Charleston has a significant anniversary to recognize this spring. Freddie Green, the most acclaimed rhythm guitarist in the history of jazz, was born here on March 31, 1911. Freddie Green held the guitar chair in the Count Basie Orchestra for almost 50 years. The band's "All American Rhythm Section" was central to its success, and Mr. Green was arguably its key member.
Freddie Green spent his early years in Charleston. Though not an orphan, he was schooled at the Jenkins Orphanage at 20 Franklin Street. The orphanage has since moved, but the building survives, next door to the old city jail. Mr. Green received solid musical instruction there, and joined the Jenkins Orphanage Orchestra as a banjo player.
For decades the Jenkins Orphanage Orchestra supported the orphanage with long tours of the United States. One such tour in the mid-1920s took the group, and Freddie, to New York City. As the orchestra left for home Freddie chose to stay behind, to test his mettle in the city's burgeoning jazz scene. He began working clubs with his banjo and taught himself to play the guitar. As his skills increased so did his reputation. He soon found steady work as a guitarist.
The Count Basie Orchestra was, like Freddie, talented and ambitious. In 1936 the record producer/talent scout John Hammond persuaded the band to move from Kansas City to New York. The band showed tremendous promise but suffered a few instrumental shortcomings. Hammond arranged for Freddie to audition with the Basie band in March of 1937; he was hired a short time later. Excepting a few brief interruptions Freddie remained with the band until his death on March 1, 1987.
What made the "All American Rhythm Section" so great? All big band rhythm sections are tasked with maintaining the beat. The best ones, though, do so in a way that is at the same time inspiring to the other musicians and unobtrusive. Rhythm sections that play dense chords, play too busily or attach a leaden emphasis to the beat, clutter up the sound and get in the way of the other players. To saddle the Count Basie Orchestra with such a rhythm section would be like putting square wheels on a Ferrari.
The four original members of the Basie rhythm section, on piano, bass, drums and guitar, met this challenge brilliantly. Their playing exhibited superb musicianship and taste, and left a lot of room for the other band members to shine. Most of us are familiar with Mr. Basie's understated style on piano, dropping just the right chords and single notes in just the right spaces. It's not so well known that the other three players were gifted innovators.
Walter Page, the bassist, was a respected former bandleader in his own right. He was among the first to adopt a walking bass style, playing mostly quarter notes to create an independent melody that complemented the rest of the band. Papa Jo Jones was a drummer of genius. He, along with Kenny Clarke and others, pioneered a shift in the drummer's approach to the drum set. Earlier jazz drummers, taking their cue from their marching band roots, supported the beat by playing quarter notes on the bass drum. Papa Jo shifted the drummer's timekeeping role from the bass drum to the hi-hat and ride cymbals; the other pieces of the kit were used mostly to provide accents. As such, Jones' revolutionary style supported the beat just as forcefully as before, but with an unmistakable boost in musicality and expression. Mr. Jones' work with brushes and hi-hat is particularly admired in drumming circles to this day.
What of Freddie Green's own contributions to the rhythm section? For one thing, he was the band member most responsible for establishing the beat. His sense of tempo was impeccable; even Basie yielded to Freddie when it came to tempo selection. Mr. Green set the beat by playing quarter-note chords -- he almost never soloed. Someone with way too much time on his hands once estimated that Freddie played a quarter billion quarter-note chords over the course of his career.
Beyond this, Freddie conceived and perfected an ingenious approach to his playing. I will only touch on the way he constructed his chords here, although there is much more to discuss. Freddie Green formed his chords with the fingers of his left hand as you would expect, but he would usually press down on just one to four of the six strings. He would mute the other strings. When he struck a chord, the muted strings produced a short percussive accent, subtly announcing the beat to the other musicians. The pressed down strings produced musical tones that were sustained for the full length of the quarter note. Remarkably, Freddie selected the pressed strings on the fly to complement whatever Basie, Page and Jones were doing. This was true jazz improvization.
These four musicians played as one, unobtrusively, in perfect time and with an irresistible sense of swing. This allowed the rest of the band to soar. Soloists like singers Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday, trumpeter Buck Clayton, tenor player Lester Young and others were able to weave their magic with absolute confidence.
So long as jazz lives Freddie Green's memory will never die. We of Charleston can be proud of our association with him. May he be remembered and honored on his 100th birthday.
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