Book Excerpt: Count Basie and his Orchestra
Book:Count Basie and his Orchestra
Complete Section on Freddie Green:
"Basie's sense of tempo and Freddie Green are responsible for the impact which typifies the band's style." - Quincy Jones
On immediate outcome of the musical experiments which took place at Minton's Playhouse and other New York jazz clubs in the early 1940's - experiments which we now look back upon as being the embryonic stage in the gradual evolution of the modern jazz movement - was a revolutionary use of the guitar as a jazz instrument. For a decade or more prior to these experiments the guitar had been looked upon as an integral part of the jazz rhythm section, an instrument for relaying a steady, well-regulated pulse behind the ensemble or the soloists, normally merging its sound with the double-bass and drums to give a lightness and lift to the beat of the jazz group. True there had been several jazz guitarists, including Teddy Bunn, Eddie Durham, and Danny Barker, who on occasions had been known to hoist the instrument out of the section and improvise solos, and the accompanists to blues singers still used it extensively in an individual role, but in the main in the 1930's the guitar was utilized as a spur within the rhythm sections of the larger orchestral groups of the day. Ellington, Lunceford, Calloway, Goodman, Basie; these and almost every other important bandleader during the decade employed the guitar in this way.
Primitive modern jazz brought radical changes to this concept. Mainly at the instigation of Charlie Christian, who dominated the New York experiments of the early 1940's, the guitar was cast away by the rhythm section. Christian, making use of the new amplified guitar, obtained a sound on the instrument not unlike a soft-toned saxophone; he commenced to improvise phrases with it similar to the saxophone, and before long, instead of supporting the wind instruments which comprised the front line of the jazz group, he was flying the guitar alongside the horns and gradually blending with their voicings. At the same time, the experimentalists also broke down the hitherto regulated, unwavering jazz beat into a series of shifting patterns, with unusual accents and cross-rhythms. They employed the double-bass as the pivot of the rhythm section, thereby setting free the drums and guitar from their previous boundaries; the tendency became for the former to be devoted to producing accents and an assortment of cross-rhythms, while the latter, following Christian's teaching, attached itself firmly to the front line.
The effect of these changes upon orchestral jazz soon became apparent. As modern jazz gained a wider acceptance, a new generation of guitarists following in Christian's footsteps (men like Barney Kessel, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow, and Jimmy Raney, and even several of the older men like John Collins) sprang into being; men who had matured principally as soloists on the new electric instruments, and who preferred to work with the ensemble of a small jazz group rather than as a rhythmic strut in the larger bands. One by one the big bands began to shed their guitarists. Some continued to use the instrument until its owner moved into a small group and then made no effort to replace him; others, even though they did not indulge in a game of broken rhythms, saw that the bass could act as a single pivot for the section, and for financial reasons dispensed with the guitar; even Ellington, though little impressed by the devices of modern jazz, did not bother to find a replacement for Fred Guy when the veteran banjo and guitar player retired from the band after many years and entered the agency business. By 1950 scarcely any large jazz group in the United States contained a guitarist as a rhythmic support.
Count Basie's Orchestra was the principal opponent of this casual dismissal of the guitar from the large jazz group. Though only a matter of five or six years before the sessions at Minton's, Basie's own musical approach had been revolutionary, and though he failed to condemn many of the experimental methods of the modern jazz soloists on the grounds that music must progress in order to avoid stagnation, he became an absolute reactionary when modern jazz suggested tampering with the rhythmic foundations of jazz. He'd endorse the search for new methods of phrasing, the new use of harmony, and so on, but at the attempts to break up the regular beat of jazz he balked. If jazz does not swing, then do not call it jazz; call it a usage of elements of jazz towards another musical end product, but don't label something as jazz when the core musical form has been extracted; these were the Count's musical deductions, and he continued to enforce such a belief within the structure of his own band. The fact that other leaders were giving way did not budge him. Even when modern jazz began to gain ground with musicians and even audiences, he still set his band going with that relaxed, swinging beat, the indomitable child of Kansas City jam sessions, with its four clear beats to the bar, each one carefully balanced and equally emphasized, confident that with such rhythmic surety the front-line instruments could proceed with their improvised explorations. And with his insistence upon a steady 4/4 time, he retained the guitar to give its lightness and lift to the rhythm section, topping the rich bass notes with its tender yet definite rhythmic chords. The four men of the rhythm team, phrasing together with their four beats to the bar, remained, despite the innovations of modern jazz, a constant with each group of musicians the Count employed, oiling the action of the ensemble at all times.
