Basie Metronome is Silent

By Nels Nelson, Daily News Jazz Columnist

Source: Philadelphia Daily News, Friday, March 6, 1987, JAZZ OBIT

Oh, how I am going to miss Freddie Green! The irony of that remark is, I never met him, though he had been part of my life -- and yours, I am sure -- for all of 49 years.

Freddie Green was the best-known big band rhythm guitarist of all time. He was one quarter of the world's greatest rhythm section for many years, and, until last Sunday, when he was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room, its only surviving member. (The others, in order of departure, were Walter Page, bass; Count Basie, piano; and Jo Jones, drums.) Freddie would have been 76 on March 31. He died with his boots on.

If it weren't for his instrument, a vehicle of virtually metronomic accuracy somewhat akin to the gyroscopic device that keeps an ocean liner on even keel, Freddie might as well have been invisible - and mute, for all the talking he did.

Everybody knew Freddie best as the pulse of the Count Basie band, from 1937 forward, and I, certainly was no exception. What did Freddie do? Other than to say he provided a pulsating chimk! on the second and fourth beats, it is hard to explain. The best I can do is to say that every time I heard it, it lifted me at least three feet off the floor, and this was years before Shirley MacLaine was even born. At times like these, I, too, am struck speechless and graciously yield the floor to Whitney Balliett.

"The Basie Rhythm Section," wrote Balliett in his 1962 collection, "Dinosaurs in the Morning," "was classic proof of the powers of implication, for it achieved its ball-bearing motion through an almost Oriental casualness and indirection.

"The result was a deceptive sailing-through-life quality that was, like most magic, the product of hard work and a multi-layered complexity... At the top was Basie's piano, which, though most often celebrated for its raindrop qualities, attained its relaxed drive from a skillful pitting of loose right-hand figures against heavy left-hand chords.

"On the next rung came Green, a peerless rhythm guitarist, whose Prussian beat, guidepost chords, and Aeolian-harp delicacy formed a transparent but unbreakable net beneath Basie."

Freddie Green was born in Charleston, S.C. His first instrument was banjo. He got his maiden look at the world at large on a tour with the Jenkins Orphanage Band. He wasn't one of the orphans but he had a friend, trumpeter Cat Anderson, who was.

At 19 he moved to New York and lived there with an aunt, working in an upholstery shop by day and at night picking up invaluable experience, as Stanley Dance relates in "The World of Count Basie," playing rent parties with various stride pianists. John Hammond heard him playing in a Village joint and suggested he audition for Basie at Roeland. So early in 1937, the band finished at Roseland and headed for Pittsburgh, and Freddie was on the bus, and who would have figured practically a half-century on the road with the same band?

The consensus is that Freddie was one sweet man. The guitarist Chauncey "Lord" Westbrook confirms it. Westbrook was in the group accompanying Sammy Davis Jr. a few years back when Davis and Basie played a string of one-nighters together.

"We all used the same bandstand, and I found myself sitting up there with the master, Freddie Green. And when the band was on, Freddie would urge me, 'Go ahead and play,' but I couldn't bring myself to do it with him there, though I did play a couple of choruses of blues on time. He was a very quite person, always helpful, always dropping little pearls of wisdom. I never remember him being angry."

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