Unlike most of the guitar players I have profiled previously in this series, the jazz man featured in this installment was not a soloist, or a innovator in the genre, or his instrument. But what he did do, he did brilliantly. So brilliantly, he kept the same gig for well over four decades…
Green moved to New York City in his teens, and after being spotted playing a club by the legendary talent scout John H Hammond, got a gig in Count Basie’s ensemble. He remained in Basie’s band for almost fifty years, the longest serving member in his band – possibly the most enduring swing-era guitarist – by far. Green did’t believe the guitar should be heard by itself, choosing to lock in with the drums instead. Playing strictly rhythm – no solos – Green played four beats to the bar, using a chord technique known as comping (which I will revisit in an upcoming article).
Comping (derived from the work ‘accompanying’) consists of playing the chord changes to a song, but only by using two or three notes of an extended chord voicing. That way, the important harmonic characteristics of the chord are conveyed without cluttering the sonic space. In a big band with several horn players and complex arrangements, keeping it clear is often the best option. It’s a difficult technique to master, but it was Green’s forte. Although he was only playing four strums per bar, he could change chord or voicing every two beats. On some occasions, he changed chord on every beat.
The closest Green ever came to a solo was during a famous concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring members of Count Basie’s and Benny Goodman’s ensembles (including Green on rhythm guitar), as well as various guest players. During Honeysuckle Rose, Goodman pointed to green to take one of the solos (possibly by accident). Although he was not expecting it, Green hammered out an astonishing comped chord break, the closest thing he ever came to a guitar solo in his long career as ‘Count Basie’s right arm’.
The incident described above is featured on The Famous Carnegie Hall Concert by Benny Goodman (1950, Columbia Records). For other examples of his playing, check out the Count Basie discography (anything from 1938 to the mid-1980s). Green also released two solo records (leading a small ensemble, but still not taking any solos), the best of which is Mr Rhythm in 1950 (RCA Victor).
As always, if you have any suggestions for Great Guitarists you would like me to profile on this blog, please do get in touch, via the Contact Page or my social media pages (links below).