Basie has waited patiently to prove his point about a sure,
unvarying rhythmic pattern being the soundest foundation for any form
of jazz improvisation. The structure of the Basie rhythm section, fashioned
in the mid-1930's, remained unchanged throughout the rest of the 1930's
and the entire 1940's; and, not to be destroyed by the band depression
of 1950, it persisted in the style of the septet run by Count Basie from
1950 to 1951. Today, in the mid-1950's, it is still a decisive factor
in the musical policy of the Count's re-established big band. And in the
mid-1950's he has really proved his point. The modernists, now consolidating
their gains, have realized that while many of their experiments have benefitted
jazz, the idea of breaking up the rhythmic foundations of jazz was largely
a failure, and, as a result, in the mid-1950's, they are anxiously negotiating
an alliance of their new use of melody and harmony with a swinging beat
in 4/4 time and casting off many of the finicky rhythmic devices which
grew up in the 1940's. The tendency of musicians from all schools of thought
in jazz today is to praise the Basie band and its decisive rhythmic power.
A signpost has been erected by musicians showing that the surest path
for the music's progression exists through a co-operation between many
of the structural devices of modern jazz and the emotional freedom, the
intense superficial excitement, and the rhythmic impetus of the swing
era. Basie's own band today typifies this ideal, and the modernists working
as improvising soloists within its ranks and the arrangers behind it are
confirming the soundness of its rhythmic standards.
Freddie Green has been with Basie longer than any other musician in the band; he joined the group in early 1937, and is, in fact, the only member of the present band (the leader apart, of course) who was with the Count in the 1930's. His emphatic guitar playing has been a significant musical feature of each influential combination that the Count has led, from the golden days when Lester and Herschel Evans were in the band to the present group with its renewed success, as well as of practically every small group drawn from the main band over the years for recording purposes; rightly he is regarded as a personification of the leader's ideals over the use of rhythm in jazz.
It was actually as a result of a tip from John Hammond that Basie, soon after bringing his band from Kansas City to New York, went to hear Freddie Green playing in a little-known Greenwich Village club. The first recording session which the band made for American Decca in New York featured Claude Williams on guitar, but soon after this date Williams left, leaving the all-important rhythm section of the band wide open. Basie was so impressed when he heard Freddie Green's work that he hired him on the spot, thereby cementing into place the final brick of the most cohesive and consistently swinging rhythm section in orchestral jazz development. The unit (Basie, Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones) remained together well into the 1940's, and its playing set a tradition which has persisted in Basie's band through the present day. In the 1950's musicians still speak in awe of the Basie-Green-Page-Jones team, and on several occasions recently certain New York recording companies have reunited these four men for specific recording dates, while other companies have attempted an approximation of its sound with other musicians. In Basie's own band of the mid-1950's, the leader and Freddie Green both employ the same rhythmic patterns which they evolved for use in the late 1930's, while the new bassist and drummer are set to follow pretty closely in the footsteps of Page and Jones.
Though the character of Freddie Green's guitar playing faithfully adheres to the style of the Kansas City jam sessions, it is a remarkable fact that the man himself had no physical connections with this legendary musical center prior to enlisting in the Count's band. He was born at Charleston in South Carolina on 31st March 1911, and, after taking a few lessons in music theory with a local teacher, he began, from the age of twelve onwards, to pick up the rudiments of jazz playing without any real tuition. He worked his way, via a number of musical and non-musical jobs, to New York, and then from meeting Basie his musical career followed a single course. When the Count was forced to disband in 1950 he retained Freddie Green for the rhythm section of his all-star septet, and later, of course, in 1951 he made him a cornerstone of the reorganized big band.
Green hasn't changed much over the years. Reliable without being obtrusive, a sound component part of the rhythm section yet with a personal sense of rhythm which is virile and spirited, technically well-versed and a competent reading musician with an interest in jazz composition which suits the band's singular thematic policy, he has been the ideal rhythm guitarist for the Count. He has given both individuality of sound and a rhythmic stamina to the band's propulsive beat. His inherent sense of tempo and durability when performing a regular beat have set standards well above those of the average band guitarists. One of the Buck Clayton jam sessions, recorded in the 1950's for Columbia, contains instances of Freddie sustaining a set tempo behind a wide selection of improvising soloists for as long as twenty minutes at a time, never faltering over a single chord, and evidencing throughout that essential relaxation which is a part of the familiar Kansas City beat. His fingering and general technique reveal a similar consistency. Unlike so many of his fellow guitarists, who have transferred their attentions to electric instruments, Freddie has continued to use a non-amplified model, showing a preference for the latter's clean, steely sound for the expression of his rhythmic accents. With the non-amplified instrument his touch has been definitive though still delicate, resulting in his supplying each rhythm section that he as worked in with a beat that is emphatic without ever becoming ponderous.
Quite apart from his work with the various Basie bands, and with smaller groups drawn from these bands, Freddie Green's guitar playing has been constantly in demand for many years now as a rhythmic support at recording sessions featuring many of the outstanding improvising soloists of jazz. In the late 1930's he helped provide the accompaniments to perhaps the finest creative efforts Billie Holiday ever recorded (Sailboat in the Moonlight, etc.), together with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, et al. Also while with the old Basie band he found time to make recordings with Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Joe Sullivan, Illinois Jacquet, and many others.
