-ordinary ability, once made the following telling quote: "Rhythm guitar is like vanilla extract in a cake. You can't taste it when it's there, but you know when it's left out."

Ashby was, of course, referring to rhythm guitar in a general sense, but his remarks might well be applied to the playing of Freddie Green.

Freddie Green...the most famous name of all the rhythm guitarists in jazz. Along with the seemingly indestructible pianist-leader, he is the immovable force of the Count Basie Orchestra for nearly 50 years. Even when Basie was, of economic necessity, force to cut down from big band size to octet in 1950-1950, Green's presence was deemed of signal importance. It is safe to assume that, large or small, the Basie band would not have sounded quite the same without its guitarist.

With no disrespect to Claude Williams - Basie's first rhythm guitarist and a good reliable player - reference to recordings by the band before and after Green's arrival show the difference the latter's contributions made to the whole structure of the rhythm section and its impetus to the orchestra itself. Through the following decade-and-a-half, Green's presence was to continue to be a vital component of the band, as one-quarter of possibly the most famous rhythm section in the history of jazz - Green, Basie, bassist Walter Page (who left, finally in 1949, after a fairly lengthy absence in the early 1940's), and drummer Jo Jones.

The omnipresent Green shared in all the Basie band's succession of triumphs from 1937, appearing on acknowledged classic recordings such as "Dark Rapture", "Boogie Woogie", "Ham 'n' Eggs", "Tickle Toe", "Louisiana", and "The World Is Mad." His metronomic guitar also made its presence felt during Basie small group gems like "Shoe Shine Boy", "Oh Lady Be Good", "Dickie's Dream", and "Lester Leaps In." With the advent of hi-fi recordings, later stereo, it was possible to really evaluate Green's role within the big band. The post 1950's Basie outfits have been, if anything, even more of a powerhouse than their predecessors. Yet through even the band's most ferocious, top decibel moments, Green's guitar, an acoustic guitar one must never forget is discernable; laying down its four-in-the-bar beat with a clockwork precision that would be impossible to improve upon. Late 1950's, early 1960's studio recordings like "Basie Plays Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti", "Basie Plays Benny Carter", and most notably "The Atomic Mr. Basie" - with particular reference to immortal "Li'l Darlin'" - really lay emphasis on Green's indestructible talent. A live date like "Live from Birdland" merely amplifies this further. Digital recordings like "Warm Breeze" and "On The Road" bring that extraordinary guitar sound more sharply into focus than ever before, and it is these that rhythm guitar students should home in on at once.

Freddie Green's omnipotence amongst rhythm guitarists is due to his unique, very personal sound, together with his rock steady beat. He uses a high action, i.e., the heavy gauge strings on his instrument are further off the fingerboard than normal, thus allowing greater vibration resulting in greater volume. Green strikes the strings more powerfully than other rhythm players, using primarily the lower four strings for his chord inversions. Throughout the many years, the inimitable tenor saxophonist Lester Young was to use the services of Freddie Green at numerous recording sessions. "Kansas City Six and Five" is of particular interest in so far as it features also the electric guitarist Eddie Durham. "From Spirituals to Swing Concerts" is even more fascinating perhaps as Green's acoustic rhythm guitar is heard in company with another, even more famous, amplified player: Charlie Christian.

Freddie Green is the most modest of guitarists where solo playing is concerned; he is seemingly reluctant to take more than eight bars, maybe once in a decade. Which makes "Rhythm Man" something of a unique event - a record date under the great man's own name, plus a Freddie Green solo.

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