Book Excerpt: Journal of Southern History
Book: Journal of Southern History
In 1930, at the age of nineteen, Freddie Green left Charleston, South Carolina, for New York to try his luck in the music business. He got a day job upholstering furniture and played various clubs in Harlem, where, as Billie Holiday would later describe it, "Every night the limousines would wheel uptown. The minks and ermines would climb over one another to be the first one through the coal bins or over the garbage pails into the newest spot that was 'the place.'" Soon, Green recalled, "I moved to the Black Cat, in Greenwich Village, and hadn't been there long when John Hammond started coming in and listening." Hammond was a record producer and talent scout who arranged for Green to audition for a new band he had just brought east from Kansas City. As Count Basie remembered it, "John told me something about a young guitarist. He said he thought he would be good for the band." The strong individuals in his rhythm section had a tendency to go their own way. Their styles did not always mesh, and they often played in their own tempos, pulling against rather than with one another. Perhaps a guitarist could focus their attention and unite them into a more coherent unit. "Hammond brought his man in there," Basie related, "and I said, 'Why don't we just play?' and we played maybe one song with a couple of choruses, and when I heard that much, I knew that was all that was necessary." Freddie Green, he added, "was on the bus the next day when we went to Pittsburgh."
Freddie Green's sly, self-effacing strumming, like a bird hiding its head beneath a wing, would become one of the most distinctive sounds in jazz. His guitar was un-amplified, and he rarely took a solo. But his unfettered, freewheeling energy made him the essential element in what came to be called the "All-American rhythm section." His playing is almost imperceptible on recordings; but the band heard him, and his faint but fluid strumming became its heartbeat, the force that made the Count Basie band the swingingest band in jazz history. "I'm a quiet guy," said Green. "Not shy, mind you, just quiet. I like to be there on the sidelines, but near the big action." Freddie Green sat within touching distance of Count Basie, near the big action, for the next forty-seven years, until Basie's death. Altogether he played almost fifty years with the Basie band, until--as a Harlem newspaper put it--he himself joined "Basie's Heaven Gig."