In the 1950's, with so many musicians rediscovering Basie's style of jazz playing, he has been recording more accompaniments than ever; in the past two years alone he has cut literally scores of titles with Joe Newman, Al Cohn, Buck Clayton, Sonny Stitt, Jo Jones, and Sir Charles Thompson, as well as extended jam session features with Count Basie and Harry Edison for Clef and one album under his own name for Victor with a group mainly featuring the work of Joe Newman. On all these sessions his personal musicianship has been impeccable, and his rhythmic certainty has proved invaluable to the musical structure of each group.
So busy, in fact, has Freddie Green been kept during his career in fulfilling his commitments as a rhythm guitarist, carefully underlining the ensemble of the Basie band and an additional assortment of improvising soloists, that he has never been known as a solo voice. On account of the rhythmic policy set by Basie he has been fully occupied as a section man when working with the band, while on his numerous small group recordings, though he might be heard playing the occasional introduction or coda (e.g. for "Leonice" on Joe Newman's "All I Wanna Do Is Swing" L.P. on Victor), he hasn't been known to launch out with his own improvised choruses.
I always do ascribe this absence of recorded solos by Freddie Green to his continual industry as a rhythm man rather than to any lack of invention. Against those who would argue to the contrary I can bring to bear two pieces of important musical evidence.
The first concerns the compositions which the guitarist has contributed to the Basie band's repertoire - "Down for Double", "Right On", "Corner Pocket", and so on. These have all been strong, muscular themes lending themselves to both ensemble variations in the hands of the band's arrangers and to the extended improvisation of the soloists. "Corner Pocket", for example, a theme which in the 1950's has been recorded by Joe Newman with a small unit for Victor as well as orchestrated by Ernie Wilkins for the full band to record for Clef, comprises a thirty-two bar theme with an interesting chord sequence, a strong, melodic main phrase and a middle-eight phrase which contracts melodically yet still dovetails neatly into the overall pattern of the theme. Clearly these creations by Green are not the products of a musician who has failed to gain an understanding of jazz improvisation. Rather, they appear to stem from a line of improvised thought which the guitarist has been unable to project personally on account of his particular role as a kind of back-room boy of the Basie band and instead has stabilized and passed on to the main body of the band.
The other piece of evidence takes the form of a solitary recording which features Freddie Green made in the 1950's (part of a Vanguard L.P. featuring the blues and folk songs and spirituals of Brother John Sellers) on which he can be heard ably improvising the background accompaniments to a documentary-type folk song by Sellers.
Apart from its rarity in having the guitarist performing an improvised part, this record is something of a collector's item due to the fact that it links together such superficially diverse talents as a traveling evangelist and a band guitarist. The historical background attached to the record was in itself quite unusual.
It happens, one learns, that on the day of this recording Freddie Green had gone into Vanguard Studios to participate in a revival of three-quarters of the best-known Basie rhythm section. John Hammond, supervising the session, was set to make an album of piano solos with one of Basie's closest disciples, Sir Charles Thompson, and had assembled the formidable Green-Page-Jones team to back him. Just as the Thompson session drew to a conclusion, however, Brother John Sellers, newly-arrived in New York from Chicago, wandered into the studios in search of an audition. Thompson and the other musicians were just preparing to leave as he entered, yet when they chanced to hear Sellers sing a few bars of one of his own themes, "Doretha Boogie", they unanimously voted to stay. Without any warning, even without discussing the question of a contract, another recording session was born, Sellers producing one song after another from his repertoire and the musicians in turn fashioning suitable accompaniments. It was when the singer introduced "Boll Weevil" to the session, a song associated many years before with the late Huddie Ledbetter, that Freddie Green's guitar suddenly sprang into prominence. This sad little theme - about the pest which for so long has been the chief enemy of the cotton crop in the Deep South - has an unusual meter, and at the session it proved a difficult vehicle for the full accompanying quartet to exploit. A solution to the problem was found, however, when the guitarist was persuaded to disengage himself from the rhythm section and fashion an accompaniment after the manner of the guitarists who supported the legendary blues singers of the earlier decades. Thus it was that Freddie Green's extemporised thoughts as a guitarist were at last shown the light of day - and to good effect.
A feeling for the blues, so vital a part of Green's musical make-up after years spent in supporting the Count Basie ensemble, was given a logical expression as he delicately moulded the background to Sellers' voice. Using the instrument with a remarkable sensitivity, he intersperses between the series of spread chords and sustained blue notes of the traditional blues accompanists subtle passages of single-string improvisation, weaving first with and then around the vocal line, emphasizing, embroidering, appearing here and there to be about to relax lightly into swing time yet effectively sustaining the melancholy mood of the song.
After hearing the feature I felt an acute sense of regret
that Freddie's obvious talent in this direction had not been given an
outlet previously; it assured me that he was in no way deficient as an
improvising musician, and also that the keen intellect which has for so
long supplied the veneer to the Basie rhythm section possesses, behind
its immaculate musicianship and outward poise, an intense feeling for
the basic roots of jazz music.