Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Green, Charlie

"Big" Charlie Green was the first trombonist in jazz to combine a large, well-rounded sound with a sense of swing and improvisation. Joining Fletcher Henderson's band just before the arrival of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Green was briefly at the vanguard of melodic jazz invention.

He also enjoyed success as a sideman with singers, providing one of the first models of an instrumentalist successfully improvising alongside a vocalist. Green's creativity with the blues idiom and mastery of "gut-bucket" techniques, such as growls and the use of plunger mutes, are in full evidence in his work with blues singer Bessie Smith, who recorded "Trombone Cholly" in his honor in 1927.

Green's exact birth date is uncertain, but he is believed to have been born around 1895 in Omaha, Nebraska. He played with various local brass bands in and around Omaha, including with Red Perkins from 1920 to 1924. He moved to New York to join Fletcher Henderson's band in July 1924, just months before Louis Armstrong would also join the ensemble

Even before Armstrong arrived, Green was demonstrating impressive creativity in improvisation. Some of Henderson's recordings which feature Green include "Hard Hearted Hannah," "The Gouge of Armour Avenue," and "A New Kind of Man". The latter two feature Green with plunger mute already displaying an advanced understanding of how to use it to great effect.

Armstrong's arrival in New York increased the profile of Henderson's orchestra, and they recorded extensively during this period. Green was still a featured soloist, as can be heard on many of the recordings: at the end of "He's The Hottest Man In Town" and "Shanghai Shuffle," for example. His more lyrical side is featured in "Words," where he plays long notes triumphantly below the trumpet figure.

During this time, Green developed a friendly rivalry with fellow trombonist Jimmy Harrison. He challenged Harrison directly at a number of "cutting contests" in Harlem upon Harrison's arrival in New York. While Harrison ultimately took the throne as New York's premier jazz trombonist, and actually replaced Green in Fletcher Henderson's band, Green's services remained in high demand and he was the first-call trombonist for blues singers, especially Bessie Smith.

His first recordings with Smith came in 1924 with Fletcher Henderson on piano. The sparse instrumentation leaves lots of room for Green to shine, as his bluesy improvisations became a prominent early model for horn players backing vocalists. His use of space and various voice-like phrases and effects, often with a plunger mute, create a sense of the trombone as a backup singer in the group.

Green's work with Henderson lasted until 1926, when he left to work as a sideman in New York. The next two years produced associations with a number of the City's top musicians at the time, including Louis Armstrong, June Clark, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

It was also during this period, in March 1927, when he made his most famous recordings with Bessie Smith, including "Trombone Cholly" which features Green extensively on trombone as well as lyrics about his playing. With lots of space for self-expression, the tune shows Green at his best: showing off a wide variety of trombone techniques despite the limited range of pitches that he chooses to employ. In case anyone wonders, though, of his capability to play high, he wails out a high Bb at the end of the recording to dispel any such doubts.

Green returned to Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1928, shortly after Henderson suffered an auto accident in Kentucky, replacing longtime Henderson sideman Benny Morton. Green stayed with Henderson for about a year. He even played briefly alongside his rival Jimmy Harrison in the band: he deferred to Harrison, however, for the trombone solos.

After ending his association with Henderson in 1929, Green continued to record with Bessie Smith and also joined the Zutty Singleton band for a time. He continued to perform locally with a number of prominent ensembles for the next few years including Elmer Snowden, Jimmy Noone and Charlie Johnson. In 1932, he replaced Jimmy Harrison, who suffered an untimely death from stomach cancer, in Chick Webb's Orchestra.

The association with Webb led Green to participate in one of the excellent Louis Armstrong sessions of the early 1930s, billed as Louis Armstrong with Chick Webb and His Orchestra, in December of 1932. Green gets a few chances to blow on these records, including impressive solos on "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train" and "You'll Wish You'd Never Been Born." These tracks feature a more mature sound from Green's trombone than can be heard on his previous recordings. He begins by exploiting his flexibility with fast shakes, and also plays more in the upper register of the instrument. On the second track, he plays more jazz-inspired licks, and holds his own even at a very brisk tempo.

This recording session, as it turned out, would be Green's last. His struggles with alcoholism began to catch up with him around this time, and although he continued to perform, his health was in serious decline. In 1933, he joined Louis Metcalf, and later performed briefly with Kaiser Marshall in 1935. He died that fall, in November, after complications from tuberculosis exascerbated by an incident in which he collapsed outside his doorstep in the cold, unable to find the key to his own apartment.

Select Discography:

with Fletcher Henderson:

Fletcher Henderson 1924, Vol. 2 (Classics 657)

Fletcher Henderson 1924, Vol. 3 (Classics 647)

Fletcher Henderson 1927-1930 (Classics 572)

with Bessie Smith:

Bessie Smith 1923-1924 (Classics 787)

Bessie Smith 1926-1927 (Classics 870)

Bessie Smith 1929-1933 (Classics 977)

with Louis Armstrong and Chick Webb:

Louis Armstrong 1931-1932 (Classics 536)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez