Book Excerpt: Charleston: A Cradle of Jazz
Subtitle: Charleston Jazz Initiative: Return To The Source, Proceedings June 2-4, 2005
Editors: Dr. Karen Chandler and Jack McCray
Publisher: Charleston Jazz Initiative, Arts Management Program, College of Charleston, 66 George Street, Charleston SC 29424 USA
Freddie Green (1911-1987) was a music student at Jenkins Orphanage. He joined Count Basie's Orchestra as a rhythm guitarist in 1937. By Basie's own account, Green set the pace of the band and helped define American swing.
For the Jenkins Orphanage bands to have produced musicians as prominent in early jazz as Cat Anderson, Cladys "Jabbo" Smith, and Freddie Green is remarkable.
page 43 (photo caption)
Freddie Green. By all accounts, Freddie Green was one of the true gentlemen of jazz. He practiced all the loftier aspects of the Avery-Jenkins tradition: dignity, pursuit of excellence, discipline, and versatility.
page 44 - 45
Freddie Green was the opposite of Jabbo Smith. He [Freddie] was noted for his steadiness in all ways. As with many guitarists of his generation, he was first a banjoist. As Jenkins was a follower of Booker T. Washington, he insisted that his students learn a trade; Freddie Green's was upholstery. He used this to see him through when he moved to New York, but soon found himself working steadily. The most important of these gigs was at the Black Cat Club in Greenwich Village. He was in a band that included the trumpeter Bobby Moore, with whom he would later work in the Basie band. There was also Kenny Clarke, the drummer whose rhythmic innovations would propel the bebop revolution. Green would arrive at work hours early to experiment with rhythm with Clarke.
The very influential impresario, John Hammond, heard Freddie and recommended him to Basie, who was looking for a replacement for Claude Williams. Basie very reluctantly agreed to audition Green in a dressing room at the Roseland Ballroom. The next day Freddie Green was on the bus with the band, where he stayed until Basie died. [Editor's note: Basie died in 1984. Freddie stayed with the Basie band until his own death in March 1987.]
Green became the rock-steady of the greatest rhythm section of the day which comprised the bassist Walter Page, and the drummer Jo Jones, both innovators, and thereby he became the definitive swing guitarist. The bandleader, Nat Pierce, said, "They had a kind of throb going...no one instrument louder than the other." Sweets Edison described it as, "Freddie, Walter, and Jo would follow Basie until he hit the right beat, and when he started it, they kept it." Green was shy about soloing, rarely taking more than eight bars, but there are some good recorded examples of what he could do. One can be found on the 1935 recording of "Topsy". [Editor's note: The correct recording date is August 1937 and the electric guitar soloist was Eddie Durham, not Freddie Green.]
The Basie band became his home. He played softball on the band's team, went swimming with Sweets Edison, and crabbing with Preston Love. According to the saxophonist, Don Byas, "You'd see old Freddie Green sitting there like a sheep dog, looking around to see that nothing was going wrong."
And, of course, he had an affair with Billie Holiday, who said that he was one of only three men whom she ever loved. The affair never went anywhere because Freddie was married with children. You can hear them together on some of Billie's greatest recordings: "The Loneliest Man In Town," "Why Was I Born," and "I Must Have That Man."
The thing to remember about these Charleston jazz giants is that they hit New York, the most competitive jazz scene in the world, fully hatched, in full command of their instruments and styles. This indicates that they must have come from a vibrant jazz scene, one in which they must have competed with musicians who could push them, from whom they could learn. (A.B. Spellman)
While Freddie Green was at Jenkins, it was as a singer. He wasn't playing guitar or banjo. It might be strange to think of Freddie Green as a singer. But there is a recording that was made in 1938 with a group called the Kansas City Seven that included Lester Young and Buck Clayton on which Freddie sings "Them There Eyes." We have heard of his relationship with Billie Holiday. Milt Gabler, who owned the Commodore label for which the session was made, said Billie was in the studio control booth and was miming the song and phrasing for Freddie to follow. There are two takes and he is very good. So that is what he learned at Jenkins. (Dan Morgenstern)
Freddie Green once said that the one thing he liked about New Orleans is that white folks and black folks talk alike. I think he would have said the same about Charleston. (Alvin Baptiste)