Monday, June 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Grant Green (1935-1979)

The basic facts about the legendary jazz guitarist Grant Green's life (June 6, 1935-January 31, 1979) and career can be found easily enough. Here's the Wiki entry for him. Here's the complete discography (although I prefer the more colorful version with its thumbnails of album covers, compiled by a Japanese fan). While he was at Blue Note records, he was its most recorded artist.

A technical discussion of Grant's distinctive tone (over the years: tones) is here. Sharony Andrews Green's Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar, his daughter-in-law's biography, fills in the many blanks left by his albums' liner notes. (Here's Bill Milkowski's helpful review.) 

I prefer to devote this birthday tribute to Grant Green by recalling my long road to appreciating his playing.  

I began playing the guitar shortly after the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, and jazz guitar became a topic for me in 1971 when I heard Melvin Sparks on the radio. One by one, I investigated all the names my jazz aficionada mother dropped on me: George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel. A friend of hers, who had played briefly in the '50s, turned me on to Kenny Burrell, and in his living room I discovered one of the more powerful influences on my playing, Pat Martino. (In my mind's eye, I can still see his Strings! album on Charlie's living room floor.) 

A few months passed, and Grant Green's name was in the air, but I knew of no one who really knew or dug his playing. I took it on faith that he was great, and bought one LP album after the other every payday at J&R's on Park Row. Here are three I remember buying (and still have, but listen to them on my iPod):

Unfortunately for my musical ears at the time, however, nothing "clicked."

I wanted "more" from Grant's playing. More what? More notes. Notes, notes, notes. He was a "single-note" player, that is, you didn't go to him for innovations in voice-leading chord progressions from him. I liked that. But I thought others, Pat Martino, for example, doled out in bushels what Grant Green seemed only to be hinting at. I had thought, and continued to think, that Pat and George Benson "said" more. 

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (1 Cor. 13:11)

I was looking for the evidence that others had apparently found. Several times in the early '70s, before Breezin' changed his life, Benson and I -- separately and coincidentally -- would come into the same New York clubs to catch one or more of Pat's shows, which offered me a chance to chat with him. On one of those between-set occasions (at "Folk City" on West Third Street, as I recall), I asked George, seated on a barstool, straight up: 

"What is 'it' about Grant Green? What am I missing?" 

"Aw, man! . . . "

Smiling easily, but unable to hide a "where-do-I-begin?" look, George began to express his apparently limitless admiration for Grant's musicality.  His touch, his taste and, yes, technique were exquisite (not George's exact words, which not even my diary holds, but those were the bases he covered). Grant's "chops" or technique was perfectly suited to his musical intention. (And what are "chops" without that correspondence but so much unmusical showing off?) His intention was simply to groove, high and hard.
Grant with Larry Young on Hammond B-3. The picture was allegedly taken in 1966
making a mystery out of the display of the LP of a '63 recording.

I sensed that perhaps George was merely being gracious: if I couldn't hear "it" in Grant's playing, his words weren't going achieve what only further listening, and living, could.

When I made a firm intention in October 2007 to return to jazz guitar with a renewed sense of purpose, I engorged myself on a great deal of music, much of which I had heard decades ago, but never listened to with the ears of someone who intended to do this one day for a living. Tunes became objects of study, not just vehicles for jamming. 

I bring my autobiographical musings to a grinding halt to say that during the next few years I finally "got" Grant Green. After downloading over a dozen of his albums as .mp3's, I understood and respected his ability to express himself in diverse genres in diverse settings, to lead a trio, a quartet, or a hard bop band that could rival Blakey and his Messengers, or to play whatever was called for in someone else's setting. 
Grant with a 22-year-old Herbie Hancock at piano. 
From the Goin' West or Feelin' the Spirit recording sessions.

Most pleasantly, and surprisingly so, I found myself wanting, not to "sound" like Grant Green, but make others feel the way I feel when I listen to him, the joy and happiness carried by those clean, articulate lines.  That's what his playing exudes. But the process of "entering into" the music of another, like entering into the thought of another, is not something done without intention. 

My appreciation of Grant Green has not lessened my regard for anyone else's playing. It is tinged only with the regret that although I have lived simultaneously with his music (albeit it was "below my radar" until 1971), I was never got to hear him "live."

I cannot repay someone on whom I can count to make me happy with his music, but I can try to pay it forward. 

Enough feeling-diluting words! Here is the only known footage of his playing (alongside legends Kenny Burrell [left], Barney Kessel [center]). Grant solos first. Enjoy it, and then with the help of the links provided above, explore and share his legacy!