Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Green, Bennie (Bernard)

Trombonist Bennie Green kept pace with the innovations of bebop while maintaining a deep closeness to the blues and popular song. His style combines a bright, full sound with sharp articulation and clarity in the upper register, reminiscent of his idol, Trummy Young, with the bebop phrasing and chromaticism later perfected by J.J. Johnson.

As his style matured, Green strayed from his fellow beboppers in that his repertoire maintained a relative harmonic simplicity, considered by some to be closer to rhythm 'n' blues than the modern jazz played by many of his contemporaries in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Green was at his most effective playing medium and up-tempo pieces, where his bright sound and fluid articulation, always "in the pocket," contributed to an infectious, hard-driving swing.

Bernard Green was born on April 16, 1923 in Chicago, to a family of musicians. His older brother Elbert had played with trumpeter Roy Eldridge in the local Chicago scene, and both attended DuSable High School, a hotspot for music education at the time. It was under the direction of his music teacher at DuSable where Bennie began to study trombone.

Green augmented what he learned in the school band by copying Trummy Young and Lawrence Brown and solos off of Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington records. He later stated that in his formative years, "Trummy is one of the guys that used to impress me the most. He and Lawrence Brown and J. C. Higginbotham."

Upon graduating from DuSable in 1941, Green made a name for himself playing locally in Chicago before Budd Freeman recommended him to fill a vacancy in the Earl Hines band in the summer of 1942. His arrival preceded that of two other important members, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, by only a few months.

Sitting directly in front of Gillespie on the bandstand, Green couldn't help but listen to the musical innovations Dizzy was working on at the time. Although he didn't understand all of Dizzy's new musical ideas, Green enjoyed listening to them and befriended Gillespie.

Green would often practice at Gillepie's house, with Dizzy at the piano explaning his new harmonic concepts and accompanying Green's trombone improvisations. Green described these sessions with Gillespie, his senior by seven years, "like going to school."

Green continued to practice these nascent bebop techniques after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He was discharged three years later and rejoined Hines in 1946 for another two years. In 1948, he decided to leave the Hines big band to return to Chicago and focus on small group work with Gene Ammons.

It was in this small group setting that Green was best able to combine his understanding of bebop improvisation with his exuberant and energetic trombone sound. His association with Ammons's Chicago group, however, was brief. While sitting in with Charlie Ventura later that year, his playing caught the tenor saxophonist's ear. Ventura offered him the trombone position in his new "Bop for the People" outfit, a huge commercial success. This was the first time that Green's abilities as an improviser reached a wide audience.

After Ventura's band broke up in early 1950, Green parlayed his success in the small group format to other recording sessions, working with Babs Gonzales, J.C. Heard, Budd Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and many others. His recording of "Come Rain or Come Shine" with Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and Budd Johnson is an example of his work during this period.

Green also toured with Billy Eckstine and George Shearing, leading a small-group bebop unit with Joe Newman and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. During this time, he also began recording under his own name, often employing a quintet with piano, bass, drums and tenor saxophone, usually Budd Johnson. He preferred this format for the balance of his career.

Green rejoined Earl Hines in 1952, this time as a member of his small group, joining Jonah Jones, Tommy Potter, Aaron Sachs and Art Blakey. This association was also brief, however, as he had the opportunity to start his own small band later that year. As a bandleader, Green developed a difinitive small group sound that combined a commercial, mainstream sensibility with broad improvisations from the band members, modeling himself after Jimmy Lunceford.

In 1953, Green noted, "It's time for some new faces. Most bandleaders today are the leaders of yesterday. It's time for a little turnover. And if you remember, Jimmy Lunceford had the kind of band I was speaking of. It was a commercial band, but it was also a blowing band musically."

His 1961 recording of "Soul Stirrin'" is a good example of both his quintet sound and his own improvisational style. The tune features a straight-ahead minor form, a unison melody that is both scatted by the musicians and played on their instruments. Green's solo is carefully developed over a number of choruses but also features a raw core to his sound that can explode with emotion or retreat into subtle eighth note lines. Despite the dirge-like tempo and minor key, the arrangement maintains a certain sense of humor that was a hallmark of Green's quintet arrangements.

Early on, Green's small group vision was a success both commercially and musically. Recording for Decca, he released "Blow Your Horn" with Paul Quinichette, which became a top instrumental hit in 1953. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, he recorded as a leader for a number of labels including Prestige, Decca, Blue Note, Vee-Jay, Time, Bethlehem, and Jazzland. He was approached by producer Ozzie Cadena to team with J.J. Johnson for a series of records, but declined the offer. Cadena found Kai Winding instead for what became known as the "J & K" ensemble. Green's quintet featured talented sidemen including bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Sonny Clark and tenor saxophonists Charlie Rouse and Jimmy Forrest. After 1961, his only recording came in 1964, coled with Sonny Stitt.

Green continued to perform for the rest of his life. After his solo career fizzled in the 1960s, he found work again with Duke Ellington in 1968, where he performed in the landmark Second Sacred Concert. He continued with Ellington for another year, after which he moved to Las Vegas to play in the hotel band circuit. His final performance came three years later at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, and was very well-received. He died five years later on March 23 in San Diego, California.

Select Discography

As a leader:

Soul Stirrin' (EMI, 2005)

Bennie Green (Stereo Time, 2004)

Walkin' and Talkin' (EMI, 2008)

Back On The Scene (EMI, 2003)

As a sideman:

Professor Bop (with Sonny Rollins) (Back Up, 2007)

Charlie Ventura 1947-1949 (with Charlie Ventura) (Classics, 2001)

The Second Concert of Sacred Music (with Duke Ellington) (Prestige, 1990)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez