Grant Green was a jazz guitarist who recorded as band leader and side man with the majority of musicians who passed through the Blue Note doors during those special years between 1960 and 1965 (see footnote below). His name appears on over one hundred albums, including thirty under his own name, making him Blue Note’s most recorded artist. Later in the sixties and early seventies he created some of the coolest and hottest rare-groove and small ensemble jazz-funk there is. Some critics even elevate him to the status of forefather of acid jazz.
Jazz singer/guitarist superstar George Benson has a story about how he met Wes Montgomery - Green’s direct competition for years and the more commercially successful - at a bar where Green was playing after both he and Wes had independently snuck in to listen and learn.
Green’s influence also reaches beyond the jazz world. In 1995 Madonna sampled part of Green’s album Alive! (Blue Note - 1970, CDP 7243-5-25650-2-3, reissued 2000) for her one of her own albums.
The recordings of Grant Green have been a steady part of Blue Note’s re-mastering and re-issuing since the legendary label was resurrected by Capital Records in 1986. In February 2001 at the largest record store in Canada, I saw a classic Grant Green album from 1963, Idle Moments (detailed later in this article) prominently displayed in the middle of a special “top twenty” rack - alone among ten or fifteen Ken Burns’ Jazz samplers.
However, despite all this, and a definite rise in sales of his music in the 1990s, he is still not a household name among the jazz consuming public or even among those who love jazz guitar. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone.
THE COMPLETE QUARTETS WITH SONNY CLARK
In 1997, I marched into the jazz section of a large record store in downtown Toronto looking for guitar music that for some reason I thought must exist. I had been appreciating David Gilmore’s clear, note-by-note guitar work on the classic psychedelic rock albums of Pink Floyd and had been discovering and listening to a lot of jazz around the same time. I found a store attendant and asked if there was such a thing as sixties jazz with guitar featured very prominently, playing mostly single notes without a lot of chord strumming. The young attendant, to whom I now owe reams, smiled wisely and without saying a word handed me a specially priced 2-CD set entitled Grant Green: The Complete Quartets With Sonny Clark (Blue Note - 1961/62, CDP 7243-8-57194-2-4, reissued 1997). I had never heard of him. The cover art was an up-close photograph in green tint of a cool, young, cardiganned, black guitarist playing his instrument - no sense of posing. Recorded in late 1961 and early 1962, it featured Sonny Clark on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Louis Hayes or Art Blakey (of the jazz Messengers) on drums. A brief in-store audition confirmed that it was close to what I had been idealizing so I bought it.
A few days later during one of my early weekend jazz mornings I played it. I listened from my kitchen while washing dishes. Indeed, I had got what I’d asked for. This guy was playing more “notey” than I had ever imagined. Several tracks went by without a single chord. I was delighted. Months earlier I had sampled several other well known jazz guitarists, old and new, and had been disappointed. They were either too buttery, syrupy, atmospheric or too quiet in relation to the rest of the ensemble. As well, I had been turned off by what sounded like too many accessory chords muddying things up. Compared to those precedents, there was an abnormally up-front, straight-talking and sincere quality in what I was hearing from Grant Green.
I noticed as his improvisation became dense or fast that not a single note seemed superfluous. The minutiae were completely intelligible, and digestible. There also seemed to be a bottomless supply of vital, rhythmic propulsion and often a bluesy undertone.
When the band got into My Favourite Things (Rogers & Hammerstein), I walked out in front of my loudspeakers into my main room and stood frozen, slightly off axis, hands dripping. I could hardly believe my ears. In retrospect, that was the moment where I learned what is meant by a jazz musician “telling a story”. If you’ve heard that expression but have never felt comfortable with it give yourself a break and listen to some Grant Green for clarification.
