Born: March 31, 1911 | Died: March 1, 1987 Primary Instrument: Guitar, acoustic
Freddie Green was the guitarist in what is generally considered to be the best rhythm section in the history of big band jazz, and dubbed the All-American Rhythm Section, which featured Count Basie, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Jo Jones. Green continued with the band until 1987. From the start Green earned a reputation as a stylist without equal, fans and fellow players referred to him as Mr. Rhythm with the utmost respect.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911, he began playing banjo at the age of 12. He got his first job locally with a band called the Nighthawks, then toured with the famous Jenkins Orphanage band, though Green himself was not a member of the school. By 1930, he was living in New York, by playing for dancers with stride men like Willie Gant, his unique abilities to judge tempo and create a supple rhythm were forged.
It was in late 1936 that John Hammond, then putting together Basie's first tour out of Kansas City, heard Green at the Black Cat and brought him to Roseland to audition for the Count. Although Basie liked his current guitarist, Claude Williams, he let him go in favor of Green, who joined the band after the Roseland engagement. Green cut his first sides with Count Basie and his Orchestra, featuring Walter Page, and Jo Jones, for Decca on March 26, 1937, playing rhythm on Honeysuckle Rose, Pennies From Heaven, Swinging At The Daisy Chain, and Roseland Shuffle.
From March 1937, and excepting a short hiatus after Basie's disbandment in 1950, he and Freddie were inseparable, and the jazz world gained immeasurably from their playing. In Green's case, there were three aspects to what might at first sight seem a simple matter. He freed the beat from metronomic clomping by creating a constantly-shifting variation on the chord structure. He afforded his playing quite subtle variations in dynamics by slight changes in string striking position. He blended his playing very carefully with the drummer.
Unlike the majority of his peers, Green did not leave a mighty legacy of solo work, nor even a long list of sessions under his own name. His first, for the Duke label in 1945 with Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, and Lucky Thompson, remains unissued; his second, for RCA in 1955, “Mr. Rhythm,” has been reissued on CD, as has a 1975 date for Concord Records, which above all these, clearly demonstrated his powerful rhythmic gifts.
Count Basie's death in 1984 closed a rich chapter in big band jazz. He and Green had been good friends onstage and off, and Freddie assumed the helm of the group. On March 1, 1987, Freddie Green died of a heart attack after playing a show in Las Vegas. The sad event marked the end of an era in the history of jazz guitar.
Photographs from the late 1930's typically show Freddie playing a sunburst Epiphone Emperor guitar. During the 1940's and 1950's, Freddie seemed to play the Stromberg Master 400 exclusively, usually sunburst, considered to be the Holy Grail among many guitar collectors and often commands prices in excess of $40,000. These large 18-19 arch-tops were revered for their volume and cutting power in an era when electrical amplification was not yet commonplace, especially in big bands. Eventually he made an endorsement deal with Gretsch and began to play their 18-inch Eldorado (usually blonde) non-cutaway until the end of his life.
A key factor that contributed to Freddie Green's sound and volume was the fact that he set his string height, or action very high. This set up increased the pressure of the strings on the bridge and subsequently transferred more energy into the top and body of the instrument, increasing its volume.
Despite the move toward amplification, Green persisted in employing a totally acoustic instrument (although he briefly experimented with a pickup and amp in the late 1940s), apparently feeling secure with Basie and under no pressure to change. In the hands of a lesser player, an acoustic archtop would have seemed like an anachronism after the late 1940s, when the popularity of the big bands waned; however Green played with such finesse, commitment, and class that his music had a vital, timeless quality. While amplification gave guitarists a chance to step into the spotlight as soloists, Green chose to remain behind the scenes in a supportive capacity. Whatever his reasons, he came to be universally recognized as the premier backup guitarist. While aficionados will forever debate the various merits of most other players, there is only one Mr. Rhythm.
Wes Montgomery: It would be alright, but I don't know that many chords. I'd be loaded if I knew that many. I'd probably go join a (big) band and play rhythm, man, because he's (Freddie) not just playing chords, he's playing a LOT of chords.
Tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette, who worked with Basie in the 1950's, said,
I think Basie would be lost without Freddie. If you put the tempo too fast, Freddie kept it down there, always controlled. He's got it right there, in his wrist. And Basie listens to Freddie Green, one reason why he's still successful to this day. He might not listen to me, but he's going to listen to Freddie, because he knows that's where it is. When Walter Page died, the only one he had left was Freddie, the only one he could rely on to keep tempo.
Clarinetist Artie Shaw writes about developing a unique musical style, like that of Freddie Green:
Anybody can work up a set of tricks. The toughest thing is always the least tricky, the least gimmicky, the least fancy, and don't let anybody kid you about that. And that goes for anything - not only music.