From the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Nick Rossi
Freddie Green is synonymous with swing guitar. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1911, Green enjoyed a 50-year career holding down the rhythm chair of Count Basie’s famed big band. Through that association—and due largely to his dedication to using an acoustic archtop as the primary timekeeper in a large jazz ensemble—his name not only is forever tied to an essential element of jazz, but has also become a shorthand term many guitarists know well. It has long been common for a player to be asked to “do a Freddie Green” and be expected to know what that implies: strictly rhythm, all chords, and nothing but steady, swinging quarter notes. But when one surveys the scene in early 1937, when in New York City, Green joined Basie’s orchestra of musicians from Kansas City and the Southwest, it quickly becomes apparent that Green was part of a larger tradition near its peak of practice.
Although Green had lived in New York for several years in the 1920s before returning to Charleston, it was in 1930 that he made a more permanent move to the jazz center of the world. By that time, he had progressed from the ukulele to tenor banjo and found work in Harlem cafes and at house parties accompanying stride piano players. The beat of the music had already started moving towards the 4/4 pulse that came to define the era. In 1933, Green swapped his banjo for a guitar, partly as a result of seeing firsthand what Lonnie Johnson could do with the instrument. But, like Duke Ellington’s rhythm man Fred Guy, whom Green admired and eventually befriended, he was a relative latecomer to the change. Many of the dance and jazz band rhythm sections, both Black and white, featured guitar by the early 1930s due in no small part to the widespread influence and popularity of Eddie Lang. But the period through the first half of the decade was a diverse one, rife with subtly different parallel paths to the same destination: swing.
A Rhythm Innovator
The first major influence on Green’s guitar playing and someone he would point to throughout his life was John Trueheart (1903–1943). Trueheart was born in Virginia and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, where he met a teenage drummer named Chick Webb. Around 1924, after paying dues working excursion boats on Chesapeake Bay with the Jazzeola Orchestra, Trueheart, with Webb in tow, left for Harlem, where they scraped by for years. They fell under the wing of Ellington, himself still on his way up, eventually appearing at the legendary Savoy Ballroom for the first time in February 1927. In the spring of that year, Trueheart, who was jobbing around town as a tenor banjo player, appeared on a recording session with the clarinetist Wilton Crawley that also featured Lang on guitar.
Webb, at Ellington’s urging, had become a bandleader by this time, and Trueheart finally had an opportunity to record with the diminutive drum powerhouse in June 1929. By the date of his second session with Webb that same month—“Jungle Mama,” released as the Jungle Band on Brunswick—Trueheart had begun playing guitar. Although it was his debut recording on the instrument, the sound and feel that captivated Green years later is already present. The quarter-note pulse is steady but persistent, keeping the band moving forward in a light but propulsive manner. As with many early Black swing guitar players, one can hear how important banjo technique was to the approach: the wrist is loose and there is a snap in the strum.
Trueheart had already jettisoned much of the extraneous syncopations that often characterized Jazz Age banjo playing, focusing mostly on even downstrokes and chords voiced to cut through a moderately sized ensemble. With Webb, but playing a banjo, Trueheart can be seen in the 1929 short film After Seben,which, in spite of the overt racism of the time, features a live band performance accompanying the first Lindy Hop dancing captured on celluloid.
Chick Webb entered into a management agreement with Savoy co-owner Moe Gale in 1931, and in between stints backing Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters rose to prominence leading the dance band of choice at New York’s first truly integrated ballroom. While Webb influenced nearly every drummer who followed in his wake, Trueheart was right by his side, tucked in between the trap kit and piano on the bandstand, laying down the rhythm framework for the sound of swing bands yet to come. Occasionally, the arrangement would call for a rhythmic flourish such as the two-bar break in “It’s Over Because We’re Through” (Decca, 1934) or at the start of “Lonesome Moments” (OKeh, 1934).
On the latter, Trueheart demonstrates a 1930s swing guitar device: the four-bar intro, as shown in Example 1. Working primarily with tonic and dominant fifth chord forms, the guitar has the ability to both set the tempo and establish the harmonic framework of the song. As was commonplace early on, Trueheart embellishes these relatively simple chord forms with some slides and chromatics for effect. Of equal importance on a recording such as this is Trueheart’s strong sense of the rhythm pulse of his beat: a steady 4/4 but with some slight syncopated emphasis on offbeats here and there.
The earliest photo of Trueheart holding a guitar shows him with a 16-inch Gibson L-5, as popularized by Lang. But it’s quite likely that by the time he appeared on recordings with such jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald circa 1935–1936, the guitarist had switched to a similarly sized Epiphone, then New York–based and the main competitor of Gibson.