Considered too progressive for Green’s soul-jazz following at the time of recording, the sessions underlying The Complete Quartets first languished in vaults for 18 years but in 1980 were released on vinyl as three separate albums - Airegin was issued in the U.S. while Oleo and Gooden’s Corner were issued only in Japan. Then Blue Note remastered them and made them all available in 1997. According to the liner notes, the sessions had gained legendary status. I can only assume this meant among jazz guitar aficionados including the Japanese.
I highly recommend The Complete Quartets as the first buy of Grant Green in general. It is the most concentrated representation I know of music from the phase he is most loved for. There’s no mention of the remastering techniques but it’s one of the best sounding, ultra clean Grant Green productions available. The standard-loaded program features themes by Porter, Gershwin, Rogers, Hammerstein, Rollins, Davis, and three ultra-Green numbers by the man himself. Michael Cuscuna who produced the reissue describes Green’s performance in these sessions as “..that kind of dressed up strut …a reminder of just how classy bebop could sound.” I couldn’t put it better. And, it’s cheap to buy.
Since that fateful morning in 1997, I’ve collected nineteen more Grant Green CDs. Despite substantial changes in his repertoire over the years my enjoyment of them all is consistently fuelled by that original discovery that jazz guitar can be as articulate, as direct, as bright and as propulsive as Grant Green makes it.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
An account of Grant Green’s life and career was recently written by his daughter-in-law Sharony A. Green in a book entitled, Grant Green: Rediscovering The Forgotten Genius Of Jazz Guitar (Miller Freeman Books, 1999, ISBN 0-87930-556-8). It’s a good supplement to any collection of his albums filled with bittersweet anecdotes and delivered in a warm, conversational style. It also features loads of Francis Wolff’s photographs of Green in action (see footnote also) and a discography. There is some confusion among liner notes and other sources about biographical points such as dates so I’ve used Ms. Green’s book as the “final word”.
Grant Green’s rise and career isn’t unique in the jazz world. It begins in poverty - he took drugs - he was hard on his health - he became a Muslim. Outside his music he is difficult to aggrandise. His later career is a prime example of a common metamorphoses many solid jazz musicians underwent during the sixties from more traditional jazz roots into funkier, groovier styles. However, where many didn’t survive the changes with their musical integrity intact Grant Green is one of the few who did and who helped fertilize new styles during the late sixties and early seventies.
Like his music, Grant Green doesn’t come with a lot of accessories. He wasn’t flamboyant, or abnormally neurotic, or frenetic, or noticeably eccentric, or egotistical, according to all accounts. This is key to understanding the unique angst of Grant Green. The only place to experience his majesty is in his music and it is strangely concentrated there. However, one anecdote in Ms. Green’s biography stands out at me which I leave to the end of this article.
Born in St. Louis in 1935, Grant Green grew up absorbing the popular styles of the times, big band and boogie-woogie. His first exposure to live performance came from his father and uncle who played amateur “Muddy Waters type” blues on their guitars. At some point, his father acquired a Harmony guitar and amplifier for the boy so he could play along. Green later claimed his primary musical influences were Charlie Christian (1919-1942, pioneer of the electric guitar and its single-noted potential) and Charlie Parker (1920-1955, saxophone, “inventor” of bebop). Green is quoted, “I used to sit up all night copying Parker solos note by note”. This is a cliché statement by any jazz musician after Parker generally - although slightly less for a guitarist and it does indicate Green’s early focus on playing bright, pointed notes as if a horn player himself.
By age thirteen (1948), he was playing professionally in churches and went on to local rhythm-and-blues and jazz ensembles. By age twenty-four (1959) he had reached the status of a hot professional player and had steady gigs at better clubs and venues in and around St. Louis. He had taken one year of formal lessons in St. Louis with a man named Forrest Alcorn, but was otherwise self-taught.
