Book Excerpt: Profiles In Jazz

Author: Raymond Horricks
Copyright: 1991
Publisher: Transactions Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey
ISBN: 0-88738-432-3
Chapter: Six
Pages: 35 - 40

Freddie Green: Mister Rhythm

When I first met Freddie Green in London in 1957, he told me: ‘I’m a quiet guy.  Not shy, mind you.  Just quiet.  I liked to be there on the sidelines, but near the big action.  To observe it, to know what’s going on.’  He also liked Jaguars, golf, good food and he stood fairly tall and handsome, with no physical ravages to indicate the number of years given up to the touring life.  (In 1982 he still looked a miracle of self- disciplined preservation.)

His words might be taken as indicative of his attitude towards the array of jazz giants he’s accompanied since his earliest days with the Basie band.  Buck Clayton and Harry Edison, Joe Newman and Thad Jones, Dicky Wells, Henry Coker and Benny Powell, Lester Young and Herschel Evans, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, the Franks - Foster and Wess and, of course, the singers: Jimmy Rushing (‘Mister Five-By-Five’), Helen Humes and Joe Williams; also too ‘Lady Day’ (Billie Holiday) who, it’s been said, wanted to marry him.  He’s been a member of two of the finest rhythm sections the jazz world has known: the pre-1949 one with Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones (‘The Wind’) on drums and the 1950s one when Eddie Jones took over on bass and Gus Johnson was the drummer.

The words understate his own importance though.  Freddie Green has been the most quietly effective guitarist in jazz, the outstanding acoustic ‘rhythm’ one and a player without whom the ongoing Basie beat could hardly have survived.  He is both the core of its swing and guardian of the band’s cohesiveness.

Also, one mustn’t mistake the quiet of the man for any lack of resolution.  In addition to being the long-term protector of his rhythm, he often serves as Basie’s musical conscience.  ‘From time to time, we’ll see Freddie Green lecturing him (The Count) off to one side - never the other way around’, a veteran of the band told Nat Hentoff.  And after the departure of Gus Johnson from Basie in December, 1954, the guitarist took to travelling with a stick - rather like a short snooker cue - which he used for poking in the ribs any subsequent drummer who rushed the tempo or indulged in exhibitionism to the detriment of the band’s swing.

Another thing to note is how he avoids playing improvised solos.  But not for any reasons of incapacity.  There are a few solo passages on an album he made with Basie and singer Joe Williams called ‘Memories Ad Lib’ on the Roulette label; and he can be heard playing some very delicate, almost Django Reinhardt-like accompaniment to Brother John Sellers on a Vanguard session from the 1950s (the Boll Weevil Song).  Again, there are some guitar intros and codas on Joe Newman’s RCA Victor LP ‘All I Wanna Do Is Swing’.  But these are untypical of him: not his way at all.  He did them because he was asked to do them, not because he wanted a place in the sun.  What matters to Freddie Green is the rhythm.  This is the central house of his music, and with his great concentration, careful strumming and natural swing is what he does so superbly well.  He doesn’t use (or need) an amplifier.  Nor does he particularly attack the strings.  But listen to whichever Basie record you care to pick out, and the sound of the guitar is always there - clear, incisive, impeccably accenting the famous 1—2—3—4 beat and never leaving the rhythm section in doubt about the toe-tapping tempo and basic feel.  There are certain Basie-inspired examples of his sustaining a tempo for as long as twenty minutes at a time (I’m thinking of the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions on CBS).  He never falters though, and throughout the swing has that essential relaxation typifying the jazz which began in Kansas City.

This last characteristic might seem slightly odd to those looking into his biographical details, because he was not a partner in the original Kansas City, free—blowing, all-through-the-night jam sessions there.  Before joining Basie in New York City he had little knowledge of the jazz going on in the South-West and quite definitely hadn’t heard Basic’s most important forerunners: Walter Page’s Blue Devils and the big band of Bennie Moten.  However, once into the Basie group he immediately sounded exactly right and what drummer Jo Jones has called ‘the bouncing ball’ effect of its beat was complete.  ‘Freddie joined us when we were working at The Roseland,’ the Count remembered.  ‘John Hammond came by one Sunday afternoon and said he had a guitarist he wanted me to hear.  It seemed strange to audition a guitarist, but we went down to the dressing room.  He was on the bus the next day when we went to Pittsburgh, and he’s been with us ever since.  Freddie is Mister Hold-Together!’

