“LUCK ALWAYS”: SONNY GREER

sonny-greer1William “Sonny” Greer, who played drums for Duke Ellington for nearly thirty years, never received the acknowledgment he deserves.  True, he could be more interested in decorating the ensemble than in simply driving them to the finish line.  Musicians who played with Sonny as he got older said that he was sometimes unreliable, that he drank too much.  But all those statements matter very little when measured against the musical evidence.

Today I was listening to the second half of the 1940 Fargo, North Dakota dance date.  That evening has achieved mythic status because two undergraduates recorded the music and kept the discs safe — so we can hear Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton tenderly exploring STARDUST.  But consider “Fargo, North Dakota,” and “dance date,” both factors to be examined: a touring band played a thousand such dates, and there was no reason for the musicians to be particularly attentive on any given night.  Wintry North Dakota was far away from uptown New York in ways that transcend the distance one could measure on a map.  But Greer’s playing is simply extraordinary: the ebb and flow of the sounds he creates (he didn’t have one or two trademark patterns — think of Cozy Cole’s press roll or Jo Jones’s hi-hat).  Sonny Greer made sounds that fit what everyone else was playing — or perhaps he made the sounds that pleased him most at that split-second.  So to those listeners who are accustomed to drumming that utilizes a steady ride-cymbal beat, for instance, Greer at first sounds like an accompanist rather than a jazz drummer, echoing what the soloist is doing with a splash or an auditory comment.  But closer listening reveals that he is leading far more than following, and that the surging rhythms he creates are pushing the band.  Of course, some of what Greer was doing in 1940 got picked up by people who didn’t understand how a drummer could be playing loudly, creatively, and exuberantly — and still not overshadow the other players.  Sonny could do that, as could Sidney Catlett.

But John Hammond criticized him in print, as did others.  However, Hammond and the others always had their own ideas of what the Ellington band and other bands should sound like.  Ellington wouldn’t have kept Greer at his side for so long simply for youthful loyaty.  (Keeping Greer on salary until his death was an example of such feelings, but Ellington didn’t keep anyone in the band whose work didn’t add something — whether or not jazz critics recognized it mattered not at all.)

So I would send readers back to the Fargo concert, to ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM and ST. LOUIS BLUES, and to the panoply of tone colors Greer adds even at slow tempos.

My friend the Jazz Sage Sam Parkins sent in this story: “One ‘once in a life-time’ jazz event: In spring of ’58 or so I was doing Yale Reunion with Eli’s Chosen Six, only 2 Yalies left (Roswell Rudd and bassist Bob Morgan). We were doing class of ’48; Sleepy Hall showed up and played awesome banjo – voice leading like a Bach chorale. In the tent next to us, some class had signed on Bud Freeman and a quintet. Now Sonny Greer was a bit of a laughing stock – drunk, didn’t play too good at best etc. Here he is on a Saturday afternoon, hadn’t had a drink yet, and I’m transfixed. Never settles down to press rolls or a steady cymbal beat like Jo Jones. He’s dancing lightly all over the kit, with clean even swing, and propelling the band out the door. Never seen anything remotely resembling it before or since. AND – the next fall there’s a typical quasi-Jazz at the Philharmonic monster rally at the Cinderella Club, incl. me – and Greer. Playing barely so-so. The jazz life.”

I have my own Sonny Greer story.  In the early Seventies he and the brilliantly eccentric pianist Brooks Kerr had a duo gig at Gregory’s, a shoebox of a club.  I took my then-girlfriend there one night.  She was a classic Irish Catholic beauty: shining dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes.  That night she sported a fake fur coat.  Between sets, I approached Sonny and asked him if he would autograph an Ellington lp that had his picture on the cover, which he did happily.  He seemed minute and beautifully-preserved: a wonderful miniature figure of A Jazz Drummer.  But nothing got past him.  He spotted my girlfriend and locked his eyes to hers with a steady devouring stare and the quietly exuberant words, “Sonny just LOOOOOOVES YOU,” which I hear as I write this.
duke-autographsbeggarsblues
On the left is an Ellington 78 issued under Sonny’s name, and here’s that famous Soundie (1942) of the Ellington band performing C JAM BLUES.
The short film is called “JAM SESSION,” and its fictions are endearing: the musicians are of course performing to their own soundtrack, but it doesn’t matter.  Notice Rex Stewart pretending to unpack his cornet while Ray Nance is playing, Ben Webster rising from his lunch-counter stool, playing as he goes, Tricky Sam Nanton waggling his plunger, and Sonny — beaming at the camera in his beautiful clothing before crossing to the drums to play a wondrously showy hot solo, twirling his sticks as he goes.
“Luck always” is what Sonny wrote above his name on the cover of my record.  Clearly, he had it and shared it with us.
Something I find particularly thrilling in the online playground is that if you go to the Rutgers University Libraries website:http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/IJS/johpaudio/SonnyGreer_audio.html
you can hear Sonny himself telling stories.  Priceless generosity on all fronts!