During his career he played the Epiphone Emperor guitar, a Gibson ES-330, a Gibson L-7, and apparently it was a dream come true when at some point he acquired a hand-carved, arched-acoustic D’Acquisto New Yorker Deluxe with a custom low-impedance pickup made specially for him. For amplification, he used a Gibson Les Paul LP-12 which came with four 12-inch cones and two ten-inch horns. George Benson claims he had the bass and treble turned all the way down and the midrange all the way up. He always played with a pick and almost never used distortion or other effects, except occasionally tremolo.
GRANT’S FIRST STAND
In 1959, Lou Donaldson, saxophonist and talent scout for Blue Note heard Green playing in a St. Louis club. He later invited him to New York where he introduced him to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the founders of the label. At some point Green was hired as a staff guitarist.
In 2001 a new album of “previously unissued” material from late 1960 entitled Grant Green First Session (Blue Note - 2001, CDP 7243-5-27548-2) was issued. The Blue Note website states: “Considering the demand for Grant Green, this historically significant recording should have great impact in the jazz world.” However, the liner notes also point out examples of Green’s nervousness and lack of confidence during this his very first session at Blue Note and that the material had originally been deemed too weak to make a proper album. Perhaps in 2001 Blue Note is scraping the barrel a bit - but I rather have it come out than not.
In early 1961 Green recorded his first material as a side-man which was issued on a Blue Note record - Lou Donaldson’s Here `Tis - and within five days he recorded his first issue as a band leader, Grant’s First Stand (Blue Note - 1961, CDP 7243-5-21959-2-3, reissued 1999).
Grant’s First Stand is a required buy for even the most basic of Green collections. Aside from being the official first, it also epitomizes the classic and somewhat raw-sounding guitar/drums/organ trio setting for which he had been admired beginning in St. Louis. It features Baby Face Willette grinding the organ and Ben Dixon working the drums. All three musicians sustain a top-notch barrage of blowin’ from beginning to end. Green is fully exposed and given tonnes of room to stretch - the result is as up-close as Green gets. In the original liner notes he is quoted, “I don’t get hung up with the piano or organ with a lot of chord clusters - it gets cluttered.” Robert Levin adds, “Green’s lines …always to be informed by the blues.”
Grant’s First Stand is sonically superb - period considerations taken. I think every Green album from Blue Note was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder (AM’s idol, the legendary recordist) except for Live At The Lighthouse which is detailed later. Van Gelder is probably the only contractor for Blue Note who worked with more people than Green. However, credit should also go to Ron McMaster who oversaw the 24-bit transfer to digital and remastering in 1999, as well as many other fine Blue Note reissues.
And so the floodgates opened. Within one year Grant Green recorded over twenty-four sessions as leader or side-man - material which would appear on twenty-six different albums. He quickly developed a reputation as a reliable, easy to work with and friendly musician who was extremely flexible as to the styles he could play including all genres of jazz. Later he would be criticized for becoming too commercial and playing only top 40 tunes but in fact he always played popular tunes. He also composed a handful - some of which have become standards among guitarists - but the majority of his work was interpretation, stylization and improvisation of popular melodies. “It’s all music,” he once said.
Green was also known for looking abnormally relaxed while playing. Definitely photogenic, he was a favourite subject of Francis Wolff’s photography. Joe Goldberg also identified Green’s unique straight-forwardness in the liner notes for a 1963 album Am I Blue, “…the kind of music one might hear in a small club at night when the musicians are primarily playing for themselves.” This is describing the essential character of classic Blue Note recordings and Grant Green could be considered the quintessential Blue Note musician.
Of the thirty albums under Grant Green’s own name, Idle moments (Blue Note RVG 7243 4 99003 2 5, re-reissued 1999) is the one which critics and historians are most likely to mention if they mention him at all. His name is missing from several authoritative jazz references - including, of course, Ken Burns’. (Chuck Israels pointed out in his reaction to Jazz that Wes Montgomery wasn’t mentioned - an equal deficiency, in my opinion.)