Freddie was born in the old South, at Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911.  To begin with he was largely self-taught as a musician.  But he had a friend in Charleston, Lonnie Simmons, who played the tenor saxophone and who got him his first professional job with a group called The Nighthawks.  The father of another friend, a trumpeter called Sam Walker, taught him to read music - as well as encouraging him to add to his first choice instrument, a banjo, the six-string acoustic guitar of European, classical construction.

This Mr. Walker Senior held a position at the local orphanage, helping to organize what became widely-known as Jenkins Orphanage Band, and, although not an orphan himself, Freddie went on tour with them.  (Cat Anderson, the trumpeter who later made his name with Duke Ellington, also played in the group).  Eventually they got as far North as Maine, and this persuaded the young musician to go on and try his luck in New York.  That was in 1930.  For a time he stayed with an aunt who was much into the ‘rent parties’ scene, and whose house frequently reverberated to the sounds of the great stride piano players, Fats Wailer, James P. Johnson and so on.  Freddie got work as a furniture upholsterer, plus a job in the evenings at a club called the Yeah Man.  It was here he finally decided to dump his banjo and concentrate fully on the guitar.

He then moved to The Exclusive Club, working with the pianist Willie Gant and having to learn lots of chord changes in order to accompany the many guest singers.  There was no drummer, but people in the club sti1l to dance, and so Freddie came to appreciate the value of a steady swing and tempo.

When John Hammond heard him for the first time he had a job at The Black Cat in Greenwich Village, earning eleven dollars a week and playing with Lonnie Simmons (tenor), Fat Atkins (piano), Frank Speakman (bass) and the ubiquitous Kenny Clarke on drums.  Since that time, of course, he has become a favorite rhythm guitarist with many musicians and singers and their predilection has led to his being included on hundreds of different recording sessions spanning five decades.  But the association with the Basie band remains uninterrupted.  (He even worked with Basie's otherwise modern jazz Septet of 1950, when economic circumstances forced Basie to disband his full group).

As for the distinctive Basie beat, which Freddie is such an important part of, it had a normal growth in the late 1920s jazz of the American South-West (mainly Missouri), was developed to a stage of grand excitement at the early 1930s impromptu sessions in Kansas City, and then had its parallel quality of a streamlined relaxation added in New York when the leader put together his definitive team of Freddie Green, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones, drums.  In the South-West a guitarist called Ruben Lynch had shown the way with Page’s Blue Devils— playing advanced chords for that period, but very evenly, four to the bar.  And when Basie arrived in New York this was more or less how the guitarist he used on his first recording session for Decca, Claude Williams, played.  In between though there had been the marathon Kaycee ‘jams’, giving that city the reputation for having the most dazzling new jazz soloists in the entire United States.  The real ‘stars’ of the jamming, players like Lester Young and Herschel Evans, were now members of the Basie band and required extra-perceptive accompaniment.  Also the band’s ensemble style, based on short riff phrases and the blues, demanded a very special form of rhythmic support - something tightly together but musically open, superficially propulsive while inside needing to be flexible, even laid back.

Freddie Green’s recruitment, added to the big, rich sound of Walter Page’s bass and Jo Jones’ fresh approach to drumming, brought about the ultimate refinement of what we currently identify as Basie’s beat - aided and abetted by the leader’s own piano style.  Jo Jones, or ‘The Wind’ as his admirer Don Lamond describes him, lessened the force of his bass drum beats, then delivered a series of regulated stick-shots on his hi-hat cymbal, creating a permanently shimmering effect, and with this more fluid beat he swept the band along with comparative ease.  Page introduced a new mobility with his bass playing, and the guitar was used to reaffirm the sure and steady 4/4 time by equally accenting the first, second, third and fourth beats of the bar - in other words, like ‘a bouncing ball’, to re-quote Jo Jones.

The outcome of it all proved to be as refreshing as it was stimulating.  Not only did the Basie band swing and play with enormous flair and attack, but its soloists felt they had an underlying safety net and could therefore take off to play a whole series of adventurous things.  Lester Young in particular, a musician of extraordinary imagination, at last felt free to improvise back and forth across the bar lines in a surging, extended way, the equal of which jazz had never known before.  Lester was a genuine revolutionary with what he said through his instrument, but even revolutions require a large measure of surrounding support.

