I don’t mind admitting that it was photographs of guitarist Grant Green on his album covers, that first got me buying his recorded work. That’s a familiar tale you’ll hear, from many who were trying to get to grips with the vast of amount of jazz albums that were on offer when they first started getting into it. I used to go through racks and racks of albums by names of artists I had heard of, or someone had mentioned and then be stumped at which one to buy? So, as I said, I go with one that looked like I’d enjoy it…
The good thing with the albums by Grant Green was that the standard of the work he played on, in the late 50s to mid 60s in particular, mostly, if not all from his days signed to Blue Note, always led to a track or two on that you’d treasure from then on.
He was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1935 to mum Martha and dad John, who seemed to have an interesting working life, that went from builder to policeman and back again. Grant picked up the guitar early and after some rudimentary lessons on it from his dad, who also played a bit, he studied for a while with a local guitar teacher, before cementing his love of the instrument by playing along to records in the house. Those records would include work by the likes of saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young, but it was fellow guitarist and all-around pioneer of the instrument, Charlie Christian, who had the most influence on young Grant.
He played in a gospel setting from the age of 13, before then later recording some boogie woogie records with saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, along with drummer Elvin Jones. Then in 1959, he was heard in a bar by alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who promptly hired him for his band and Grant was soon off touring.
Grant Green – ‘The first thing I learned to play was boogie-woogie. Then I had to do a lot of rock & roll. It’s all blues, anyhow…’
Once off the road, he settled in New York in 1960. Working with Donaldson had brought him to the attention of Alfred Lion, head of Blue Note records, who promptly signed him up. At first, they tried to promote Green as a group leader, but in truth he was uncomfortable in that setting. Instead, he found his stride, playing as a sideman on many recordings, as he learnt his way in a studio environment . Between 1961 and 1965, he would go on to work with the likes of Larry Young (Green wrote Plaza de Toros which was covered by Young, and which is one of your correspondent’s favourites) Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, Brother Jack McDuff, Baby Face Willette and Big John Patton.
All that work he put in, obviously did not go unnoticed with Down Beat magazine naming him as ‘Best New Star’ in 1962. Sadly, so many of the albums he contributed to, didn’t see light of the day, until after his early death, such as his work with Sonny Clark and his old mate Elvin Jones. Grant departed from Blue note in 1966 and picked up recording dates with a few companies, including Verve.
He then went missing completely for a few years, due mainly in part to his then heavy heroin addiction. He did make a comeback however in 1969, with a more funk-based sound and did well with the albums Green is Beautiful and the soundtrack to the film The Final Comedown in 1971. A lot of his subsequent recordings from this era, have ended up as various samples on records by the likes of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan and more recently, Kendrick Lamar.
By 1978, Grant Green was a very sick man, spending a considerable amount of time in hospital, waiting to undergo heart bypass surgery. Eventually though, and against medical advice, he went back on the road to earn some money. Sadly, he collapsed and died in the January of 1979 aged just 43.
He was the father to six children, including Greg, who performs under the name of Grant Green Jnr. and who has followed his father’s footsteps as a performing guitarist.
For the ‘axe spotters’ out there I found the following information. ‘Green used a Gibson ES-330, then a Gibson L7 with a Gibson McCarty pickguard/pickup, an Epiphone Emperor (with the same pickup) and finally had a custom-built D’Aquisto. According to fellow guitarist George Benson, Grant achieved his tone by turning off the bass and treble settings of his amplifier and maximizing the midrange. This way he could get his signature punchy, biting tone.’ So now you know.
Critics Michael Erlewine and Ron Wynn – ‘(He) was a severely underrated player during his lifetime. Grant Green is one of the great unsung heroes of jazz guitar … Green’s playing is immediately recognizable – perhaps more than any other guitarist.’
For what it’s worth, here’s a personal top ten to check out from yours truly, for some of you who maybe don’t know his work.
Time to Remember
One Second After Death
Aint It Funky Now
Down Here on the Ground
My One and Only Love
Cease the Bombin
The Mumper of SE5
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