Continuing his exploration of the giants of jazz guitar Pete Callard focuses on a surprisingly underrated master of the genre: Grant Green.
Grant Green was born on June 6, 1935 in St. Louis, Missouri. Influenced by saxophonists Charlie Parker (GT161 & 162) and Lester Young, and guitarists Charlie Christian (GT216) and Jimmy Raney (GT217) he began playing professionally at the age of 12 although, as he recalls, jazz wasn’t his starting point: “The first thing I learned to play was boogie-woogie. Then I had to do a lot of rock’n’roll. It’s all blues, anyhow.” Green toured with Lou Donaldson after he was spotted by the alto saxophonist playing in a St. Louis bar, and it was Donaldson who persuaded him to relocate to New York around 1959-1960.
Signing to legendary jazz label Blue Note records - again on Lou Donaldson’s recommendation - Green released his first album, Grant’s First Stand, in 1961, followed by Green Street and Grantstand the same year. Green stayed with the label for much of the 60s, and between 1961 and 1965 played on more Blue Note releases than anyone else; in his career he ultimately featured on 93 albums as leader or side-man.
Personal problems and heroin addiction led to a period of inactivity but Green returned to Blue Note in 1969 with Carryin’ On. A groove based mix of jazz-funk and R&B, Carryin’ On marked a major change of direction and became the template for much of his subsequent work. It also made him a posthumous hero to the acid jazz movement and a source for breakbeat samples, leading to Green being an unwitting contributor to the foundation of hip-hop (Blue Note even released a Grant Green compilation, Blue Breakbeats, containing some of his most widely sampled tracks). Health problems led to him spending much of 1978 in hospital but he returned to the road to make some money, against the advice of his doctors. Booked to perform at George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge in New York on January 31, 1979, Green collapsed in his car of a heart attack. Survived by six children, he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis.
This month we’ll examine examples of Green’s playing from different stages of his career, and discuss key elements of his style. There’s a directness to Green’s soloing that’s refreshing – he’s less concerned with technique or complexity than with musicality and engaging with the listener. The blues plays an important part in his vocabulary, but his love of horn players like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis also inform his single-note approach. In fact, Green was very much a single-note player, rarely using double-stops in his soloing and only using chords when accompanying someone else.
The nine examples hopefully give something of an overview of Grant Green’s soloing approach, taking in pentatonic ideas, syncopation, motivic playing, swept arpeggios, bluesy phrasing, ideas on a minor vamp, major and minor II-V-Is, III-VI-II-V-Is and turnarounds.
The guitar is a very personal instrument. Nothing is really wrong until you make it wrong.
Grant Green with Epiphone Emperor model