An unnamed writer on the Blue Note web site described Idle Moments beautifully, “time is suspended on four haunting, extended tunes by this brilliant guitarist with the aid of an all-star cast …`Ballads for the Ages’.” Idle Moments indeed offers a prime example of Green’s most sensitive depths, his evocative way of varying tone and subtle vibrato. The rest of the band were Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Duke Pearson on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Al Harewood on drums, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Hutcherson’s dramatic vibes are a special treat. I have converted people to vibes and jazz guitar simultaneously with this album.
In 1998, Idle Moments was re-remastered and re-re-released (!) as part of the RVG series - a “best of the best” collection specially prepared by Rudy Van Gelder himself using a new 24-bit digital transfer. The sound is top-notch, ultra-crisp. I highly recommend this release as another required buy in any basic Grant Green collection. Idle Moments isn’t the most explosive in Green’s discography. It is perhaps his most poetic - and this is precisely why I recommend it.
From the beginning Green was also a master of groove. He had an unmatched ability for creating a series of long-arching roll-overs from one groovy idea into the next and being relaxed with it while never loosing the distinctions of the different notes. He also had a highly infectious habit of repeating a figure of one, two or three notes over and over while subtly inverting rhythmic accent with growing intensity, twisting and departing every which way from the ground beat but always with a rock-solid return to it. These are highly characteristic and effective signatures of Grant Green who is indisputably the master of them.
When groove became an emphasis of many commercially successful bands in the mid sixties - Green began to connect a series of his grooves together. Just before ending one he would open up another and another, a sort of groove within-a-groove within-a-groove thing. This particular technique struck the bull’s-eye. The universe seems to turn inside out over and over - and it could be dangerous for people with a possibility of heart-beat confusion.
By 1966, with lots of albums out but frustrated with relatively small financial gains, Grant Green put together his own band to tour clubs and record for a few other labels including Cobblestone, Verve, Prestige, CTI, and Versatile. He had witnessed his direct competitor and the somewhat more technical player Wes Montgomery enjoy benefits and fame generated by big record label marketing where his own name was, he felt, only celebrated within the core of the jazz world.
However, in 1968 Wes Montgomery died. It was sudden, at age 43. Shortly after, Grant Green returned to Blue Note with hopes of entering the position of premier black jazz guitarist now that it was vacant and to continue interpreting popular tunes with a groovier and definitely funky style including mainstream hits from completely outside the jazz repertoire. In particular, he had been admiring the music of James Brown. Critics are split on the result. Some lament it as a commercial sell-out. In my opinion, he adapted wonderfully. His basic values co-inhabit both phases of his discography (except for the very end, unfortunately) and it is a beautiful thing to see how those values sail right through an otherwise drastic transition completely intact.
Don’t make the mistake of not giving both phases equal consideration. I did. I actually bought one from 1970, turned my elitist nose up at it, took it back and then bought it again two years later. Now it’s a keystone in my collection. Also, they are an excellent means for anyone interested to test the waters of the funkier without loosing sight of “jazz proper”.
Beginning with the appropriately named Carryin’ On (Blue Note - 1969, CDP 7243-8-31247-2-5, reissued 1995) Green and a new band laid down some jazz-funk and rare-groove masterpieces - works which have been a major inspiration to and sampled by other performers as far abreast from the core of jazz as Public Enemy. Carryin’ On is the best example I know of the coolest as opposed to the hottest - cool with steady thrust and tension, not anaesthesia. It features Claude Bartee on tenor saxophone, Willie Bivens on vibes, Clarence Palmer or Earl Neal Creque on electric piano, Jimmy Lewis on Fender electric bass, and Idris Muhammad on extremely cool drums. For Idris fans, this album is also a must.
The five tracks on Carryin’ On include, I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open The Door I’ll Get It Myself), by James Brown and Cease The Bombing by Earl Neal Creque (on electric piano). My fantasy for this dreamy yet sober number is of floating peacefully by hang glider in warm sunlight high above some unspeakable violence in a distant land below. When Green begins to play after a long introduction it’s as if the sun emerges from behind a cloud, affected by the spectacle but aloof in its own timelessness. Carryin’ On, like Idle Moments, isn’t the most explosive Grant Green album. However, it’s definitely a “grower”.