Unfortunately, Trueheart was sidelined for two years due to tuberculosis starting in early 1937. Reflecting their deep friendship, Webb kept the guitarist on the band’s payroll and funded his convalescence near Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Tragically, within months of Trueheart’s return to the band, Webb himself died from the very same disease after having silently suffered through much of his brief life. The guitarist continued with the orchestra under vocalist Fitzgerald’s leadership, but left in the middle of 1940. The rhythm innovator continued to be plagued by his condition and he died in Seaview Hospital, on Staten Island, a year after the same ailment claimed the life of electric jazz pioneer Charlie Christian in the same sanatorium.
An In-Demand Plectrist
Trueheart’s contemporary Bernard “Bunky” Addison (1903–1990) was born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, but came up playing in and around the Washington, D.C., area with future Ellington cornet star Rex Stewart, as well as Ellington’s early rival Claude Hopkins. Addison was initially a mandolin player like his father, but as a teenager he took up the then-popular tenor banjo as his work with dance bands increased. Like Trueheart and Webb, he eventually made his way to Harlem and found work at such night spots as Smalls Paradise. By 1924, he was also appearing on record dates.
Addison shifted his focus to guitar in the late 1920s, inspired in part by the commercial success of Nick Lucas and spurred on by informal lessons given to him by his friend Eddie Lang. In March 1929, as a member of the Wabash Trio, he made his recording debut for Grey Gull Records on the instrument, sounding not unlike Lang but already with traces of the loose but driving approach he would take with the guitar throughout the 1930s. Addison’s characteristic mix of single-string runs and chord accents are also present. Additionally, Addison holds the distinction of being one of the first Black Swing-Era guitarists captured on film: He was seen briefly playing a Master Model L-5 in Dudley Murphy’s St. Louis Blues (1929), starring Bessie Smith.
Through his early associations with innovators and legends such as James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Bubber Miley, and Louis Armstrong, Addison was very much in demand during the dawn of the era. In 1933, he joined one of the most important big bands of the period: Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. For 18 months, he was part of a groundbreaking swing rhythm section that included pianist Henderson, bassist John Kirby, and drummer Walter Johnson. Recordings such as “Happy Feet” (English Parlophone, 1933) reveal Addison’s very personal and slightly idiosyncratic rhythm feel. Using a mix of both down- and upstrokes, at times rife with banjo-like syncopation, Addison pushed the beat with a subtle emphasis on the offbeats. Does it still swing? Of course it does! But, as depicted in Example 2, the effect is perhaps closer to what contemporary guitarists associate with la pompe manouche of Gypsy jazz (see a lesson on this style in the June 2017 issue).
Throughout the remainder of the era, Addison hopped from job to job, working with more of the biggest names in the history of jazz, including Benny Carter, Billie Holiday, Stuff Smith, and Sidney Bechet. An extended engagement backing the Mills Brothers sent him across the Atlantic in mid-1936 and also resulted in a film performance with the vocal group in the English production Sing as You Swing (1937). Work for Addison continued until the start of World War II; he enlisted in September 1942, and although on occasion he returned to performing and recording after the war, he effectively left the business.
Swinging on a String
Cab Calloway led one of the most popular Black orchestras of the 1930s, second to only Duke Ellington’s. Calloway remained one of the most enduring figures of the era, with a career that stretched well into the 1990s. His rhythm man through 1937, and therefore one of the most high-profile players of the time, was the now all-but-forgotten Morris “Fruit” White (1908–1986). Born in Nashville, Tennessee, White grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and was part of a thriving music scene around the St. Louis area.
White (nicknamed for his eating habits) set out on the road as a tenor banjoist with traveling revues, first landing in Chicago and eventually working his way east to Harlem. As a member of a band called the Missourians, White first played the Savoy Ballroom in 1929, around the time the group made its recording debut. But it was a year later that Charlie Buchanan who, with Moe Gale, ran the dance emporium, pivotally paired the St. Louis transplants with vocalist Calloway. Within the year they were nationally known thanks to network broadcasts from the same venue that helped propel Duke Ellington to fame: the Cotton Club.
For White, the transition from banjo to guitar was less abrupt than the band’s rapid rise. He played both instruments on Calloway records well into 1931. Early photographs even show him playing a flattop before acquiring an L-5 around 1932. Much like Bernard Addison, White’s rhythm style also retained stronger banjo elements than many of his contemporaries, notably added syncopation and less of a reliance on pure downstrokes. Similar also to Addison was his mix of both chordal figures and single-string lines during his solo breaks. Breaking with contemporary trends, White was also not afraid to depart from the 4/4 pulse and throw in an accent chord for effect.
