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Grant Green Biography - Raised on the Blues, Succeeded and Crashed in New York City, Turned to Popular Music

note jazz guitar album

1935–1979

Jazz guitarist

Green, Grant, photograph. © Mosaic Images/Corbis.

Although Grant Green recorded more than 100 albums, including 30 as the group leader, his career was overshadowed by more successful jazz guitarists, particularly Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Known for his clear, single-note, melodic style of playing with a pick, Green avoided the chords and octaves favored by his contemporaries and was renowned for his unique tone. He was a major force in the evolution of the guitar as a lead instrument and he influenced a generation of guitar players including Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and George Benson himself. Green always played to his audience, with a variety that ranged from straight-ahead jazz standards, bebop, soul, gospel, Latin, country-western, to funk. He covered the Beatles, James Brown, The Jackson 5, and Mozart. But whatever he played, his music remained rooted in the blues. Green played a green guitar, wore green suits, drove a green Cadillac, and his song and album titles often played on his name. During the 1990s Green was rediscovered and dubbed the father of "acid jazz" and his recordings reissued.

Raised on the Blues

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 6, 1935, Grant was the only child of Martha, a homemaker, and John Green, a laborer, security guard, and parking-lot owner. Grant's father bought him a beat-up guitar and amplifier and, together with an uncle, taught him to play the blues. Grant plucked his ukulele in his elementary-school classroom, played drums in the school drum and bugle corps, and sang in the choir. His early influences included pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, but he mainly listened to horn players, especially Charlie Parker, the originator of bebop.

By the age of 13, Grant Green was playing guitar professionally in churches, with a gospel group, and with accordionist Joe Murphy. Although he briefly studied guitar with Forest Alcorn, Green was primarily self-taught. With his parents' support, he dropped out of school before the ninth grade. Soon he was playing with jazz and rhythm and blues combos, including groups led by trumpeter Harry Edison and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, and was a well-known figure in the St. Louis music scene. Jazz drummer Elvin Jones first heard Green in 1956. Years later, Jones told Sharony Andrews Green, Grant Green's biographer and his son Grant Jr.'s former wife: "I had never heard anybody play with that kind of purity … I always felt that this was a great artist …."

Green married Annie Maude Moody. Among his well-known tributes to her were "Miss Ann's Tempo" and "Blues in Maude's Flat." Their first child, Gregory, was born in 1956, and the couple would have three more. Gregory Green and his three younger siblings were raised primarily by their two sets of grandparents in St. Louis. Green's personal life was filled with conflicting issues. He was using heroin by his late teens, and later drugs and his gigs kept him from spending much time with his family. But Green was not an apathetic person; he held strong beliefs and was among the musicians who founded the first St. Louis chapter of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist Islamic sect.

Succeeded and Crashed in New York City

Grant Green's first recordings were a 1959 Delmark album with Jimmy Forrest and Elvin Jones and a 1960 recording on Argo with organist Sam Lazar. Green was 24 in 1959, when saxophonist Lou Donaldson first heard him play in St. Louis. The following year, Donaldson took Green to New York City to audition for Blue Note Records, the premier jazz label of the era. He was hired immediately as the staff guitarist. Green's first recording for Blue Note was Lou Donaldson's Here 'Tis in January of 1961. Five days later he was recording his first album as leader. During 1961 Green recorded eight sessions for 17 Blue Note albums, as a sideman or leader, including his first live recording, with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. The following year he recorded a Latin album, a gospel album, and a jazz rendering of country-western music.

Between 1961 and 1965 Green recorded with almost every Blue Note musician, on more albums than any other artist at the label. He recorded frequently with organists Jack McDuff and Larry Young, as well as pianists Sonny Clark and McCoy Tyner and tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson. Many critics consider his Idle Moments from 1964 to be his all-time best album. Meanwhile Green was becoming a force in New York's live jazz scene.

By 1966 Green had grown frustrated with his meager earnings. Blue Note could record cheaply but lacked the resources to promote their albums. He left Blue Note and recorded a few sessions on the Verve label. However, like most jazz musicians, Green rarely received royalties for his original compositions. Since he could not read music well, he got very little studio work.

As his drug habit escalated out of control, so did his debts. Drugs interfered with his live performances and he gained a reputation for not paying his musicians after gigs. In 1968 Green received a brief prison sentence for drug possession. Rather than reporting to prison, he left for a gig in California. Federal agents waited until he finished his set before arresting him and escorting him to prison for a longer sentence.

Turned to Popular Music

Green had always loved James Brown. By 1965 he was moving more toward pop music and funk. After his release from prison, Green returned to Blue Note to make more commercial recordings that received radio play. Between 1969 and 1973 Green's records not only scored high on the jazz charts, they hit the rhythm and blues and soul charts as well. Some critics accused him of selling out to commercialism. Green told Guitar Player in January of 1975: "You have to be a businessman first, and an artist along with it. You can't play something people dislike and stay in business."

For the first time, Green's family joined him in New York, settling in Brooklyn where his wife took a job with the New York Model Cities agency. The reunion didn't work out. An aunt found the children living alone and she took the youngest, Grant Jr., to California for the summer. Green and Moody divorced. Moody remarried and took the other children to live in Jamaica with her new husband.

At a Glance …

Born Grant Douglas Green on June 6, 1935, in St. Louis, MO; died on January 31, 1979, in New York, NY; married Annie Maude Moody (divorced); married Karen Duson Wallace, 1974 (divorced 1977); Dorothy Malone (companion until death); children (first marriage): Gregory, Kim, John, Grant Jr.; married Karen Duson Wallace, 1974. Religion: Nation of Islam.

Career: Guitarist performing with gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues groups, St. Louis, MO, 1948–60; Blue Note Records, New York, NY, staff guitarist and group leader, 1960–65, 1969–72; New York, NY, New Jersey, Detroit, MI, and California, jazz and funk guitarist, 1960–79; recording artist, various labels, 1965–78.

Awards: Down Beat critics' poll, New Star Award for guitar, 1962; Guitar Player Editors Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1996.

However by 1970 Green had made enough money at Blue Note to leave New York and buy a home in Detroit, Michigan, where his children joined him. The family played music in their basement and Green became a local star. His friends included city commissioners and Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor, and he played regular benefits for local black organizations. Green continued to follow Muslim traditions, for a time eating mostly kosher and East Indian foods. However his penchant for women made him unwelcome at the black Muslim mosque. Around this time, drugs again distracted Green when he took up using cocaine and a codeine syrup.

His Health Deteriorated

In 1971 Green was asked to record the soundtrack for the film The Final Comedown. He began dreaming of becoming an arranger and producer. His last album for Blue Note, Live at the Lighthouse, was recorded in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1972.

By the mid-1970s Green's health was in serious decline, in part from his long battle with drugs. His failure to become a big name in music, with the accompanying financial rewards, and a series of failed relationships, further demoralized him. Green married Karen Duson Wallace, a nurse, in 1974. By 1977 the marriage had failed. Dorothy Malone became his constant companion until his death.

Green recorded his last album, Easy, in April of 1978. That autumn he had a minor stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side. A blood clot was found near his heart and the doctors ordered triple-bypass surgery, but Green refused. Instead, he drove across the country for a gig in California. After the long drive back to New York, he suffered a heart attack and died on the way to Harlem Hospital on January 31, 1979. He was 43.

Rediscovered in the (1990s)

At the end of the 1980s, hip-hop musicians and rappers began using rhythm and blues and jazz from the 1960s and early 1970s, including the music of Grant Green. In the 1990s, the London hip-hop group Us3 digitally fused Green's 1970 live recording of "Sookie, Sookie" and turned it into a worldwide hit for Blue Note. Critics hailed Green as the father of acid jazz. His recordings began to be reissued and his original vinyl records became increasingly valuable among collectors.

Green's reissues were top sellers. In December of 1994, more than 30 years after Green recorded Idle Moments, the album was number 9 on Rolling Stone magazine's alternative chart of music played on college radio stations. His music was heard on movie soundtracks and "Sookie, Sookie" became a theme song on Home Box Office. Green's oldest son Gregory, a guitarist who sometimes performed under the name of his younger brother, Grant Green, Jr., could be heard on a tribute album featuring his father's compositions. During the 1990s, at least six other albums included tributes to Green.