4 responses to ““LUCK ALWAYS”: SONNY GREER

  1. a good well-recorded example of Sonny’s highly-individualistic latter-day approach can be heard on the Earl Hines date “Once Upon A Time”. AVailable via Amazon, etc.

  2. Samuel Blaquet

    There’s an entire chapter (about 30 pages long) devoted to Sonny Greer in Alain Pailler’s book : “Plaisir d’Ellington”, subtitled “Le Duke et ses hommes, 1940-1942” (Actes Sud publisher, 1998 – to be ordered on amazon.fr, for instance). It’s never been translated in English and you have to understand french language if you want to read it. I think most of English-speaking readers have never heard of such a book. A fascinating hindsight into Greer’s artistry. Alain Pailler, who must be the ultimate french specialist on Ellingtonia has written another book on Duke Ellington (same publisher, 2002) entitled “Duke’s place”, whose french subtitle is “Ellington et ses imaginaires”. The core of this work deals with Ellington’s drummers, particularly Louie Bellson, Sam Woodyard, Rufus Jones and, of course, Sonny Greer. Much shorter than on the previous opus, the pages devoted to Greer are kind of a summary of the study published four years earlier. Pailler describes Greer as a poet of the drums, a part-time swinger, a master colorist whose contribution to Ellington’s music has been sadly overlooked. If I had to give any advice about Greer’s playing, I would recommend to listen to everything recorded by the Ellington Orchestra between 1936 and 1946. Thanks to modern technology and CDs, you can now clearly detail Sonny Greer’s playing. And most of the time it’s really amazing, especially on some live broadcasts, such as “The Duke in Boston” (from 1939 and 1940) or on “Duke Ellington Treasury Shows, vol. 14”. Sid Catlett is featured on the first CD while Greer is back on the second one. The way Greer swings on “Blues on the double”, for instance, matches Catlett’s own playing. No question. Which proves that, on a good day, Greer also was a hell of a swinger!

  3. Samuel Blaquet

    Furthermore, for those who still doubt Sonny Greer could swing when he felt like doing so, listen to Johnny Hodges’ album entitled “Creamy” (Verve, 1955). Greer is really cookin’ on “Scufflin'”. And he could also lay a supple, swingin’ beat behind the soloists, as on “Honey Bunny” and “No Use Kicking'”, using brushes most of the time. There’s another album by Hodges whose title must be “In a Mellow Tone” (Verve). All of those who maligned Greer should pay attention to his drumming on “Good Queen Bess” where he trades fours with the band. This guy could be technically limited (He was neither Sid Catlett nor Louie Bellson, no doubt) but he sure didn’t lack musicality while his beat could be steady, reliable and inspiring if necessary. Obviously he went through ups and downs. And, that’s true, you can find some recordings where he doesn’t play well. It happened. Just skip them. And enjoy the other ones. They’re worth it. And if you need a great swinger backing Duke’s music, you still have Sam Woodyard. “My, he really swung that band”, as Louie Bellson once declared.

  4. Christi Hardin-Viscidy

    I’m looking for the lyrics or a recording of Sonny Greer doing ‘The Speelin’ Kid’. I’m not sure how it is spelled. My dad memorized the song when he was a young man and until recently, could recite it. In many ways ‘Speelin’ Kid’ is out of character for my dad but in other ways, it fits his sometimes zany sense of humor. Our family would like to help Dad re-learn the lyrics.

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