Grant Green - Biography
By Nick Castro
Grant Green was one of the premiere jazz guitarists of his time. He was born in 1935 in St. Louis, MO, though some accounts give the date of 1931. His family were not professional musicians but his father did buy him a used guitar and amplifier when he was a young child and Green took to it rather quickly. Green's father and uncle were both amateur blues guitarists and they taught the young Green what they knew. He took this knowledge and made it his foundation of playing. This led to Green's unique style of picking, which utilized an abundance of single notes, rather than the typical chordal playing of most jazz guitarists. Green's tone was also instantly recognizable as deep, warm and present. He was famous for turning the treble and bass knobs, on his amplifier, all the way down and turning the mids all the way up.
Green got his first professional job working in St. Louis with an accordion player named Joe Murphy. They were mainly playing boogie woogie and gospel songs. Green was interested in jazz though. For him it was mainly the sounds of horn players like Charlie Parker and bebop school on New York City that would inspire him. Green began to dissect the records of Parker and try to incorporate them into his guitar style. Grant also made his recording debut in St, Louis with the Jimmy Forest band. All the while, Green was taking local gigs with small jazz groups and organ combos before encountering the catalyst for his first major move.
Saxophonist Lou Donaldson was in St. Louis and heard Green play at a local venue. Donaldson spoke with Francis Wolff, photographer and executive at Blue Note Records, about Green and his amazing guitar skills. Donaldson then contacted Green and coaxed him to move to New York. Green went and soon was signed to Blue Note records himself. Green recorded a session with Miles Davis and his quintet but the record was not released. Soon after though green was able to record what would be his first album, Grant's First Stand (1961 - Blue Note), which included three original compositions by the budding guitarist, "Miss Ann's Tempo", "Blues for Willareen" and "A Wee Bit O'Green". This album featured an organ trio, like those Grant played with in his youth, to round out his sound. Organist Baby Face Willette and drummer Ben Dixon assisted on the session and they provided Green with a swinging and stomping palette on which to paint his pictures, one note at a time. This record started to turn heads in the jazz community and within months of his first release he released several other records, including Green Street (1961 - Blue Note), which again featured several Grant compositions.
Grant was picking up much speed when he collaborated with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and saxophonist Joe Henderson to create his masterpiece album, Idle Moments (1963 - Blue Note). Only featuring two compositions written by Green this time, this album also contains two songs by Duke Pearson and two by John Lewis, of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Pearson, who plays piano on the album, is the perfect counterpart to Green's mellow and warm style of playing. In fact, Henderson's saxophone and Hutcherson's Vibraphone also occupy that same warm mid range sound in a nicely balanced blend to create, what many have called, the finest guitar album of the era. This album solidified Green's position at Blue Note and he became the most highly sought after session player for many artists on the roster including trumpet player Lee Morgan as well as saxophonists Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec and Stanley Turrentine. Green became a fixture on the New York jazz scene and would continue to improve his skill, when he wasn't busy recording, by attending many jam sessions including the famous guitar battles between the top jazz players like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Green was voted best new star by the magazine Downbeat in 1962. Green is also often cited for playing well on Morgan's album Search for the New Land (1964 - Blue Note), along with musicians Wayne Shorter, reggie Workman, Herbie Hancock, and Billy Higgins. This album continued to stretch the limits of hard bop as each player was at the peak of their careers.
Altogether, green recorded around 30 sessions for the Blue Note label in all. Green would eventually leave Blue Note though and pursue record deals with other notable labels such as Verve, Cobblestone and Muse. It was in the mid to late 60's though that Green's heroin addiction was beginning to creep up on him and take its toll. He had to take most of 1966 off in order to sort out his personal dealings. He would only make occasional appearances for the remainder of the 60's as well. In 1970 Green moved to Detroit to rekindle his music career and get away from the negative influences of New York. It was in Detroit that Green would live for five years, recording albums of varying styles but often leaning towards the funk sounds of day. None seemed to garner the prestige and success of his earlier works, except for the two he recorded upon his return to the fold of Blue Note Records, Green is Beautiful (1969 - Blue Note) and The Final Comedown (1971 - Blue Note), where Green first began to show off his new jazz funk sound. These were the last of his commercially successful records, though Green would continue to attain good jobs for the remainder of the 70's. On the album Green is Beautiful, Green is joined by veteran jazz players Idris Muhammad on drums and Blue Mitchell on trumpet. Francis Wolff, who originally signed Green to Blue Note, produced the session. This album has a unified sound but features a strange selection of material, which spans James Brown's "Ain't It Funky Now" to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". The Final Comedown was the first soundtrack album that Blue Note would release. This album was a blend of funk and soul alongside the moody atmospheric sounds of film music.
While working in 1978, many of Green's doctors were advising the musician to get some much needed rest. Green refused and continued to work a gruelling schedule. Early the next year Green died in his car, of a heart attack, in New York city, the city that first gave Green his mighty successes. Green is survived by his six children, who had his body sent back to birthplace of St. Louis for his burial.