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November 1999

Grant Green: Rediscovering The Forgotten Genius Of Jazz Guitar

A favorite in musician circles for his facile, hip lines and unerring sense of swing, guitarist Grant Green has nonetheless been largely overlooked, if not forgotten, by the general record-buying public. Overshadowed throughout his career by his main competitors on the guitar, Wes Montgomery and George Benson, Green remains a heroic figure to fellow guitarists and students, the cognoscente and anyone with an appreciation for his tasteful melodicism, his pure singing tone, the clarity of his bop-inspired linear concept and his earthy deep blue expression.

This book thoroughly examines Green’s contribution and seeks to establish his rightful place in jazz history. Written in a rather naive style by an author who admittedly had limited exposure to jazz and knew nothing of Grant Green’s legacy before marrying the guitarist’s son, Grant Jr., it is the memoir of a journalist on a mission to discover the truth about her husband’s enigmatic and “famous” father. And like unravelling the mysteries of Charles Foster Kane and the secret of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, Ms. Green pieces together the puzzle of this complex man she never met, discovering a great deal about jazz in the process. But what Ms. Green lacks in scholarly chops she makes up for in a series of revealing and very colorful testimonies by colleagues, family and friends of her subject.

Uncovering Grant Green’s story takes her to St. Louis, where the guitarist got his start in the ’50s at local clubs like the Holy Barbarian and the Blue Note, to his glory years in New York during the ’60s as a ubiquitous session guitarist and leader in his own right for Blue Note, and on to Detroit where Green resided when he began flirting with pop and funk music in the ’70s.

The tally of classic Blue Note sides that Green cut is overwhelming. That incredibly productive period is illuminated by comments from Michael Cuscuna, Ruth Lion, Rudy Van Gelder and Bob Belden as well as such participants as Al Harewood, Lou Donaldson, Bob Cranshaw, Barry Harris, Elvin Jones, Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson and Horace Parlan. A particularly interesting chapter examines the mid-’60s rivalry-friendship between Green and the up-and-coming George Benson. The author also addresses the obvious contradiction of Green embracing both the Nation of Islam and heroin as lifestyle choices. While the one was a source of strength, the other would eventually cause his rapid decline in health, leading to his death in 1979 at age 43.

The end came on the road. While driving back to New York from a gig at the Lighthouse in California—dragging a Hammond B-3 organ behind him in a U-haul trailer—Green keeled over from a heart attack and died en route to a gig at Jimmy Boyd’s Breezin’ Lounge in Harlem. He had previously been hospitalized for ten weeks during the fall of 1978 following a stroke and was strongly advised not to make that trip to California (he had an aversion to flying and drove to all of his gigs). Desperate for money, Green pushed himself against doctor’s orders and suffered the consequences. As his guitar-playing son Greg put it, “He should’ve never drove out there. He should’ve tried to stay home and get himself back in order. But he didn’t know how to do anything else. He probably would’ve died anyway if he couldn’t have played.”

Green left behind a rich musical legacy of some 93 albums, all of which are included in a comprehensive discography. Swiss writer Tobias Jundt provides an analysis of some key recordings along with a dissertation on Green’s guitar technique. These kind of factual details help to add scholarly weight to Ms. Green’s personal portrait of The Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar.

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