Guitarist George Benson told Sharony Green: "People were always all over Grant. He was an icon…. Guitar players were trying to learn what his secret was, and there were people in general who just loved his groove. Grant made the guitar come alive and sing…. Only he could do it like that."

Selected works

Albums as leader

Grant's First Stand (includes "Miss Ann's Tempo"), Blue Note, 1961, 1999.
Grantstand (includes "Blues in Maude's Flat"), Blue Note, 1961, 2003.
Green Street, Blue Note, 1961, 2002.
Sunday Mornin', Blue Note, 1961, 2005.
Born to Be Blue, Blue Note, 1962, 1989.
Feelin' the Spirit, Blue Note, 1962, 2005.
Goin' West, Blue Note, 1962, 2004.
The Latin Bit, Blue Note, 1962, 1996.
Nigeria, Blue Note, 1962.
Am I Blue, Blue Note, 1963, 2002.
Idle Moments, Blue Note, 1964, 1999.
Solid, Blue Note, 1964, 1995.
Talkin' About, Blue Note, 1964, 1999.
His Majesty King Funk, Verve, 1965.
I Want to Hold Your Hand, Blue Note, 1965, 1997.
The Matador, Blue Note, 1965, 1990.
Iron City, 32 Jazz, 1967, 1997.
Carryin' On, Blue Note, 1969, 1995.
Alive! (includes "Sookie, Sookie"), Blue Note, 1970, 2000.
The Final Comedown, Blue Note, 1971.
Visions, Blue Note, 1971.
Live at the Lighthouse, Blue Note, 1972, 1998.
The Main Attraction, KUDU, 1976.
Easy, Versatile, 1978.
Street Funk & Jazz Grooves (The Best of Grant Green), Blue Note, 1993.
Green is Beautiful, Blue Note, 1994.
The Best of Grant Green, Vols. I and II, Blue Note, 1995, 1996.
Jazz Profile—No.11, Blue Note, 1997.
Blue Break Beats, Blue Note, 1998.
Standards, Blue Note, 1998.
Street of Dreams, Blue Note, 1998.
First Session, Blue Note, 2001.
Ballads, Blue Note, 2002.
Retrospective 1961–66, Blue Note, 2002.
Ain't It Funky Now: Original Jam Master GG Vol. 1, Blue Note, 2005.
For the Funk of It: Original Jam Master GG Vol. 2, Blue Note, 2005.
Mellow Madness: Original Jam Master GG Vol. 3, Blue Note, 2005.

Albums as sideman

(Jimmy Forrest) All the Gin is Gone, Delmark, 1959.
(Jimmy Forrest) Black Forrest, Delmark, 1959.
(Sam Lazar) Space Flight, Argo, 1960.
(Lou Donaldson) Here 'Tis, Blue Note, 1961.
(Stanley Turrentine) Up at Minton's, Blue Note, 1961.
(Reuben Wilson) Love Bug, Blue Note, 1969.
Rusty Bryant Returns, Prestige, 1969.
The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Grant Green with Sonny Clark, Blue Note, 1997.

Sources

Books

Christiansen, Corey, Essential Jazz Lines in the Style of Grant Green for Guitar, Mel Bay, 2003.

Green, Sharony Andrews, Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar, Miller Freeman, 1999.

Periodicals

Down Beat, July 19, 1962.

Guitar Player, January 1975; February 1997; March 2000.

On-line

"Grant Green," Blue Note Records, www.bluenote.com/artistpage.asp?ArtistID=3354 (December 3, 2005).

"Grant Green: An Introduction," AIG Music Reviews, www.audio-ideas.com/columns/grant-green.html (December 3, 2005).

The Green Room, http://ophira.com/grantgreen (December 3, 2005).

John ?)– Green (1978() Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next] [back] Shari Graydon (1958-) Biography - Career, Writings, Sidelights - Personal

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Grant Green Biography - Raised on the Blues, Succeeded and Crashed in New York City, Turned to Popular Music