William “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.”