All of these characteristic elements, along with a great sense of where White felt the beat of the music, can be heard on Calloway’s 1934 Brunswick recording of the early jazz workhorse “Avalon.” In general, his quarter-note pulse is not very different from Addison’s—perhaps a bit more relaxed with a gentle drive more akin to John Trueheart’s approach. But his loose-wrist banjo-derived approach really reveals its merits in his alternating stroke responses to Walter “Foots” Thomas’ flute. Even his single-string runs, all played on the high E string, are played in a rhythmic manner, like in Example 3a.
Of course, heavy strings and higher action both go a long ways towards swinging on one string, but in White’s case, it’s extremely effective. The banjo experience comes to the fore with the second break (Example 3b), in which White deploys the type of tremolo often associated with the brash metal-bodied instrument. It’s a technique that is best practiced slowly with a lighter-gauge pick at first, switching to a heavier plectrum once speed and even strokes have been developed.
In a number of film appearances with Calloway made during this period, White can be seen exhibiting how similar his right-hand technique is to classic jazz banjo playing of the 1920s. From 1936 onwards, the guitarist was photographed with Gibson’s flagship 18-inch Super 400 guitar, perhaps speaking to the degree of visibility Calloway’s band enjoyed over the course of the decade. His tenure with the group lasted through the era’s high-water-mark years of 1935 to 1937, before he was replaced by another serious rhythm purveyor: New Orleans’ own Danny Barker. White discovered work after Calloway to be surprisingly scarce, and after serving during the Second World War he moved to St. Louis, where he briefly ran a nightclub and eventually started a successful novelty entertainment business.
Fleet-Fingered Chord Work
Although several years younger than Freddie Green, Al Casey (1915–2005) managed to make his recording debut almost three full years before him. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Casey took violin lessons at an early age but never quite took to the instrument. By 1930, his family had moved to New York, where he began exploring the guitar with a like-minded cousin. He showed enough promise and enthusiasm that he was sent to the Martin-Smith Music School in Harlem. Through a family friend, he caught the ear of piano legend Fats Waller, with whom Casey would go on to record and perform upon his graduation from high school. This long association, with one notable break, would last nearly until Waller’s death in 1943.
Over the course of dozens of Victor 78s credited to Fats Waller and his Rhythm, Casey largely defined the role of the guitar in a small group swing band for half a decade. Waller’s tremendous popularity and widespread influence (he was an early mentor of Count Basie among others) ensured that Casey’s buoyant pulse and fleet-fingered chord work was heard by many during the era. His relaxed but steady beat edged closer to where John Trueheart laid down his quarter notes, but he was not shy about using offbeat accents or single-string runs to tie together his ideas either as an accompanist or as a soloist.
Casey’s early 16-inch D’Angelico underpins some of Waller’s best-known and most-loved recordings: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Rosetta,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” and many more. With D’Angelico in hand, Casey is shown backing Waller in a widely circulated 1941 “soundie” (an early film performance that was played back on coin-operated jukebox-like machines) of “Honeysuckle Rose.”
In June of 1937, Waller featured Casey for a full chorus, virtually unheard of at the time, on his Victor recording of “Blue, Turning Grey Over You.” Casey’s final eight bars in particular, similar to Example 4, show some of his favorite harmonic and rhythmic devices. The sixth and ninth chords that he often employed are present, as are his syncopated offbeat accents. Also of note is Casey’s heavier reliance on downstrokes, perhaps due to his focus on the guitar at an early age rather than tenor banjo. Casey also exhibits more internal harmonic movement than many of his Harlem-based contemporaries, something more prevalent in the playing of leading white jazz and dance band players from the same time such as George Van Eps, Carl Kress, or Dick McDonough.
By his own later admission, the earth-shattering arrival of electric guitarist Charlie Christian on the scene in 1939 had a massive impact on Casey’s approach to the instrument. While he waited until after Waller’s death to plug in and go electric, when he finally did, he abandoned his early approach and broke with the Harlem rhythm guitar tradition. He managed to begin a second act as a mainstay on 52nd Street through the mid-1940s as modern jazz began to come to the fore.
Instantly Captivating Rhythms
Freddie Green emerged during the second half of the 1930s, in a competitive field filled with players such as Al Norris, Lawrence Lucie, Arnold Adams, and many others. But similar to Al Casey, Green spent time paying his rhythm dues accompanying a master of Harlem stride piano. In Freddie’s case, this was Willie Gant. By 1936 Green was working in a small combo at a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Black Cat and it was here that legendary producer and impresario John Hammond first encountered him, instantly captivated by his rhythm feel.
