Now That the Count Is Gone, More Than Ever the Basie Legacy Resides in the Wrist of Guitarist Freddie Green

updated 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

One of the first people to emerge from the wings when the Count Basie Orchestra takes the stage is a tall, slender figure carrying a guitar. He walks alone, with a weary grace, his instrument held casually by the neck. His soft round eyes and arching eyebrows give him a gently skeptical look. He sits down next to the piano. Then, as he has since joining the band 48 years ago, he crosses his left knee over his right and sets the big hollow-bodied Gretsch at a 45-degree angle on his thigh. The rest of the band is still settling in, but Freddie Green, who will be 74 next month, is ready to play. He surveys them with a look that is both indulgent and reproving.

When the music starts, Green's wrist flicks into motion, four strokes to the bar. Saxophonist Paul Quinichette once observed of Green, "He's got it right there, in his wrist." What he has is the key to a musical era, an unmatched mastery of big band rhythms. Says Dennis Wilson, 32, a trombonist and composer-arranger with the band, "It's as if in the Bible they said, 'Let there be time,' and Freddie started playing."

Count Basie, who died last April at 79, used to refer to Green as "my left hand." The pianist meant it literally. "Basie never did play much with his left hand," says Buck Clayton, 73, one of the band's first great trumpet stars, "so Freddie substituted for it." Band members recognized the musical and personal symbiosis between the two men. "Nobody was going to say anything, because Dad did the saying," relates the bandleader's adopted son, Aaron Woodward Ill. "But everyone knew Freddie's position was of equal importance to Dad's."

After Basie died the band was audibly shaken, but Green's steadiness has helped it regain its stride. The big news in the jazz world this month is the naming of Thad Jones, the popular trumpeter, Basie sideman (1954-1963) and co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band (1965-1978), to take up the Basie reins. "I don't think it's possible to speak of the Basie band without Freddie Green," Jones admits. "He's the link that keeps the tradition alive. He's the dean, the guy we look to for that spiritual thing."

The object of this reverence is a man so self-effacing that in five decades, with a few trivial exceptions, he has never taken a solo. "The main thing is the Basie band," he says firmly. "I get a joy out of keeping the band together and supplying the soloists with a foundation. That's more soloing to me than soloing."

Since Green plays without an amplifier, audiences may miss what he does, but on the bandstand, says Clayton, Freddie can be heard "all over everywhere." As with his former boss, the apparent simplicity of what he does causes the uninformed to underestimate him. "People could imitate Basie for a couple seconds, but not longer," says Eric Dixon, the band's musical director. "You can't imitate that unique touch. It's the same with Freddie." John Lewis, pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, explains, "Freddie develops little melodic lines when he plays behind someone, and you have to listen closely or you'll miss them. It's the same thing I do, only his is more difficult because he has to keep those four beats going. Most guitarists run out of ideas when held to those rules. But not him."

Green does not fit the stereotype of the jazz musician. He eats lightly, neither drinks nor smokes and rises at 7 or 8 a.m. to take long walks or play golf. When he joined the band, he was nicknamed "Esquire" by Buck Clayton, "because he was such a nice cool gentleman." Later, Clayton dubbed him "Pepper," which was short for "Pepperhead" (people thought his head was shaped like a pepper) and has since been shortened to "Pep."

A native of Charleston, S.C., Green was discovered at the Black Cat in Greenwich Village by famed record producer John Hammond, who auditioned him in Basie's dressing room at Roseland in 1937. When the band left for Pittsburgh the next day, Green was on the bus. He's been on it ever since, except for occasional respites at his Harlem apartment. (A widower, he once was linked to singer Billie Holiday. He has three children, "eight grands and three great-grands.")

When Green started, nearly every big band had an acoustic rhythm guitarist. But then Charlie Christian came along in 1939 with his electric guitar for Benny Goodman. "Christian radically changed the role of guitar in jazz," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. "It became much more of a solo instrument. And guitarists were no longer interested in learning the fine art of playing time."

Today Green, whose other nicknames include "Quiet Fire," is the last keeper of that flame. "If an arranger comes in and his work is jive," says trumpeter Byron Stripling, 23, "Freddie just shakes his head and it's all over." For new band members there is "the intimidation of Freddie Green," says Dennis Wilson. "You never know if Freddie likes you. It worries you until that mystical, magical day when he finally says a couple words to you. Then you know you're okay, and you realize he hasn't been testing you; he's been allowing you to test yourself."

Like E.F. Hutton, when Freddie talks, people listen. Singer Joe Williams, recalling his philandering youth, says, "At a critical time, Freddie took me aside and advised, 'Take some and leave some. Don't try to get it all. You'll enjoy it more and you'll last so much longer, no matter what it is.' Since it came from Freddie Green, who doesn't say that much, he only had to say it once, and I've never forgotten it."

Green's own critical time came last April. Of all the tributes paid at Basie's funeral, Green's was the most touching, also the simplest. "I've been with him since 1937," he said. "What am I going to do now?" Green soon found an answer—keeping the Basie pulse strong. As trumpeter Sonny Cohn, a 25-year veteran, puts it, "The most important part of your body is your heart. It keeps everything else going. That's what Freddie does."

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