Regarding sound quality, it is somewhat less crisp and impressive than others but it’s suitably sweet and comfortable to my ears, not at all pre-emptive. I recommend Carryin’ On as the first purchase of any second-phase Grant Green albums.
LIVE AT THE LIGHTHOUSE
In 1970 Green moved to Detroit, establishing himself as a local celebrity. He lived on Greenlawn Street and at some point had got himself a Green Cadillac. He was notorious for choosing album and track titles based on his name such as Green Is Beautiful, an album, and Green’s Greenery, a song title.
Live At The Lighthouse (Blue Note - 1972, CDP 7243-4-93381-2-8, reissued 1998) is the hottest of all Grant Green’s albums. If you want to immediately impress your friends with the second phase this is the one. Watch out, it’s an ultra-fiery, live concert extravaganza by a band of seven, filled with emotional outpourings and dense, electrifying group work-outs. Hank Stewart describes the event in the original liner notes as, “a pot of soul that literally boiled over and scorched the audience.” This sort of thing is the antithesis of easy listening.
Recorded at the legendary Lighthouse club in Hermosa Beach, California it was the last album Green recorded for Blue Note. It features a relatively large group (get ready); Claude Bartee on soprano & tenor saxophones, Gary Coleman on vibes, Shelton Laster on organ, Wilton Felder on Fender electric bass, Greg Williams on drums, and Bobbye Porter Hall on congas and other percussion.
Shelton Laster fathers some killer organ solos especially on his own tune, “Flood In Franklin Park,” some of the boldest tourism on keyboard I’ve ever heard, almost bordering on rock-and-roll. It’s also a potent archive of Green’s second-phase techniques with some of the best of those highly characteristic repetitions, pleading double-stops (two notes at a time), slides, and insistent trills. Originally recorded by Dino Lappas and remastered using “20-bit Super Bit Mapping” by Ron McMaster, the sound quality is very “live” and quite busy sounding. The heads and tails of each track are filled with hollers, hoots, and spirited comments from the crowd. Alas, together with the large band the sound occasionally gets a bit bunched up and messy. However, I find it all well within my audiophile’s tolerance considering the music. And, don’t be thrown by the hideous cover art. Consider instead the possible symbolism: face within-a-face equals groove within-a-groove (?)
If you love Live At The Lighthouse and/or Carryin’ On and just want more or can’t find either, get Iron City (1970 - 32 jazz 32048 - reissued 1997). It’s a trio with organ and drums (Big John Patton and Ben Dixon respectively) and a studio album. The overall intensity is about 50% of Lighthouse but it provides the same extreme, funkified groove although with a darker atmosphere than any other Grant Green album and a strong blues element. I’m embarrassed to say - it’s the one I bought twice.
In the liner notes of Live At The Lighthouse Bob Belden writes, “Grant probably did not expect his music to be `rediscovered’ by a new generation of jazz fans and musicians. Living life in real time took up most of his time. He was (and maybe still is) an enigma to the current jazz world, and his old friends and band mates are reluctant to talk about him. He had a sound which reached into the lives and souls of his peers.”
For many, Live At The Lighthouse (1972) marks the end of an era. I have one of the albums which came after it listed in Ms. Green’s discography, Easy (1978) - his very last, on some label. It’s so horrible I can hardly make mention of it and I’m afraid the other two might be the same. It’s the worst of the worst elevator music made of overdubbed studio strings and horns, muffled, and Green sounds buried. I almost cried when I heard it and I still haven’t listened to the whole thing. I encourage you to pick up either Carryin’ On, Live At The Lighthouse, or Iron City first before any of the other from the second phase just to be safe, and then work from there. Unfortunately, around and after 1972 might be a minefield.
