Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Sonny Greer by Whitney Balliett

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

LAWRENCE BROWN: When I joined the Ellington band in 1932, it soon became clear just how important Sonny was. He was almost as popular as Ellington. Not only did he have excellent musical instincts and natural ability as a player, he was very genial and served as contact man for Duke. Sonny wasn't a schooled musician. But he could pick up things very readily. He was so much a part of what we did; he fit perfectly.
Sonny got to know music and his instrument by playing and being out there performing and absorbing what was happening around him. Adept as a rhythm man and as a colorist. Sonny also was a great "flash," an incredible showman. He had one of the most lavish drum sets in the world. Many drummers and other musicians came to see and hear Sonny because of his splendid equipment.

MERCER ELLINGTON: Sonny knew what audiences liked. He was one of the few people from whom Ellington readily took advice. A great reactor to material, he needed only a skeleton of an idea. With that as a base, he would contribute a great deal to the glory of a work. Sonny had a great ear and unusual reflexes. Ellington often referred to him as the real leader of the band. On the ground floor when jazz was being put together, Sonny was there to witness its development and be a key part of it.

BURT KORALL, author of Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, The Swing Years Most important, no one played with such a sense of relevance in the Ellington band. His recordings with the Ellington orchestra and with small groups out of the organization make the point for him.
Listen to "Cotton Tail" (Victor, 1940), "Main Stem" (Victor, 1942), and "Jumpin" Punkins" (Victor, 1941) with the Ellington Orchestra. Also recommended are "Chasin’ Chippies" (Vocalion, 1938) and "Downtown Uproar" (Variety, 1937)—both with Cootie Williams and his Rug Cutters. These records reveal Greer's capacity to respond buoyantly and creatively to his colleagues, to swing, and to give the musicians and the music what they needed.
An imposing artist, someone to be seen and heard, Sonny Greer lived up to the description given to him by Jo Jones: he was indeed "Mr. Empire State Building."

It’s been awhile since we’ve put up something new by Whitney Balliett, the highly regarded writer whose essays about Jazz featured regularly in The New Yorker magazine for many years.  In order to rectify this oversight, here’s his article about Sonny Greer – Duke Ellington’s premier drummer for over 30 years – from Whitney’s anthology, Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz [Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1962].

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“AT WORK, most modern jazz musicians appear to be suffering from shock. They adopt blank, mask like faces, stand rigidly still, and rarely speak to one another, let alone the audience. The only proof they are not hallucinations is the sound that comes from their instruments, and even this isn't always conclusive. Twenty years ago jazz musicians usually mirrored every emotion they were undergoing. Drummers, in particular, went further by adding the icing of guileless showmanship. They twirled their sticks or tossed them into the air, generally in time to the music, smiled expansively or grimaced (Kansas Fields always looked on the verge of tears), snapped their heads about militaristically, and manipulated the wire brushes like skilled house painters. The three consummate showmen-drummers were Sidney Catlett, Jo Jones, and Sonny Greer. (Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich were showoffs.) Now that Catlett is dead and Greer in partial obscurity, only Jones remains consistently on view. A week ago, however, Greer, who is sixty, appeared in full bloom at a Duke Ellington Society concert given in the Carnegie Recital Hall.

Greer quit Ellington in 1951, after thirty-odd years—a departure that has left a permanent gap in the band. A flattish, dapper man with a thin, tongue-in-cheek face and a patent-leather air, Greer epitomized the easy elegance of the Ellington band.

He was generally enthroned slightly above and to the rear of his colleagues, amid a resplendent array of equipment that included a couple of timpani, chimes, and a J. Arthur Rank gong. For all his outward grace and polish, though, Greer's style was and is strictly homemade. He is only a fair technician (his time is uneven, sometimes he is overbearing, and he misses strokes) and he has never been much of a soloist. Indeed, he often gives the impression that he is testing rather than playing his drums. He moves ceaselessly back and forth between his cymbals, sampling their centers, drops in sudden experimental offbeats on the cowbell (an unfortunately outmoded bit of drum paraphernalia), rustles his high-hat cymbals ominously and then clamps them shut with a whussht, inserts crescendo snare-drum rolls, sounds jumbo beats on his bass drum or settles into steady lackadaisical after beats on the snare rims. Greer's showmanship accents all this. A mock-serious look will dissolve into a broad smile, a wide-eyed expression into a sleepy one. An eyes-right-or-left head motion punctuates every number. After twirling a stick faster than a propeller, he may rear back in amazement at his prowess. Greer is sound and motion in miraculous counterpoint.

With Greer were Clark Terry on trumpet and flugelhorn, Hilton Jefferson, Wendell Marshall, and a ringer, Jimmy Jones, on piano. Two singers— Betty Roche and Ozzie Bailey—also appeared. Eight of the twenty numbers, most of them by Ellington and/or Billy Strayhorn, were taken up with vocals. Bailey was surprisingly attractive, in a thin, valentine way, while Miss Roche was calculated and tart. Aside from the four group numbers, Jefferson, Terry, and Jones each had two selections to themselves, and Greer had one. This was an up-tempo version of "Caravan," in which he started softly with his hands on the tom-toms, gradually increased the volume, picked up two sticks in his right hand, pitted this hand against his still empty left hand (much rattling and whapping), tucked his sticks nonchalantly under his right arm, returned to his hands, reduced his volume, and closed with a jarring bass-drum frump. During the rest of the afternoon, Greer ticked off all of his tricks — wire brushes on a large tom-tom behind Jones, mallet crescendos during the ensembles, spinning sticks, and casual, offbeat rim shots. In fact, Greer managed to convey the notion that he was still supporting the entire Ellington band – insouciance, white jackets, the Duke, and all.”

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