Book Excerpt: A New History of Jazz

Author: Alyn Shipton
Copyright: 2001
Publisher: Continuum - London and New York
ISBN: 0-8264-4754-6

Pages 312 and 313

Basie's instincts told him that, however good Claude Williams might have been as a violinist, he was not up to the mark as a guitarist, as his rather woolly rhythm playing on a piece like the January 1937 recording of "Swinging At The Daisy Chain" demonstrates.  What the band needed most to support its brass and reed soloists was a rhythm section as dependable and swinging as that which Benny Moten had on his recording of "Blue Room."

John Hammond - always out to help Basie - had his eye on a suitable replacement.  He teamed up his prospect, Freddie Green, with a contingent of Basie sidemen, plus Benny Goodman, to record with Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday on January 25, 1937, and on a series on famous discs including "Why Was I Born?"  This line-up proved that Green's rhythm playing was a perfect fit with that of Walter Page and Jo Jones.  Hammond also introduced Basie to Green, who auditioned at the Roseland, and joined the band in the spring of 1937, around the time of the Chatterbox broadcasts from Pittsburgh, which were to be William's valedictory recordings with the Basie orchestra.

With Green's arrival, Basie's redefinition of the four-to-the-measure swinging rhythm section was complete.  The change that had begun with Moten's "Blue Room" came full circle, and although Jimmie Blanton's subsequent work with Ellington, and Milt Hinton's with Calloway, were to have more effect on the way bebop musicians were to go about approaching a rhythm section's work in the following decade, Basie set the standard for the swing era, consolidating all the rhythmic change pioneered in the late 1920's with the adoption of the double bass by Jean Goldkette, Luis Russell, and Duke Ellington.

In true Kansas City style, where musicians had to accommodate any size of group swelled by sitters-in, his rhythm section was just as adept at playing for a small group as it was for the full band, and, from time to time, Basie gathered a septet from his band and recorded with it as the "Kansas City Seven."  Indeed, Basie was wont to tell his sidemen that his big band should swing as if they were "playing like five pieces," and he retained a fondness for working in a smaller line-up throughout his career.  With just such a group, in September 1939, he recorded a remarkable small-band disc that not only displays Freddie Green's deft contribution to the rhythm section - their collective control of dynamics, coupled with Basie's sparse, pared-down piano - but it is also a magnificient example of the light, airy, swinging tenor sax of Lester Young.  "Lester Leaps In", like so many examples of the Basie band's core repertoire, is built on a simple series of riffs, but it opens up! to allow Young an extended opportunity to develop his ideas, with occasional breaks or stops from the rhythm beneath the inexorable flow of his inspired playing.

Green's presence seemed to lift the rhythm section, and one obvious element of it that propelled the band forward, without actually pushing at the tempo itself, was his technique of changing the inversion of a chord on almost every beat, so that even if the harmony was being held for an entire measure or series of measures, he played a different configuration of the chord.

[Editor's note:  This statement is yet another myth about Freddie's playing.  See the "Lessons and Techniques" page of this website for well-reseached discussions of Freddie's rhythm guitar technique.  Also, there are examples on the "Transcriptions" page that illustrate Freddie holding the same voicing for multiple measures, one example is "My Kind Of Girl."]

But that wasn't all, as I discovered from drummer Louis Bellson, who was to play alongside Green in a later version of the band:

"Freddie Green was to me one of the greatest rhythm guitarists I ever heard in my life, because he had a certain stroke with the right hand, that really was a great marriage to the right hand of the drummer, to the right hand of the bass player, and the right hand of pianist.  It was something that you had to watch, because his stroke was not straight up and down, more this way - from the top of the fretboard and back - moving forward about three and four inches and then back again, with just a light pulsation on beats two and four....Freddie was just loud enough so you could feel it...because he blended so perfectly with the bass, the piano, and the drums that if you talk about four guys that were married, that Basie rhythm section - that was it!"

Green's perfect blend with Basie, Page, and Jones created the bedrock for the band to pile on a superstructure of exciting riffs, for the sections to play across each other, and for soloists to play over all of that.  Basie's band had what was generally agreed to be the most out-and out swinging rhythm section of all.

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