Grant Green never reached the position as premier black jazz guitarist which seemed to open up to him when Wes Montgomery died. Adding to things, the young George Benson and other guitarists arrived on the scene with a greater emphasis on technicality and speed than ever before and were affecting public expectations.
In the notes accompanying Fist Session John Scofield is quoted, “at that time [seventies], speed was everything …Green played everything as if it were slowed down …It was only later that I realized the he swung hard. I saw him at Connelley’s in Boston with an organ group and it was mostly funk …He had unstoppable swing.”
Green also struggled financially most of his life and in 1979 with money pressures high, in poor health, and at the end of a tour he shouldn’t have taken, he died of a heart attack in a car on the way to a Harlem Hospital. He was 43 years old - same age as Wes.
Ms. Green’s biography presented several reports of his funeral and burial but she was never able to actually find his gravesite - even consulting his sons. One report said his funeral began as a Christian ceremony but was interrupted when a black Muslim leader accompanied by members of a black Muslim militant group suddenly marched in, took over the proceedings and converted it to a Muslim ceremony - and that they took his coffin away to some unknown place.
Since my discovery of Grant Green, I’ve also come to know the music of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, John Scofield and others, each masters of jazz guitar. I don’t propose that any are superior to any other in any musical or technical sense - each presents a different set of values and talents.
However, Grant Green was absolutely the clearest storyteller.
Grant Green’s music has enhanced my experience of all other jazz and related forms because of the effortless practice I’ve had from it in catching and appreciating every nuance of improvised solos. In 2000, I bought a Gibson L-7 and began to take up jazz guitar myself after a seven year break from my musical training.
I close with the words of M.C. Hank Stewart which open Live At The Lighthouse:
“…alright now, sit back, relax, let your mind unwind. Let the cobwebs-and-fog slip on outta your ears, and slide on down your shoulders …let Grant Green share his love…”
What’s so special about Blue Note?
What makes the label so unique, and eminently collectible is its consistency of personality, what is known as the “Blue Note sound.” The label was founded in 1939 in New York by two German immigrants named Alfred Lion (d.1987) and Francis Wolff (d.1972). Lion, the extravert, fell in love with jazz as a boy in Germany. Until he retired in 1966, Blue Note documented thousands of the very best moments during the most fertile years in modern jazz history. Many legendary musicians were given their first major recording exposure as band leaders such as Thelonius Monk (piano), Jimmy Smith (organ), and Art Blakey (drums). Despite being eaten up by larger record labels later on, many of these artists’ recordings for Blue Note turned out to be the most enduring and beloved by jazz fans. For musicians, Blue Note was a favourite place to work. Rehearsals were paid and many describe with fondness a unique :family” atmosphere which existed there. For Lion, the music had to “swing,” and that was that. Equally influential, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s pioneering passion for high fidelity and wonderful sense of sonic directness, warmth, and balance made Blue Note’s sound the reference for sonic designers in jazz. Wolff, the introvert, contributed thousands of his own in-the-moment photographs of artists taken during rehearsals and actual recording sessions. Many were later incorporated by Ried Miles into highly inventive and considerate cover art and together these two men gave the label its characteristic look. By staying with it for many years, this small group of uncompromising personalities created a unity of sound, feel, and look in a body of recordings which to this day is unmatched.
The classic Blue Note years ended in 1966 when Lion retired and the company was sold to Liberty records. But in 1981, producer Michael Cuscuna began re-issuing Blue Note recordings, and in 1986 the label was reborn as a registered trademark and active division of Capital records. From the nineties onward, there has been a steady stream of re-issues combining cutting-edge remastering technology using original tapes, and presenting original album covers (reduced for CD) and original liner notes. Grant Green’s albums have been a major part of that output. Green once described Lion and Wolff as “gods of jazz who knew music and loved the business.” If I had three seconds to tell someone how to buy their first jazz album I would say, “any classic Blue Note”.
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