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"Count Basie's Left Hand" Comes to the Caroliniana
by Dr. Thomas Johnson
At the funeral of legendary jazz great William James (Count) Basie in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York on April 30, 1984, a South Carolinian at times referred to as "Steady Freddie" was called upon to offer a eulogy. He was so choked up that he only managed to say a few words: "I don't know what to do now that he's gone." He had lost an old friend - and an association that had largely defined his life for almost half a century.
A young Freddie Green around the time he joined the Count Basie Orchestra, circa 1937.
The quiet, unassuming, Charleston-born guitarist Freddie Green - also called "Pep," "Basie's Left Hand," "Mr. Rhythm Guitar," and the heartbeat of the band - joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937, beginning what would become one of the longest-held jobs in jazz history. Green was a part of what band leader Paul Whiteman dubbed the "All-American Rhythm Section" which included Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, and Jo Jones on drums. It remained intact from 1937 to 1948 and came to be considered the finest jazz band ever assembled.
For more information about this collection, view the finding aid to the Freddie Green Papers, 1937-1987 available from Manuscripts Division at SCL.
Processed and opened to researchers in 1999, this collection is one of many described on our selected list of online finding aids.
With the gift of two and a half linear feet of their father's papers, the children of Frederick William Green (1911-1987) have provided the South Caroliniana Library with one of its most interesting and unusual twentieth-century collections. Not only does this collection document Green's reputation as a foremost rhythm guitarist, but it also contains invaluable research material on Count Basie and his band. It furnishes additional evidence of the key role played by Charleston's famous Jenkins Orphanage Band (in which Green played, although he was not an orphan) in the formation of some of America's greatest jazz performers (besides the Freddie Green collection, the Library also has the papers of legendary trumpeter and Jenkins Orphanage alumnus Jabbo Smith). The Green collection enhances the Caroliniana's reputation as a repository of diverse research materials with South Carolina connections but of national and international significance.
"...the greatest rhythm man
in the business and
the pulse of the Basie Band."
Green actually started out playing the banjo as a youngster in Charleston. Trumpeter Sam Walker, the father of one of his friends and an organizer for the Jenkins Orphanage Band, taught Freddie how to read music, encouraged him to learn to play the guitar, and allowed him to perform with the Jenkins group. When his parents died, Green moved to New York to live with his aunt, finish his schooling, and go to work. During that time, he taught himself the intricacies of rhythm guitar. He jobbed around New York during the Depression years, playing rent parties and performing at various clubs, until he wound up at Greenwich Village's Black Cat. There he was discovered by record producer, talent scout, and music critic John Hammond, who introduced him to Basie. From March 1937 on, with only two brief interruptions, Basie and Green worked together and became two of the most influential musicians in jazz.
What was Green's particular genius, his special contribution to Basie's sound and to his organization?
Critic Jim Ferguson has spoken of Green's "flawless timekeeping abilities," which "along with his knack for weaving seamless foundations of three-and four-note chord voicings, [were] the basis of a kinetic accompaniment approach that was an integral part of the most vibrant jazz ever recorded." Whitney Balliett has referred to Green's "Prussian beat, guidepost chords, and aeolian-harp delicacy [which] formed a transparent but unbeatable net beneath Basie."
"Steady Freddie" Green (on left) performing with the Count Basie Orchestra. Count Basie is in the foreground.
From March 1937 on, with only two brief interruptions, Basie and Green worked together and became two of the most influential musicians in jazz.
Click on image.
Philadelphia jazz columnist Nels Nelson, asking the rhetorical question "What did Freddie do?" answered in this way: "Other than to say he provided a pulsating 'chink!' 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. . . ." Jazz historian Leonard Feather characterized him as "the greatest rhythm man in the business and the pulse of the Basie Band." It was Basie who referred to Freddie Green as "my left hand" alluding to the fact that he himself was largely a right-handed piano player. Basie's adopted son, Aaron Woodward II, has stated that "everyone knew Freddie's position was of equal importance to Dad's."
Trumpeter Thad Jones, who directed the band in 1985, remarked that he did not think it was possible to speak of the Basie band without Freddie Green. "He's the link that keeps the tradition alive," he remarked. "If you pruned the tree of jazz," Jim Hall wrote in 1983, "Freddie Green would be the only person left; if you have to listen to one guitarist, study the way he plays rhythm with Count Basie."
The Freddie Green collection
enhances the Caroliniana's reputation as a repository of diverse research materials.
Over the years, in addition to his work with Basie, Green also recorded with Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Emmett Berry, Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and Pee Wee Russell. He made several records of his own, for Duke Records in 1945 and for RCA Victor in the late 1950s.
Not only does the collection document Green's career as a peerless master of the rhythm guitar, but it also comprises an essential resource for tracking Count Basie's work in his last years. At the heart of the collection is a unit of itineraries and travel receipts providing details of all the Count Basie Band tours, domestic and foreign, for the period 1956-1987. Green saved souvenir program books from appearances at the Royal [Command] Performances in London, the jazz festivals in France, Holland, Switzerland and Finland as well as such American performance venues as the 1960 Washington Jazz Jubilee, the 1961 Tribute to Martin Luther King, and the 1979 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.
Copies of Green's royalty statements from 1952 to 1960 attest to the fact that he was a talented composer. These records reveal that he had originated such compositions as "Back and Forth," "Corner Pocket," "The Countess," "The Daily Jump," "A Day with Ray," "Down for Double," "Feed Bag," "Free and Easy," "Little Red," "Right On," "Until I Met You," and "Up in the Blues."
Of special interest and value to researchers are the more than 165 photographs in the collection. The images trace Green's career from his earliest performances up to the 1980s. Included in the collection are an early picture of Green with a band called "Lonie Simmons and His Rhythm Chicks," formal and informal black and white portraits of Green with Basie and the band, and candid snapshots showing Ella Fitzgerald with Green and the Basie outfit in performance at Frankfurt in 1980.
Other noteworthy items in the collection are a copy of Green's 1940 tax return indicating his income for that year with Basie as $3,276.84; Playboy Magazine certificates of merit from its All-Star Jazz Polls of 1957, 1958, and 1963, verifying Green's nomination as outstanding jazz artist for those years; the credentials tags for 1981 and 1985 appearances at the White House; a scrapbook of newspaper clippings regarding Count Basie's death in 1984; and the handwritten copy of the tunes Green chose for the Basie Band to play when he conducted the group while they searched for a new leader following Basie's death.
But perhaps the most poignant items in the collection are two that might easily be overlooked among all the rich and impressive Basie-related material. One is the program for the unveiling of a portrait of the late Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins at the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church in Charleston on the evening of February 28, 1985, which Green must have attended. Jenkins was the founder of the orphanage in whose band Green first performed as a child.
The other is a receipt dated September 3, 1986, and signed by Lillian W. Huger of the Jenkins Orphanage, thanking Mr. Freddie Green of 12171 Madison Avenue, New York, for his donation of $100.
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