Despite the fact that he was an important member of one of the most famous bands in the history of jazz, and during its finest period, drummer Sonny Greer has not been especially well served by jazz historians.
He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December, probably in 1895, in Long Branch, New Jersey. It was in his home state that he made his first professional appearances but by 1919 he was playing in Washington, DC. It was there that he first encountered a local musician who was to change not only the drummer's life, but the lives of everyone who played in his band over the coming decades. This was Duke Ellington. In the early 1920s Greer and Ellington played often together in Washington and in New City. The drummer became one of Ellington's closest acquaintances, and was an integral part of the music the bandleader was creating. Greer was an original member of Duke's Washingtonians which was a five-piece group at its start. A subtle player, whose relaxed style sometimes drifted into casualness and poor timekeeping, Greer's style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band's seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed for in order to realize his compositions. The timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the early years by guitarist Freddie Guy and a little later on by bassist Jimmy Blanton but he played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that the band generated.