So Basie has described Freddie Green as the man who holds the band together, adding that this is based on the invariably reliable nature of his swing.  The guitarist himself views his principal function rather differently.  ‘A performance has what I call a rhythmic wave,’ he has said.  ‘And the rhythm guitar can help to keep that wave smooth and accurate.  I have to concentrate on the beat, listening to how smooth it is.  If the band is moving smoothly, then I can play whatever comes to mind.’

Others have been in a position to extol his musical virtues much more highly though.  Especially the band’s leading arrangers—men such as Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins and Quincy Jones.  As the latter put it: ‘That man Freddie Green is a sort of spirit.  He doesn’t talk loud and he doesn’t play loud.  But man! - you sure know he’s there.  The brass and reeds can be up there shouting away, but there’s Freddie, coming right through it all, steady as a rock and clear as a bell.  He’s something special.  What he represents is the only one of its kind in existence.’

This reference by Quincy to one’s being always aware of the guitarist with Basic, even when the band is at full ensemble and playing double forte, touches upon the other important feature of his contributions to the thousands of appearances and hundreds of recordings over the years.  In addition to his knowledgeable guarding of the band’s rhythmic style and feeling, there is a unique quality of sound.  When moving his fingertips over the strings, the effect he produces is deceptively light and airy.  It’s also unusually clean, with no nail scrapings.  But at the same time the sound is very true, and it does have a cutting edge to it, which comes through against any odds once his strumming has hit that vital beat.  There isn’t much rise or fall in the actual level of the sound although obviously it tends to become more exposed when there is just an improvised solo on the go.  Mainly it is the fine finish and the controlled incisiveness of the string tone which make him so easy to recognize.  Listening to him on, say, the tremendous ‘Jazz Giants 56’ LP (recorded for Norman Granz) with Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson and, appropriately, Jo Jones, one realizes that the strength of his sound is exactly balanced by its purity.  The guitar is an audible constant for every bar of the way: lightly touched, ringing without being unduly echoey, but above all clear-cut, a reminder of where the section is gaining its cohesion and lift.

Before the Basie band’s first - ever tour of Britain in 1957 there were a number of significant personnel changes from the one I’d listened to earlier in France.  Sonny Payne had replaced Gus Johnson, Bill Graham was playing second alto instead of Ernie Wilkins and Bill Hughes had just joined on trombone.  Added to which there was the new and considerable impact of singer Joe Williams.  Understandably, therefore, the leader appeared nervous during the hours between arrival and the opening date (a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with as its special VIP Princess Margaret).  Having been kept out of the country for so long, due to a Musicians Union ban, it was terribly important to him that the band made a good showing.

In fact, he needn’t have worried.  The jazz - starved fans gave the players a fantastic reception anyway.  But while the first half of the concert was very good indeed, the Count’s somewhat apprehensive attitude resulted in its being played ever so slightly ‘safe’.  The ensemble work was quite magnificent with just a touch of restraint.  The solos were skillful and imaginative, but never completely uninhibited.

In the interval backstage between the halves I was then a witness to one of Freddie Green’s celebrated asides to Basie.  As always it was delivered in gentlemanly fashion, but the gist of it came across plainly.  ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we’ve got to let it all swing out more this second time.  Those people out there, they can take it.  That’s what they came for.  They know our music already from records.  They’re on our side, but they expect us to swing the most…so that’s the way it’s gonna have to be.’  His leader didn’t say a word; just nodded in agreement, and Freddie moved along to have a word with drummer Sonny Payne.

With the wraps truly off, that next half proved a sensation.  From the leader’s opening piano introduction - economic, as usual - to the final shouting, swinging climax and with a full hour in between the British jazz scene had heard nothing to compare with it.  The solos by Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Henry Coker and the two Franks were stunning.  And at the end the people in the audience were still stunned - for at least six seconds, until they broke out into a gigantic ovation (standing, of course!).  At which point my eyes happened to be on ‘Mister Rhythm’ as he put his guitar down.  He in turn was looking across at Basie.  The latter was preparing to take his first bow; but before he did so I noticed the brief, satisfied smiles of understanding that passed between the two men.  -Written in 1982 by Raymond Horricks

Epilogue: Freddie Green died suddenly in 1987.  He had remained with the continuing Basie band, led in turn by Thad Jones and since then by Frank Foster.

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