Hammond later said Green was closer to Eddie Lang than any other guitar player he had heard—very high praise indeed—and began machinations to work Green into the Basie rhythm section, first by singing the guitarist’s praises, and eventually by helping stage a jam session. With pianist Teddy Wilson and a band consisting largely of Basie-ites (including Lester Young), Green made his recording debut for Brunswick in January 1937 backing Billie Holiday. The first song recorded was “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”—although clearly this was something Green had plenty of!
Listening closely to the recording session, you can hear elements of many of the early masters of the style: Trueheart’s relaxed drive, as well as some of the additional syncopations favored by players such as Addison. Not heard, however, are the one- and two-note chords that would later be so closely associated with Green; that would come later in his development. The session also brought him in contact with half of what would later be called the All American Rhythm Section: drummer Jo Jones and bassist Walter Page.
Walter Page is largely credited as the driving force of the early Basie rhythm sound, both in terms of concept and execution. After Green joined the band, rhythm section rehearsals (often minus bandleader Basie) became commonplace. Compounded with a relentless schedule of dance dates over the subsequent 18 months, the result was a beat that rivaled the best in the band business, and the musicians quickly rose to the top of the polls. Even by the summer of 1937, the Basie rhythm sound was coming into focus, with “John’s Idea” (recorded for Decca) being one example. During most of this time, Green was a committed Epiphone player, starting with a 16-inch Triumph before moving on to a massive 18-inch Emperor, which he briefly endorsed.
One of Green’s early activities away from the Basie fold was a summer 1938 recording session for the Hot Record Society with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell alongside stride master James P. Johnson, Ellington’s early bass bedrock Wellman Braud, and drum innovator Zutty Singleton. While a slight aberration from the standard swing band of the day, the integrated group’s performance of “Dinah” not only offers insight into how Green felt the beat, but includes a rare 16-bar chord-based solo. Using chromatics in a manner similar to Al Casey, Green plays relatively simple chord forms utilizing basic harmonic ideas, as shown in Example 5. But his mastery of time is already apparent, as he mixes in subtle syncopations and emphasizing offbeats, most effectively in his second eight bars. Similar rhythmic ideas appear in early Basie broadcast recordings as well. Additionally, his accompaniment during Johnson’s solo offers some early insight to his voice-leading ideas.
Of course, this was all just the beginning. By the early 1940s, Count Basie and His Orchestra was one of the most popular bands in the country, with a remarkably diverse fan base and admirers throughout the music industry. Except for a brief hiatus at the end of the decade, Basie’s big band continued long after the Swing Era concluded. For his part, Green continued to refine his approach to rhythm guitar throughout his career, which later included elements learned from Benny Goodman’s guitarist Allan Reuss, but most importantly was based on years of dedication to his craft as well as devotion to the tradition of swing rhythm guitar.
Special thanks to Mark Cantor, Stephanie Crease, Al Green, George Gruhn, Jean Labaye, Jean-François Pitet, Loren Schoenberg, and Dave Stuckey.
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Nothin’ but Rhythm: Tools of the Trade
As swing emerged from the Jazz Age, the acoustic archtop supplanted the tenor banjo as the instrument of choice for rhythm players. That choice for many was the 16-inch Gibson L-5, which had been introduced in 1924 and soon after became the benchmark. Gibson’s 1920s Master Model line, which also included mandolin-family offerings, was one of the most important series in American instrument manufacturing and helped establish the Kalamazoo, Michigan–based maker as a key player.
While New York’s Epiphone Banjo Corporation introduced a line of roundhole archtops in the late 1920s, Gibson didn’t have much competition until Epiphone unveiled its f-hole models in 1931. Epiphone’s premiere model, the De Luxe, was a 16-inch instrument featuring attractive appointments and excellent projection, thanks to its build and longer 25.5-inch scale. Epiphone gained notoriety for its consistent quality across the entire line and found particular favor among guitarists in New York.
In 1935, the competition between these two makers, as well as the volume demands of growing dance and jazz orchestras, kicked off a war of width. Gibson struck first with the introduction of the Super 400, which boasted an 18-inch lower bout. By August of that year, the L-5 was enlarged to a 17-inch instrument. Epiphone answered the challenge by increasing the lower bouts of its professional-level instruments to 17-3/8 inches, eventually introducing the premiere 18-1/2-inch Emperor in late 1935.
Into this fray came independent luthiers such as Charles Stromberg and Son out of Boston and John D’Angelico, based in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood. Both initially offered popular 16.5-inch models inspired by the Gibsons of the time, and these small shops mirrored the majors by further increasing their widths. While D’Angelico’s New Yorker topped off at 18 inches at the peak of the era, Stromberg’s Master 300 and 400 took top honors with 19-inch lower bouts. —NR
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.